1968 – Martin Luther King is assassinated

Martin Luther King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, after years of non-violent struggle for civil rights. By 1967, he was moving on from that. While it remained an important part of his goals, he had also become a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War and in 1967 established the Poor People’s Campaign – both of which reflected an approach to social justice that was increasingly based on class rather than race.

King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee as he stood on the balcony of his hotel. A single shot fired by James Earl Ray caused a remarkable amount of damage, and although King was raced to a nearby hospital by his friends, the doctors were unable to save him. His death led to riots in many American cities (other than Indianapolis, where Bobby Kennedy made one of the greatest speeches of his career, and found his plea for cooler heads heeded), and a national day of mourning was declared by the President.

Referenced in:
Pride – U2
They Don’t Care About Us – Michael Jackson

1974 – Nixon resigns the Presidency in disgrace

After the long, slow death of a thousand cuts that was the Watergate scandal, Nixon’s decision to resign from the Presidency – even in disgrace – must have come as something of a relief to him. Starting with the Watergate break-in, on June 17, 1972, which led to the revelation of the Nixon administration’s dirty tricks squad – and getting worse and worse as the attempted cover-up ballooned and failed.

Nixon fought, though. He fought as hard as could, as long as he could – for more than two years. But in the end, his only remaining choice was to leave on his own terms before he was forced out. The pardon that his hand-picked successor gave him – which was for all crimes including those yet to be discovered – was no doubt also a consideration.

Referenced in:

We Didn’t Start The Fire – Billy Joel
Ego Is Not A Dirty Word – Skyhooks
Sweet Home Alabama – Lynyrd Skynyrd
She Is Always Seventeen – Harry Chapin

1963 — Martin Luther King makes his “I Have A Dream” speech

For a speech that lasted only 10 minutes, it’s hard to overstate the importance of the speech. It’s remains one of the most-quoted speeches of the twentieth century. It crystallised the ideals of the American Civil Rights Movement into a single line; a single dream.

And yet oddly, the best known part of the speech – the “I Have A Dream” section itself – was actually an improvisation. Martin Luther King was a great writer and a great orator, but on this day, he departed from the text of his pre-written speech. He spoke with passion and vision. He spoke from the heart, articulating a vision of an America – a world – which we have still not achieved.

King would be Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1963, would win the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize…

…and be assassinated a little under eight months later.

Referenced in:
She Is Always Seventeen — Harry Chapin

1963 — U.S. President John F Kennedy is assassinated

One of the defining events of its era, the assassination of President Kennedy remains a remarkably controversial one, even today. Conspiracy theories abound as to who shot Kennedy and why.

While the official story, that Lee Harvey Oswald did it, with the rifle, in the book depository, is plausible, it is also notably incomplete – there are any number of holes and anomalies in it. The murder of Oswald only two days later, before he could stand trial, has done nothing to quell these uncertainties.

On a symbolic level, the death of Kennedy was the end of an era in many ways. Quite aside from the idealism that he brought to the nation, his death marked a change in the way America saw itself – no longer the lily-white paladin, but more the grim avenger willing do the dirty work no one else would – although in fairness, this change of self-image would take the rest of the decade to be complete.

Referenced in:

Civil War — Guns n’ Roses
Tabloid Junkie — Michael Jackson
Tomorrow, Wendy — Andy Prieboy
We Didn’t Start The Fire — Billy Joel
He Was A Friend of Mine — The Byrds
Tomorrow, Wendy — Concrete Blonde
Song for a Friend — The Kingston Trio
Purple Toupee — They Might Be Giants
She Is Always Seventeen — Harry Chapin

1968 – the Democratic National Convention opens in Chicago

In 1968, tensions were running high in America. The Vietnam War was dividing the population into pro and anti factions, and the Civil Rights struggle was doing the same. Both sides were becoming increasingly violent, and there were serious concerns that the nation might once again be riven by civil war.

With the assassination of Bobby Kennedy having removed the obvious front-runner from the competition, and the incumbent President refusing to stand for re-election, the Democratic Party was in chaos. But Robert J. Daley’s Chicago was a stronghold of the Democrats, and as Mayor, Daley promised that the convention would run smoothly.

Others disagreed. Thousands of protesters descended upon Chicago, intent on protesting against the war, for civil rights and against the forces of the Establishment. As the convention opened, violence simmered beneath the surface. It wouldn’t take much for it to erupt…

Referenced in:
She Is Always Seventeen – Harry Chapin

1969 – Woodstock

Woodstock Music & Art Fair (informally, Woodstock or The Woodstock Festival) was a music festival, billed as “An Aquarian Exposition”, held from August 15 to August 18, 1969, at a dairy farm belonging to a Max Yasgur in the rural town of Bethel, New York. Bethel, in Sullivan County, is actually 43 miles (69 km) southwest of the town of Woodstock, after being turned down from its original venue.

Thirty-two acts – inlcuding Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Arlo Guthrie, Joe Cocker, Neil Young, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead – performed during the sometimes rainy weekend in front of nearly half a million concertgoers – the organisers had expected only 50,000. Woodstock has come to be seen as one of the high water marks of the hippie movement, and it is sometimes regarded as marking the end of the Sixties.

One imagines that the various acts who were invited but did not attend (those still alive, at any rate) – including the Doors, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull and Bob Dylan – probably still regret it.

Referenced in:

Woodstock – Joni Mitchell
My Generation (Part II) – Todd Snider
We Didn’t Start The Fire – Billy Joel
She Is Always Seventeen – Harry Chapin
Woodstock – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

1965 – The Watts Riots begin

On August 11, 1965, a random traffic stop in Watts, a depressed area of Los Angeles with a largely negro population was the spark that set the racial tensions in the area on fire.

Lee Minikus, a California Highway Patrol motorcycle officer, pulled over Marquette Frye, whom Minikus believed was drunk. But then Minikus made a tragic error of judgement – he refused to let Frye’s sober brother drive the car home, instead radioing for it too be impounded.

As tempers frayed, and the crowd of onlookers grew, someone threw a rock at the police – and that was all it took to start the avalanche. When the riot was finally ended, 6 days later, 34 people had been killed, more than a thousand injured, and nearly four thousand arrested. It was the worst riot in LA history until the Rodney King trial verdict in 1992.

Referenced in:
One More Time – The Clash
Trouble Every Day – Frank Zappa
In The Heat Of The Summer – Phil Ochs
She Is Always Seventeen – Harry Chapin

1972 – The Watergate Burglary goes awry

On the morning of June 17, 1972, a young journalist named Bob Woodward was working the court beat in Washington DC. It was a pretty dull assignment for the most part, until that day, when five men – Virgilio González, Bernard Barker, James W. McCord, Jr., Eugenio Martínez, and Frank Sturgis – were arraigned for a burglary at the Watergate Complex, which housed the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

The five men were operatives in the pay of the Nixon government, and the most notorious scandal in United States political history was only beginning. By the time it was over, Woodward and his co-writer Bernstein would be household names, as would their informant, known for more than two decades by no other name than the alias of Deep Throat. Moreover, Nixon would resign in disgrace, and numerous members of his government would wind up facing criminal charges for their participation in the burglary, the cover-up that followed, and any number of other such dirty tricks that the Nixon White House, which referred to these activities as “ratfucking”, was wont to engage in.

Referenced in:

We Didn’t Start The Fire – Billy Joel
Ego Is Not A Dirty Word – Skyhooks
Sweet Home Alabama – Lynyrd Skynyrd
She Is Always Seventeen – Harry Chapin

1968 – Robert F. Kennedy is assassinated

Senator Robert Kennedy was doing well as June 5 started. He’d won the California primary held on the previous day, and was feeling triumphant as he addressed friends and supporters in the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles. This victory had more or less sealed his position as the Democratic candidate for the Presidential election to be held later that year.

A few minutes after completing the speech, he was shot three times by Sirhan Sirhan. He was rushed to hospital, but one of the bullets had entered his head just behind his left ear. The damage was too great, and Kennedy died a day later without ever regaining consciousness. He was mourned by a grieving nation, and in his absence, Hubert Humphrey, the sitting Vice-President, won the nomination instead.

Referenced in:
She Is Always Seventeen – Harry Chapin

1961 — John F. Kennedy is inaugurated as President

John F. Kennedy’s Inauguration oath was administered by Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Earl Warren with all the due pomp and ceremony.

Kennedy’s speech that day was unusually short for an Inaugural Address, but it is generally considered to be one of the better inaugural addresses. Such well known Kennedy quotations as “ask not what your country can do for you…” and “the torch has been passed to a new generation…” are taken from it.

Also, notably, Kennedy was the first President in some decades not to wear a hat at his Inauguration, pretty much single-handedly killing hats for men. Strange but true.

Referenced in:
We Didn’t Start The Fire — Billy Joel
She Is Always Seventeen – Harry Chapin