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IDS reflects on the 1968 moments that shook the world



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View of rising Earth about five degrees above the Lunar horizon from the Apollo 8 spacecraft December 22, 1968. Courtesy of Tribune News Service Buy Photos

A year of triumph and tragedy, 1968 was tumultuous across the U.S. and the world. From protests to assassinations, revolutions to NASA's successes, 1968 took the world from lows that devastated nations to highs that reached the moon. Now, 50 years later, here are some of the moments that shaped history.


Jan. 30: Vietnam War Tet Offensive

North Vietnamese forces launched the Tet Offensive, a series of attacks on more than 100 South Vietnamese cities and outposts, on Jan. 30. The attacks were an attempt to incite rebellion among South Vietnamese populations and push the U.S. to reduce its involvement in the Vietnam War. 

American and South Vietnamese forces held off the attacks, but news coverage that traveled back to the U.S. shocked American citizens and reduced support for the war, encouraging a movement of protests, marches and anti-war efforts.

February: West Germany protests

Rebellion touched the streets of West Germany when citizens, especially students and professors from the University of Bonn, protested against what they saw as authoritarianism. 

Protesters took to the streets in opposition of former Nazi supporters who still had powerful positions in society, legal reforms they saw as undemocratic, and rules that prevented them from having a say in how their universities were run.

March: Polish protests

March was a month full of demonstrations as Polish students called for citizens' rights outlined in the Constitution. A wave of protests began when students were expelled for speaking with foreign reporters about police suppression of an anti-Soviet demonstration around the Mickiewicz monument in Kraków. 

A March 8 demonstration at Warsaw University led to the suppression when police officers and members of the workers collective attacked students and beat them with batons. The protests showed the world student counterculture existed even behind the Iron Curtain.

March 1: Battle of Valle Giulia in Italy

Around 4,000 students clashed with police officers at Rome University in “the battle of Valle Giulia,” which left about 150 policemen and 500 students injured. Students spoke out against an educational system they saw as authoritarian, paternalistic and bigoted. 

Many students also wanted the university to offer courses in sociology and psychology, which were seen as taboo. During the demonstration, students counterattacked as police officers tried to suppress the protest, turning into a battle that lasted for several hours.

March 28: Brazil protests

The Military Police of Brazil killed high school student Edson Luís de Lima Souto at a protest for cheaper meals at a restaurant meant for low-income students. His death left many citizens enraged and led to one of the first major protests against Brazil’s military dictatorship. Souto was also one of the first citizens to be killed by military police, and his death marked the beginning of a year of chaos that led to the enactment of the AI-5 decree, which restricted many basic human rights.

March 29: Memphis Sanitation workers’ strike

Politicians, activists and union members joined 1,300 African American men from the Memphis Department of Public Works to demand higher pay and safer working conditions. Demonstrators marched with the now-famous “I Am A Man” posters, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. attended and gave his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. The demonstration was part of King’s Poor People’s Campaign.

April: University of Madrid protests

Spanish workers and students protested against dictator Francisco Franco’s regime and demanded democracy, trade unions, education reform and worker rights. The University of Madrid was home to some of the biggest protests and was closed for 38 days due to student demonstrations.

April 4: Martin Luther King Jr. Assassination 

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while standing on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. His assassination led to anger, confusion and mourning among the African-American community and the rest of the American public. 

King’s death sparked riots in more than 100 U.S. cities, but it also paved the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which redefined housing discrimination based on race, religion or national origin.

April 20: Rivers of Blood speech

British politician Enoch Powell made an anti-immigration speech, dubbed “Rivers of Blood,” which sparked demonstrations throughout Britain and is included in discussions about anti-immigration sentiments that continue today. The speech cemented immigration as a major political issue and helped legitimize anti-immigration sentiments.

April 23: Columbia protests

The year 1968 saw several protests at Columbia University. The demonstration on April 23 included students in opposition to school policies they saw as racist. During the protest, three school officials were taken hostage for 24 hours.

May: French strikes and demonstrations

French labor strikes throughout May shut down newspaper distribution, air transportation, two major railroads and other major industries as millions of workers went on strike. Students also staged demonstrations against France’s outdated university system and a lack of employment opportunities for graduates. A May 3 protest at the University of Paris was broken up by police and resulted in several hundred students being arrested and dozens injured.

May 3: Scandinavia protests

A May 3 protest against the participation of two apartheid or racially-segregated nations in an international tennis competition in Sweden led to a violent clash between police and demonstrators. Later in May, students at Stockholm University occupied their Student Union building to demand education reform.

June 6: Robert Kennedy assassination

U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy was shot and killed at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, just after winning the California presidential primaries for the Democratic nomination. Thousands attended his funeral mass and still more lined up along train tracks to pay their respects as the body was transported to Washington, D.C., by train.

Aug. 20: End of Prague Spring and the Red Square demonstration

Prague Spring, which began in January, was a period of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia while it was occupied by the Soviet Union. This era came to a close when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia on Aug. 20, 1968. The event resulted in the Red Square demonstration in Moscow, where people protested Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Oct. 2: Tlatelolco massacre

A summer of protests against the Mexican government culminated in the Tlatelolco massacre. A student demonstration in Tlatelolco, Mexico City, led to police firing at students. An estimated 300 to 400 students were killed. 

At the time, the government claimed officers were provoked by protesters shooting at them, but documents made public later suggested the snipers that officials were referring to were employed by the government. The massacre is considered part of the Mexican Dirty War, in which the government used force to suppress political opposition.

Oct. 16: Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics

U.S. Olympians Tommie Smith, who won the gold medal in the 200-meter sprint, and John Carlos, who won gold, made a statement during the medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. They raised black-gloved fists in honor of the U.S. civil rights movement. They also wore beads and a scarf to protest lynchings and lowered their heads during the national anthem.

Dec. 21: Apollo 8 launch

Apollo 8, the first manned spacecraft to leave Earth’s orbit, circle the moon and return safely to Earth, was launched Dec. 21. On Christmas Eve, Americans watched astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders become the first humans to orbit the moon. The members of the Apollo 8 crew also became Time magazine’s “Men of the Year" in 1968.

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