Events happened at a rapid pace in 1968. One moment, the country had hopes for a better future spurred by Martin Luther King Jr.’s oratory, and the next, his death—intended to suck the life out of a movement, but was instead met with defiance. And while riots ensued after King’s death, destroying black communities across the country, the loss of King could not be undone, and communities were left in shambles. The resilience of a people was tested, and they became more vigilant than before.
At the Newseum, the exhibition 1968: Civil Rights at 50 takes a look at this pivotal year in American history, as part of a series of exhibitions the museum has curated over the past three years to explore the civil rights movement in the United States. Beginning with 1965: Civil Rights at 50, which explored the marches in Selma, Alabama, and the Voting Rights Act, the museum continues the series this year with a lens on 1968—a year of significant social unrest.
The nation was divided by supporters and protesters of the Vietnam War, which was at its height. Veterans were returning home maimed and jobless. Low-income and sanitation workers were protesting for human rights. And two major civil rights leaders, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated.
There’s a lot of information packed into the small gallery space in comparison to the space granted to the Newseum’s other exhibitions—and it’s a bit overwhelming. The wall text gives way to accompanying pictures for a bit of context about what you’re supposed to read. The annex to Civil Rights at 50, where more general information about the civil rights movement is housed, provides space for a large timeline of events occurring in 1968. The density of the exhibition illustrates the number of cataclysmic events that occurred in the short span of a year (a two-day pass is worth it to try and take in the overwhelming amount of information in the Newseum).
A short Newseum-produced documentary, Justice for All, placed prominently in the entryway of the exhibit, illustrates how concerted efforts by athletes can provoke change. The film focuses on the work black athletes have done and continue to do to bring about justice for black Americans. The documentary draws parallels between the symbolic gestures of the 1968 Olympic gold medalist John Carlos and bronze medalist Tommie Smith and Colin Kaepernick—the former performing the black power salute, while the latter made headlines when he started taking a knee at NFL games during the National Anthem.
A lot of the injustices of 1968 explored in the exhibition draw clear parallels to many of today’s social and economic issues. The economic disparity that spurred the Poor People’s Campaign is as relevant today as gentrification forces many people of color and low economic status out of their homes. The current governmental leadership is overrun with a cohort of politicians trying to gut beneficial programs previous administrations put in place to help those same people being forced out of their homes. And veterans, some of whom have shown Kaepernick support, still feel slighted by the lack of compassion they receive when they return home.
In 50 years, a lot has changed: Social movements now spur from a hashtag, the President calls for boycotts of the NFL over peaceful protests, and people are marching in the streets almost every week. 1968: Civil Rights at 50 does a fine job of demonstrating the varied ways and the tremendous effort put into the fight for equal rights—and, in turn, the humanity of black Americans.
555 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. $16.96-$21.20. (202) 292-6100. newseum.org.