Credit: Courtesy NPG
In photos: How 1968 changed America -- for better and worse
In modern United States history, few years are remembered with such mixed emotion as 1968. The year began with the Tet Offensive and the Mai Lai Massacre in Vietnam, turning points in the conflict that drove counterculture and protest. The Black Panthers were becoming increasingly visible and being targeted by the FBI, while the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. sparked riots in cities across the country.
The Democratic Party was thrown into disarray with the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, and the use of force against protesters during the Democratic National Convention depended schisms that could not be repaired before that year's presidential election.
But it was also the year Apollo 8 became the first manned mission to orbit the moon, the year groundbreaking artists like Janis Joplin reshaped rock 'n' roll, and the year Americans like Peggy Fleming and Tommie Smith brought home gold from the Olympics.
A new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington sets out to tell the story of this tumultuous year. Through portraits of the figures who shaped science, politics, culture and sports, "One Year: 1968, An American Odyssey" examines dissent and unity, capturing a year that in many ways echoes our own.
"1968 was a year of trauma unlike any other year that comes to mind," historian and curator James Barber said. But as the exhibition shows, it was also a time of celebration and national progress, particularly in the world of science: "The whole world watched what America was doing."
'No one really knew what to expect'
The exhibition's opening photograph shows President Lyndon B. Johnson and First Lady Ladybird Johnson watching his announcement that he would not be seeking reelection. It was a moment that ushered in a great deal of the political upheaval that defined not just 1968, but the political landscape for decades to come.
The closing image of President Richard Nixon illustrates of the immense change that took place in just one year. While Johnson recalls the Kennedy years and what came before, Nixon speaks to the years that followed, framing 1968 as a moment when America's future was shaped.
"Every week something seemingly was happening," Barber said. "It could be good or bad. Usually it tended to be bad, and no one really knew next what to expect."
Hope and tragedy seemed to follow closely on one another's heels. The leadership and assassination of King and Kennedy, who are represented side by side in the exhibit, have become some of the most recognizable embodiments of the year's extreme highs and lows.
But the exhibition excels in showcasing more subtle juxtapositions. A black-and-white photograph of Joan Didion, who pulled back the curtain on the seedy underbelly of '60s counterculture, sits alongside a technicolor portrait of laughing hippies. A stark photograph of Shirley Chisholm, who in 1968 became the first African-American woman elected to the Senate, is hung next to a photo of the chaotic and violent Democratic National Convention.
The two images that Barber considers truly iconic encapsulate the sheer immensity of the year's significance: "Earthrise," the famed photo of Earth taken by the Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders on the first successful orbit of the moon; and a black-and-white photo of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising the Black Power salute on the Olympic podium.
Leaving the exhibition, one cannot help but draw similarities between 1968 and the present. Racism and police brutality inspired protest and dissent; established political leadership was being challenged by outsiders; and the pace of change and scandal was overwhelming.
But alongside that sense of familiarity is inspiration, moving reminders of what America can be -- from the musical accomplishments of Jimi Hendrix to the activism of Cesar Chavez to the bravery of women who stood up for their rights at the Miss America Pageant.
The mixed legacy of 1968 may be sobering, but it is also uplifting, a pragmatic snapshot of the US at both its best and its most troubled.
"One Year: 1968, An American Odyssey" is on at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington until May 19, 2019.