By Donna Mo
Students packed the McCune Conference room at UC Santa Barbara for last week’s screening of the documentary 1968: The Year That Shaped a Generation, directed by Stephen Talbot. The history department picked this film to honor the pivotal events that had happened that year.
“We wanted to do something that marked the 50-year anniversary of the year 1968,” said history professor Salim Yaqub, who organized the event.
The event was co-sponsored by the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center and the Center for Cold War Studies and International History, and was followed by a discussion that drew parallels with today’s political scene.
The documentary, which was released in 1998, covered the major events of 1968, from the assassination of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. to protests against the Vietnam War to the Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico, the Prague Spring and student protests in Paris.
It was a year when a critical mass of people, students in particular, voiced their opinions and fought for their rights, the film showed. American students protested against the Vietnam War. Czech students fought for more freedom from their government. In Paris, students protested against capitalism, consumerism and American imperialism.
And here at UC Santa Barbara, African American students participated in the North Hall Takeover, whose 50-year anniversary was recently celebrated by the Black Studies department with a 3-day long conference. Those students protested against the university for better treatment and the establishment of a Black Studies Department, to which it still thrives today.
The screening was followed by a discussion about the parallels between the the political landscape of 1968 and that of today. “There’s a sense of really severe crisis both in the United States and internationally. I think maybe this fluctuation of hope and despair,” said Yaqub as he compared the events of 1968 to the most recent midterm elections. “I think there’s a similar seesaw of emotions taking place today that was current back then.”
Second-year economics and accounting student Michael Alvarez drew comparisons between 1968’s Democratic presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey and 2016’s Democratic presidential nominee Hilary Clinton. Humphrey lost to Republican nominee Richard Nixon in the 1969 presidential elections, a result many believed to be because of a weak Democratic Party which was already fractured by the assassination of the favored Democratic candidate Robert Kennedy.
“Hubert Humphrey was almost elected, but he wasn’t because everyone was broken and weren’t voting,” Alvarez said. “In a way, Hubert Humphrey was like Hilary Clinton. A lot of Bernie Sanders voters wouldn’t vote whatsoever.”
Third-year history student Tatyana Molina, saw the resemblance between the campaigns of far-right politician George Wallace, who ran for president in 1968, and current president Donald Trump. “George Wallace started to respond to hecklers at his campaigns and that actually opened the doors to campaigners now, like how Trump has responded to his crowd,” Molina said after the screening.
Organizer Yaqub believes that Wallace and Trump ran similar styles of campaigns. With all the attention on the civil rights movement, Wallace appealed to White Americans’ resentment and riled them up. “It’s conjuring fear of disorder and challenge, especially coming from people who aren’t white,” said Yaqub. “That kind of style of politics, where you stoke people’s fears, that’s very much with us.”
It can be seen in Trump’s speeches about caravans coming up from Central America and in times he’s referred to Democrats as mobs, said Yaqub. It’s a conservative reaction against those who criticize and challenge the government and similar waves of conservative reactions arose in 1968 against progressive movements such as the civil rights movement, the historian continued. Many felt then that law and order had to be restored, a notion President Trump has also advocated. “The conservative reaction is still with us. It’s not the same issues, but the same kinds of sentiments are out there,” said Yaqub said.
Donna Mo is a fourth year Communication major and Theater minor. She is a Web and Social Media intern with the Division of Humanities and Fine Arts.