If 1967 had been a quiet year, much without incident, 1968 turned out to be an especially violent year and the news was dominated by assassinations and shootings. I turned fourteen years old in June and I was becoming more aware of news events around the World.
In the far-east there was a war that was going from bad to worse for the United States as they tried to support South Vietnam and prevent the spread of communism from the north, but the war was not popular with many people there and in February there was a watershed event that became a public relations disaster for the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidency.
Nguyễn Văn Lém was a member of the Viet Cong who on 1st February was shot dead in Saigon during a major Viet Cong offensive. The execution was captured on film by a photojournalist called Eddie Adams and the momentous image became a symbol of the brutality of war.
During the fighting Lém was captured and brought to Brigadier General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, the Chief of National Police of the Republic of Vietnam. Using his handgun, General Loan summarily executed Lém in front of Adams and an NBC television cameraman. The photograph and the footage were broadcast worldwide, everyone who saw it witnessed Lém’s brains being blown from his skull and decorating the pavement and it galvanized the anti-war movement in the United States.
Adams won a 1969 Pulitzer Prize for his photograph. What he captures there in the faces is exceptional, the matter of fact look expression of the executioner, the exhiliration and encouragement from the soldier in the left of picture and the look of expectation and certain impending death in the face of the victim.
In April there was another high profile shooting. Martin Luther King Jr. was an American clergyman, activist and prominent leader in the African American civil rights movement. In 1964 he became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to end racial segregation and discrimination through civil disobedience and other non-violent means. By the time of his death in 1968, he had refocused his efforts on ending poverty and by opposing the Vietnam War.
He was assassinated on April 4th 1968 in Memphis Tennessee by James Earl Ray.
In late March King went to Memphis in support of the black sanitary public works employees who had been on strike for higher wages and better treatment. King was booked in room 306 at the Lorraine Motel and just after six o’clock he was standing on the balcony of his room when a single shot rang out from a sniper’s rifle. The bullet entered through his right cheek, smashing his jaw, then travelled down his spinal cord before lodging in his shoulder. He was pronounced dead just over an hour later.
The assassination led to a nationwide wave of riots in more than one hundred cities. Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy was on his way to Indianapolis for a campaign rally when he was informed of King’s death. He gave a short speech to the gathering of supporters informing them of the tragedy and asking them to continue King’s idea of non-violence. President Johnson declared April 7th a national day of mourning for the civil rights leader
Just four days later he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968 which was meant as a follow-up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and expanded on previous acts by prohibiting discrimination concerning the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, religion or national origin.
And gun violence wasn’t restricted to war and politics because in early June it spilled over into the world of art when a radical American feminist, Valerie Jean Solanas, attempted to murder the artist Andy Warhol. When he arrived at his studio called ‘the Factory’ with a couple of friends, she was waiting for him and produced a handgun and shot three times, hitting him once. She then shot art critic Mario Amaya and also tried to shoot Warhol’s manager, Fred Hughes, but her gun jammed as the elevator arrived and she escaped. Warhol was seriously wounded but survived the assassination attempt and Solanas was arrested the following day.
All of these events were shocking enough but on June 5th they were eclipsed by the biggest shooting of the year. Robert Francis Kennedy, affectionately known as Bobby, was a prominent and popular politician, a Democratic Senator from New York and a noted civil rights activist. An icon of modern American liberalism, he was a younger brother of President John F. Kennedy and acted as one of his advisers during his presidency when from 1961 to 1964 he was the United States Attorney General.
Following his brother John’s assassination in 1963, Kennedy continued to serve as Attorney General under President Lyndon B. Johnson for nine months but in September 1964 he resigned to seek the U.S. Senate seat for New York which he won in November and within a few years he publicly split with Johnson over the issue of the Vietnam War.
In March 1968 Kennedy began a campaign for the presidency and was a front running candidate of the Democratic Party. In the California presidential primary he defeated Eugene McCarthy, a fellow U.S. Senator from Minnesota. Following a brief victory speech delivered just past midnight in the ballroom at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Kennedy was assassinated.
Leaving the ballroom, he went through the hotel kitchen after being told it was a shortcut, despite being advised to avoid the kitchen by his FBI bodyguard. In a crowded passageway, Sirhan Sirhan, a twenty-four year-old Christian Palestinian-American (who felt betrayed by Kennedy’s support for Israel in the June 1967 Six-Day War), opened fire and shot Kennedy three times. Following the shooting, Kennedy was rushed to Los Angeles’s Good Samaritan Hospital where he died early the next morning. He was forty-three years old and America was poorer for his passing.
Later in the year the Republican Richard M. Nixon was elected thirty-seventh President of the United States.