Is This the Worst Year in Modern American History?Breaking News
The most traumatic year in modern American history was 1968. But what is now the second-most traumatic year, 2020, still has seven months to run. The comparison provides little comfort, and several reasons for concern.
How could any year be worse than the current one, in which more Americans are out of work than in the Great Depression, and more people are needlessly dying than in several of America’s wars combined?
All of this is bad, and getting worse. How does it compare with the distant past of 1968? Naturally, there is no objective comparison of suffering or confusion. Fear, loss, dislocation, despair are real enough to people who encounter them, no matter what happened to someone else at some other time.
But here is what anyone around at that time will remember about 1968: The assassinations. The foreign warfare. The domestic carnage and bloodshed. The political chaos and division. The way that parts of the United States have seemed in the past week, in reaction to injustices, is the way much of the U.S. seemed day after day. I think I can remember every week of that eventful year.
The assassinations: I fear even to mention this, but America is fortunate that high-profile political murders have not been turning points in its recent political history, as they were through too much of the past century.
In April of 1968, one of the greatest leaders of America’s greatest moral struggle, Martin Luther King Jr., was shot dead in Memphis—at age 39. He was a more controversial figure at the time than is convenient to remember: Controversial among many white people as an “uppity” black man. (I remember, from very conservative elders in my conservative hometown, sarcastic references to “Dr. Martin Luther Nobel” after his winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.) Controversial even among Democrats in the year before his death, as he expanded what had been a racial-justice movement into a larger campaign against the war in Vietnam and for economic justice at home. His killing was a central event in American history—but only one of many traumas of that tumultuous year.
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