1968 was one of the most momentous years in American history. It was filled with challenging, transformative, and tragic events. Using our political, university, regional, and oral history collections, the Gore Center staff will look back at some of the year’s historic moments.
January 30 – The Tet Offensive
During the lunar new year holiday (known as “Tet”), North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces launched attacks against targets in South Vietnam, typically in highly populated areas with an extensive U.S. military presence. The South Vietnamese troops and the U.S. Armed Forces suffered heavy losses. Many scholars and Vietnam War veterans consider the Tet Offensive as a turning point in the war. Most notably, it negatively influenced American public opinion toward the conflict, and weakened support for President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration.
Andy Womack, interviewed by Gore Center staff in 2007, served in Vietnam from 1966-68 after being drafted into the Army. He discusses his experience with the Tet Offensive in the video posted below (a transcript is available on the YouTube page).
The Vietnam War lasted from 1955-1975. It was one of the most controversial military conflicts in United States history, and sparked waves of anti-Vietnam protests, especially on college campuses. Many Vietnam veterans had a difficult time readjusting to life upon their return home. Today, cultural heritage institutions strive to honor these veterans, their stories, and the complexities of the war through oral history projects, exhibits, and more.
February 17 – Senator Gore Speaks about Vietnam
A few weeks after the start of the Tet Offensive, Senator Albert Gore, Sr. spoke at the University of Idaho about his position toward American military involvement in Vietnam. Gore was one of the leading Democratic voices against the Vietnam War. In his speech, Gore stated that “Instead of saving America from communism, [the Vietnam War] may turn the American dream into a nightmare.”
Several Tennesseans wrote to Gore to commend him on his speech. One constituent wrote, “I wholeheartedly support your efforts to educate the American public to the realities of the damage caused by the Vietnam War not only to the suffering people of Vietnam but to Americans as well here at home.”
The Tennessean wrote the following article about Gore’s speech in the Sunday edition of the newspaper (click image to view larger):
February 29 – Kerner Report Released
In 1967, during the “long, hot summer,” uprisings occurred throughout the United States, many of them in reaction to racial inequalities. President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders to study the causes of these revolts and to recommend solutions. On February 29, 1968, this commission released their final report, also known as the Kerner Report.
In the report, the commission condemned the uprisings for their violence but recognized that oppression from white people and institutions created such violence. The summary reasoned that “White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II.”
In spring of 1968, Gore received constituent letters about the commission’s report following its nationwide distribution. Below is a letter that made some particularly exceptional points about how the government seemed more focused on suppressing the uprisings rather than addressing the causes. You can read more about how Tennesseans responded to the uprisings of 1967 in this blog post.
March 12 – Fair Housing Act passes Senate
In late February and early March, Senator Gore received hundreds of letters from constituents about the Civil Rights of 1968 (also called the Fair Housing Act). Many Tennesseans were against the bill, and called it “socialistic.” White citizens, in particular, believed they “lost enough of [their] rights” to Black people with the passage of previous civil rights bills. Senator Gore responded firmly on the side of the Fair Housing Act. He stated in letters to constituents that, “…after full study and consideration, I decided to support it [the bill], for it is urgently needed.”
In rare cases, some white Tennesseans wrote to Gore in support of fair housing, like these two constituents:
Senator (and presidential hopeful) Robert F. Kennedy visited Vanderbilt University, where he spoke before 12,000 people on “The Destiny of Dissent.” His visit was part of the the IMPACT Symposium. Sylvester Brooks, vice-chairman of Students for Kennedy at MTSU, wrote up a summary of the speech for the Sidelines student newspaper. Brooks described Kennedy as a leader with “courage, foresight and conviction,” who came to Tennessee to “tell it like it is.” Brooks stated, “…if this country ever chooses to ignore and denounce the truth, it loses its heritage and its only hope for the future.” Click here for a transcript of the full article.
On the evening of April 4, James Earl Ray murdered civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. At the time, Congress was debating the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (also known as the Fair Housing Act). One of the ways Tennesseans responded to King’s assassination was to write to their congressman about the passage of this legislation. Below is an example of one of the many letters Senator Albert Gore, Sr. received urging his support of the open housing bill. Transcript of letter available here. (Click on image to view larger)
May 12 – Poor People’s March Begins
When civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April 1968, he and fellow activists were planning the Poor People’s March, which comprised a tent city (called “Resurrection City”) on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. intended to influence Congress and put our nation on the path to achieving economic justice. The march occurred under the larger umbrella of the Poor People’s Campaign, an initiative the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) created in December 1967 to address issues that particularly impacted impoverished communities, such as access to healthcare, affordable housing, and living wages.
In this constituent letter to Senator Gore, Charles Johnson of Knoxville, Tennessee urges the support of the marchers and their cause to improve the lives of poor Americans.
After winning the California presidential primary, Senator Kennedy was shot several times at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles by a man named Sirhan Sirhan. Kennedy died a day later.
The tragic event reignited gun control debates across the United States. Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, attempts to ban mail-order gun sales failed in Congress. In 1968, following the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, Congress passed two major laws–the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act and the Gun Control Act. Senator Albert Gore, Sr. received thousands of letters about gun control measures from Tennessee constituents. Many constituents opposed gun control measures, while a smaller but still significant amount of people supported the legislation.