1968 All Over Again?

Not long ago in this space, I wrote about Sunny 92.3’s management coming to the realization that there would come a time when we would face life after Luther.  As we contemplated our course in recognizing the enormous contribution Luther had made to life in Chattanooga in the latter half of the 20th century, we began collecting tapes of Luther on the air throughout his career.  As part of my job is producing the audio for all the elements you hear on Sunny 92.3 that aren’t songs, commercials, live announcers, or John Tesh, those tapes came to me.


One tape in particular that I recall listening to was, as best I could determine, recorded sometime in May 1970.  The circumstances of why this particular day’s broadcast was recorded, and how it had survived all these years are unknown to me.  Much of that day’s broadcast centered around planning for the upcoming East Tennessee Strawberry Festival in Dayton.  I don’t know if Luther enjoyed strawberries or not, but he sure made it sound like Dayton, Tennessee, was the most delicious place on the planet that week.


Also on that day, Luther fielded several phone calls from listeners wanting to vent about something they had seen on the network TV news the night before.  Remember that there were far fewer radio stations on the air in 1970 than today, and the call-in talk show as we now know it only existed on radio stations in major cities.  There was, of course, no social media in those days, and while one could write a letter to the editor of the newspaper, mainstream radio programs such as Luther’s Sundial Program became the source for those who wished to speak their mind.  Fortunately for Chattanooga, Luther proved himself to be a worthy gatekeeper over the years, awarding air time to those with genuine public concerns while shunting aside those who sought the airwaves to express little more than petty jealousies.  The difference between Facebook and WDEF radio from 1970 is that on Facebook, you are your own gatekeeper.


Look back at U.S. history and you’ll find that May of 1970 was a tumultuous time, beginning with the Kent State shootings on May 4th.  I once dated a girl who went to Kent State, and have visited that campus many times.  The story surrounding the events of that day is fascinating and at the same time, like the events of this past week in Dallas, heart-breaking.  One of the callers Luther spoke with that day mentioned the “dirty, communist, hippies protesting in New York City.”  Another lamented the anti-war political climate as disrespectful to the families of young men who had died in Vietnam.  My guess is that those callers had seen network TV coverage of an anti-war protest which took place in Manhattan on May 20th.  That protest came in the wake of an earlier protest on May 8th after the Kent State shootings.  The May 8th protest came to be known as the Hard Hat Riot, as the anti-war protesters were met by approximately 200 construction workers in hard hats who were there as a counter-protest in support of President Nixon’s policies.  The fighting led to around 70 injuries, including policemen, and 6 arrests.


For those of us old enough to remember, the Hard Hat Riot and May 4th Incident at Kent State weren’t the first instances of  Americans violently clashing with each other in front of newspaper and TV cameras over the Vietnam war.  One of the more memorable events had occurred a couple of years earlier at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.  In the months leading up to the convention, President Lyndon Johnson, waking each morning to chants from outside the White House of “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today,” had announced his intention to abandon a second term.  Meanwhile, two of his most vocal critics regarding the war, Dr. Martin Luther King and Sen. Robert Kennedy (D-NY), himself an announced candidate for President, had been murdered.  The ensuing struggle for party leadership and power, coupled with the war issue not only divided Democrats attending the convention that year, it polarized them.


Among other things, I remember 1968 as the year my mom and dad bought their first color television set.  I’ll bet a lot of others from my end of the baby boom have similar memories. The fight brewing among Democrats inside the convention hall was sure to capture the attention of the rest of the nation now equipped with our new TV sets, and no one understood this better than the leadership of two of the most vocal anti-war/societal change organizations, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and Youth International Party (the Yippies).  A grander stage had never been set for a heretofore marginalized but growing segment of society to disseminate their message into the hearts and minds of mainstream America.  The Abbie Hoffmans and Jerry Rubins of the world thus set out for Chicago that summer bound and determined to awaken the rest of us to a new perspective.


So there we were, back in ‘68, fresh from the department or appliance stores with our brand new color televisions, all gathered in living rooms, scattered amongst the fruited plains and amber waves of grain, from sea to shining sea, just in time to see the powder blue helmets of the Chicago police in the midst of what appeared to be a complete breakdown of social order.  At twelve years old, I wasn’t quite sure what I was seeing.  I know the violence was frightening, and that my parents were more than a little disturbed.  I remember a friend’s dad pointing at the news on TV and saying, “This is why we all need to vote for Richard Nixon.”  A thin plurality of voters did vote for Richard Nixon, closing the door to a Democratic White House occupation that had begun so eloquently with JFK’s Inaugural Address in 1961.


The party polarization that cost the Democrats the 1968 Presidential election led to a complete makeover of the Presidential nomination process.  Both major parties sought a more inclusive selection process that relied more on individual voters and less upon party officials and those in positions of influence.  The result is the state primary system we see today.  Of course, it took a while for the Democrats to juxtapose the new inclusiveness with the ever increasing importance of television cameras.  In 1972, so mindful of including all points of view and avoiding a repeat of 1968, much of the important business of the convention, including Sen. McGovern’s acceptance speech as the party’s nominee for President, took place in the wee morning hours in the eastern time zone after most of the country had gone to bed.  The Republicans, on the other hand, seemed to have a better understanding in 1972 of the opportunity to present the convention not so much as an exercise in the democratic process, but more as a television showcase designed to sell their candidate and party platforms to the public.  This is what most of us have seen over the course of the past 40 years.  We have become used to the business of the conventions being “scripted” complete with slickly produced video presentations with each night’s keynote speaker wrapping up by the time east coast TV stations start their 11pm newscasts.


Now, I’m no political expert, and while I took several political science courses in college, there’s a good chance I slept through many of those classes.  I do, however, sense that this summer’s impending political conventions involving the two major political parties will differ from the established norm of the past 40 years.  I’m not sure how it will play out, but I seem to be hearing much of the same rhetoric not only surrounding the two major political parties but also the general mood of the country that I remember as a lad back in ‘68.  “Leaderless party, polarized party members, and angry voters,” are just a few.  Also, just like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, those at the forefront of today’s marginalized or at least self-perceived to be marginalized societal groups understand the opportunity in delivering their message with a political party convention as the backdrop.  The only difference is while we had new color TVs back then, now we have connected phones, and, as a friend remarked to me one day last week, “every person standing in the convention hall and in the street outside the convention hall has a TV studio in his/her pocket.”


While we’re on the subject of our two major political parties, yes, there are 3rd party candidates that offer alternative choices.  Unfortunately, the ones in my lifetime who have made the most impact, George Wallace in 1968, John Anderson in 1980, and Ross Perot in 1992, are remembered more for which one of the major party candidates they took votes away from, rather than their own campaigns.  The fact remains, the presumptive nominees of the two major parties continue to garner the most attention while serving as lightning rods for the divisions in our society.  At this point it seems as if the conventions, with their ability to attract the disenfranchised to the streets outside the convention halls, in a country experiencing an increase in the number of mass shootings, with participants and bystanders ready to instantaneously capture and distribute video of drama on any level, policed by men and women facing pressures the rest of us cannot fathom, in a world already made frightening by those who would seek to destroy us just because we’re Americans, have the capacity to make the violence we witnessed in 1968 pale in comparison.  


I hope I’m wrong.  The fact is, our job at Sunny 92.3 is to provide you with companionship during your workday and on the ride to and from work that is happy, positive, and upbeat.  This blog entry is anything but.  As not just a traffic reporter, but also as a father of three and uncle to many, I would add this.  Just be prepared to try to make some sense of it to your children should the worst occur this summer.  Kids need reassurance.  From my vantage point, the chaos both inside and outside the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago led to an artificial packaging of a portion of our democratic process.  However, the democratic process is about ideas, and restraining ideas in the name of party unity and putting on an orderly show for the television public is akin to an unvalved pressure cooker.  Sooner or later it’s going to blow.  


We haven’t had a political convention marred by excessive violence in 48 years.  History and our current political climate suggest we may be due for another.  I’m hoping our major party political conventions this year are as sweet as Luther’s description of Dayton, Tennessee, strawberries.  But I’m not counting on it.

Categories: Robin Daniels