Looking at 1968, 50 years later

Looking at 1968, 50 years later

JCC U speaker explores that explosive period through history’s hindsight

Robert F. Kennedy, left, and Martin Luther King Jr.
Robert F. Kennedy, left, and Martin Luther King Jr.

Time seems to move in a logical way; one year follows the next in neat chronological order; 2016 is followed by 2017 is followed by 2018.

History doesn’t work that neatly. It moves in fits and starts. Everything seems placid, turmoil remains under the surface — and then boom! Everything explodes, or at least so it seems to people living through it.

We could make the case that we are living through such a period right now, although we lack the distance to be sure. But certainly we can look back 50 years — to 1968 — and absolutely know that it was such a year. A year of explosions, turmoil, hope, and bitter despair.

Lawyer and historian Jess Velona will talk about that year in a two-part talk for the JCC U at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly; the first part will be this Thursday. (See box.)

Mr. Velona’s interest in 1968 was piqued in 1968; he was 7, living in Manhattan with his mother, who was very politically attuned in a year when politics was on the radar of even the most apolitical, and the excitement and rage in the air was impossible to miss. In particular, “my mother loved the Kennedys,” he said. “Bobby Kennedy was like a member of our family. So when he died, it was like a member of the family died.”

Mr. Velona went to Harvard as an undergraduate, and then to Columbia Law School, where he teaches today; he also has a master’s in history from NYU. But between college and law school — still practically a baby — he became a speechwriter for the legendary writer, public intellectual, U.S. senator, sociologist, and all-around Democratic icon Daniel Patrick Moynihan. “I drafted some speeches for Senator Moynihan, but the key word there is drafted,” Mr. Velona said. “He wrote his own speeches. I want to be clear — I had many duties there, and occasionally I wrote a speech for him, and occasionally he’d use part of what I wrote in a speech.

“Remember,” Mr. Velona continued. “Someone said about him” — according to Google, that someone was Mr. Moynihan’s close friend, the columnist George F. Will — “that he wrote more books than most senators read.”

Mr. Velona is fascinated by good American political oratory, and 1968 was a peak year for it. He teaches a course called “Great Modern Speeches,” he said, and it relies heavily on 1968. “There were so many incredible speeches that year,” he said. “Martin Luther King Jr.’s last speech, Bobby Kennedy’s eulogy for Dr. King, Teddy Kennedy’s eulogy for Bobby.”

Mr. Velona went on to clerk for Ruth Bader Ginsberg, to practice law for 25 years, and now to teach.

His JCC course “is fast-paced, and has four goals,” he said. “The first is to recreate what it was like to live through the incredible ups and downs of that year. I use video and audio and power points to bring it to life.”

Jess Velona

The second goal is “to bring in a lot of the behind-the-scenes stories, things that we didn’t know about at the time we were living through them.” Examples? “There was a meeting between Gene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy, to discuss possibly working out a way to coordinate their campaigns against Lyndon Johnson,” he said. “I also talk about the meetings that were perpetuations of the feud between Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. We now can fill in what we didn’t know then.

“Third, we talk about perspective. A lot of the drama that year was on the political left, but in 1968 there was a quiet reaction building on the political right, among the people who Nixon later would call the ‘silent majority.’ Throughout the course, I show how different people — on the left and on the right — interpreted the same events differently.

“And of course, for all the drama on the left, the right ends up winning the presidential election.”

The last point, Mr. Velona said, “is to assess what impact the events of 1968 had on the years thereafter. I ask what would have happened if Martin Luther King had lived? If Bobby Kennedy had lived? Would things have been different?

“A change in a very few inches, in the course of a bullet, could have changed history in the years to come,” he said.

In the course of making these four points, Mr. Velona will touch on such issues as the Columbia uprising in April, as well as the movements of students and workers in France that year; he might talk as well about the Prague spring.

Why did all this happen in one year? “I can’t say,” he said. “But clearly social tensions were building within various countries. And then there was the generation gap” — a term coined by Grayson Kirk, Columbia’s president, just before it proved his prescience as students took over the campus.

“The problem, I think, was that the political systems were not open enough to handle the protests and the tension that were building.”

In the United States, Mr. Velona said, that led to reforms that have made a difference. “The political system was changed in the wake of 1968 to make sure that the delegates to the convention are elected by the people. That means that it is very hard to get a situation like in the Democratic party in 1968, where you got a pro-war candidate in an anti-war party.

“Today, I think that we get the candidates we want,” he said.

And yes, of course Vietnam was central to everything that happened in 1968, Mr. Velona said. The Tet offensive happened during 1968 too; “we don’t always remember this, but it was during Tet that we heard the phrase ‘We had to destroy the village in order to save it.,’” Mr. Velona said. “Tet exposed the illusion that the war effort was going well, and that we could win it. That’s true even though Tet was a technical victory; it leads to McCarthy’s victory in Vermont, and Johnson’s defeat.”

His two classes are generally chronological, Mr. Velona said; the first one “ends on a moment of hope in late May 1968.” After that, it’s all downhill.

But it’s also revealing and fascinating, and if we’re lucky we can learn from it too.

Who: Jess Velona

What: Will talk about “1968: The Year That Shook Our History”

Where: At the JCC U at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, 411 East Clinton Ave., Tenafly

When: On Thursday, May 17, at 10:30 a.m.

And also: For the second JCC U session that day, after a break, a Whitney Museum teaching fellow, Janine DeFeo, will talk about “Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables.” The painter is the subject of the Whitney’s current exhibit.

How much: $35 for JCC members, $42 for everyone else

For more information: Call Kathy Graff at (201)
408-1454, email her at kgraff@jccotp.org, or go to www.jccotp.org/adult-JCC-university.

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