Looking back on 1968


Published: Sunday, January 6, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 6, 2008 at 12:44 a.m.

It was the year that changed everything.

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Clockwise from top left, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated in 1968; public support for the Vietnam War eroded; Stephen C. O’Connell was inaugurated as the University of Florida’s president; Bill McBride, who ran for Florida governor, lost his bid for UF student body president; Willie Jackson and Leonard George followed Johnnie Brown in becoming UF’s first black athletes; the Four Tops played on campus; and the Black Student Union was formed.

Wikipedia Commons, UF, Sun file photos

That's what Tom Brokaw says about 1968 in his new book, "Boom! Voices of the Sixties," in which he recounts a year filled with tragic, world-changing events like the killings of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and with turbulence and unrest spurred by the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.

But in Gainesville, especially at the University of Florida, feelings of unease were just starting to brew.

"It was in many ways still a sedate Southern university campus," said Michael Gannon, UF professor emeritus of history. "There wouldn't be any real explosions until two years later. But 1968 was the year in which the normally quiet campus was stirring with deep unease about the Vietnam War. The university had a pulse unlike any it had had before."

Gannon, who was a professor in UF's history and religion departments at the time, said 1968 was the year students started asking him pointed questions about the Vietnam War. Unsure of how to answer, he decided to go to Vietnam as a correspondent for America, a news and opinion journal, to assess the situation for himself.

Much like Walter Cronkite's famous declaration in 1968 that the Vietnam War was unwinnable — a statement whose impact Brokaw explores in his book — Gannon reported that what he'd seen in Vietnam in 1968 led him to oppose the continuation of the war.

Gannon said many students had already come to that conclusion on their own.

Though the school was two years away from its historic protest marches over the Vietnam War, Gannon said it was clear changes were ahead.

"It really was a dramatic, corner-turning year," Gannon said. "That doesn't mean that people in Florida were involved in the gateway events in 1968, but it was a very troubling year that showed a growing anger about and a rising opposition to the war."

Brokaw's book also examines increasing drug use throughout the country, saying that by 1968, marijuana use had truly became commonplace. In this category, UF wasn't behind the nation at all.

The school's 1968 yearbook quotes a doctor from the UF infirmary as estimating that at least 50 percent of the students attending summer classes were smoking pot.

"The issue was really brought home that year when two students were found with 80 pounds of marijuana," said UF historian Carl Van Ness.

Van Ness said various changes on campus in 1968 hinted at changing times and culture clashes ahead.

It was the year UF opened its first co-ed dorm, and the year some of the 108 black students on campus formed the Black Student Union, which was not formally recognized by the university until 1970.

Changing times were even apparent in UF's athletic department, where the civil rights movement and women's movement were foreshadowed by historic moments in sports.

As protests and riots over race broke out nationwide, track star Johnnie Brown became the first black athlete to compete for UF in 1968, Van Ness said. Football players Willie Jackson and Leonard George followed Brown by signing in late 1968 for the 1969 football season.

As women protesting the 1968 Miss America pageant trashed their bras and high-heeled shoes, UF student Catie Ball won a gold medal in swimming in the summer Olympics in Mexico City. The win came four years before UF would form its first women's athletic teams, meaning Ball could compete in the Olympics, but not for her own school.

Ball later became the first coach of UF's women's swim team, said Norm Carlson, UF's assistant athletic director and athletics historian.

But like the rest of the campus and the city, the main events in the athletic department in 1968 reflected a city that was still a few years away from the tensions and turmoil described in Brokaw's book.

Carlson said the most memorable part of 1968 for him was the football team's 6-3-1 record, which included several embarrassing losses to unranked teams.

"I remember some turbulent years on campus later, in the 1970s, but I don't recall a big to-do about anything much in 1968," Carlson said. "The main thing I remember about 1968 is that the football season was a disaster."

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