Protest, plague, and the year the world changed

Then and now: Martin Luther King’s and George Floyd’s deaths sparked protest across America.

Is this 1968 all over again? America is living through the worst civil unrest since the assassination of Martin Luther King. But the similarities with that momentous year don’t end there.

From coast to coast, America is burning. Thousands of people are on the streets demanding change. In the White House, a controversial president watches his popularity plummet. Meanwhile, a new and deadly virus spreads across the world as viewers tune in to watch astronauts making history.

This was 1968, the most eventful year in modern American history. A young, educated, and politically-active generation took on the old political order in a series of explosive events that reshaped our world. We’re not even halfway through 2020, but already the parallels are striking.

In 1968, a new strain of flu emerged in China and spread across the world. The H3N2 pandemic killed a million people worldwide, and 100,000 in the United States. Variations of this seasonal flu have returned every year since.

Back in 2020, America is the country worst-affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. President Trump hopes to shrug off the mounting death toll and win a second term as president this November.

However, 1968 was also the deadliest year in the deeply unpopular Vietnam War, ending President Lyndon Johnson’s plans for re-election. His supporters abandoned him for the young anti-war candidate, Robert F Kennedy. Change was in the air.

But it was met by violent opposition. In April, the civil rights leader Martin Luther King was assassinated, leading to riots across the country. The pro-segregation presidential candidate, George Wallace, condemned the protests, saying, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

This weekend, Trump repeated Wallace’s inflammatory phrase to the word after the murder of George Floyd sparked renewed unrest. Last night, Trump threatened to send in the troops to end the unrest.

In June 1968, Kennedy was also assassinated and the Democratic Party collapsed into chaos. With America at war with itself, popular protest erupted around the world, grinding France to a halt, bringing down the dictatorship in Pakistan, and leading to brutal crackdowns in Mexico and Czechoslovakia.

This weekend, strongmen in Iran, China, and Turkey all gloated over America’s civil unrest whilst violently suppressing their own people.

A glimmer of hope arrived at the end of 1968, with the first manned space flight to orbit the Moon. On Christmas Eve, Apollo 8 transmitted a breathtaking image of Earth, which kickstarted the modern environmental movement. Last Saturday, whilst American cities burned, SpaceX tried to capture our imagination once again with the first private spacecraft to put humans into orbit.

So, is this 1968 all over again?

Demand the impossible

Some say, yes, this is an epoch-changing moment. Like 1968, it is a cultural and social clash between a young and diverse generation and an old white establishment. It will have a lasting impact for years to come. However, in 1968, Americans voted for “law and order” and elected the conservative populist, Richard Nixon. Trump’s attacks on the protests may well help his re-election.

Other say, no, this time it is different. In 1968, the American economy was booming and there was a strong national culture, despite the social unrest. The current protests are taking place during the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, with a pandemic that is out of control, and a deeply fragmented and divided society.

You Decide

  1. Would you join a protest? What would you protest against?
  2. Can we learn from history?


  1. Imagine you are going to your first protest. Write a short diary entry about what happens and how you feel.
  2. Research three slogans from the 1968 unrest and three from the current protests. Write a paragraph explaining how the slogans have changed.

Some People Say...

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

Mark Twain (1835-1910), American writer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
1968 was an explosive moment in history, but was also the culmination of years of rising tension and conflict. Frustration with lack of progress on civil rights and social inequality bubbled over into widespread unrest in the summer of 1968. In a similar way, the Black Lives Matter movement was founded six years ago, following the murder of the African-American teenager Trayvon Martin. The death of George Floyd last Monday, caught on camera, demonstrated to many how little has changed.
What do we not know?
There are plenty of problems with making historical comparisons and, clearly, the world and society have changed significantly in 52 years. We can agree that both then and now there were pandemics, protests, and space exploration. But the really interesting and important discussion begins when we ask, are there deeper and more lasting similarities between 1968 and 2020? And can the unrest and upheaval of that year help us understand where we are heading in 2020?

Word Watch

The virus was first detected in British Hong Kong, but almost certainly came from communist-controlled mainland China, which was closed to outsiders during the Cultural Revolution.
Vietnam War
A long and bloody war fought between US-backed South Vietnam and communist North Vietnam between 1955-1975. In total, at least 1,353,000 lives were lost.
George Wallace supported the Jim Crow laws that separated black and white society in the American south. Martin Luther King described Wallace as “perhaps the most dangerous racist in America today”.
George Floyd
An African-American who died during his arrest in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on 25 May. At least six people have died in the week of protests that followed Floyd’s death.
In May, students and left-wing groups led a wave of occupations and strikes against the government of Charles de Gaulle. These events had a dramatic and long-lasting effect on intellectual ideas and activism in Europe.
The Prague Spring was a series of political reforms to grant more freedom and rights to citizens. In August, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in order to reverse the reforms.
Own people
International observers fear that a violent response to protesters in the US will give legitimacy to suppression of protesters in Chinese-controlled Hong Kong, and the Kurds in Turkey.
The astronaut William Anders took the dramatic photo of an Earthrise viewed from the Moon. He later said, “We set out to explore the Moon and, instead, discovered the Earth.” It was the first clear image of the entire planet seen from space.


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