Panel Discussions: “Social Protests in 1968 and their Impact”
Nov. 13, 4 p.m.
Library Gallery, Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library, First Floor

Forty years ago, the U.S. stood on the brink of enormous political, social and cultural change. Man had already seen the illuminating galaxies of outer-space; hippies professed their belief in free love; Yippies resisted authoritarian politics; and the assassinations of two influential leaders, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, shook the nation. Traces of the words “I have a dream” lived among the causes of the anti-war, civil rights and feminist movements.

Although the U.S. hasn’t necessarily seen the same magnitude of protests of the ’60s today, these words still resonate, whether in the protests for affirmative action or against the war in Iraq, or the social activism that has arisen from the recent presidential election. What was then and what is now will be the topic of a panel discussion addressing the social protests in 1968 tomorrow at the Hatcher Graduate Library.

Two panels mostly made up of University alumni will share their experiences from 1968 and address how activism has changed throughout time. Among the panelists are Judy Gumbo Albert, a former Yippie; Vietnam veteran Frank Beaver; and Dean Emeritus of the UM School of Social Work Harold Johnson.

“The panelists become living parts of history as they are able to both be historical objects and also reflective on what the history was,” said University Librarian Paul Courant, who is one of the moderators of the event.

The discussion is based on the exhibit “The Whole World was Watching: Protest and Revolution of 1968” which is running in the gallery room of the Hatcher Graduate Library and will run through Dec. 19. Photographs, antique protest buttons and replicas of old newspaper stories and images from the late 1960s become evidence of a nation searching desperately for a new way of life. Illustrations include the influence of the Catonsville 9, the reaction to the Vietnam War draft, RFK and MLK’s assassinations and Lyndon Johnson’s announcement of not running for a second term.

One exhibit shows Ann Arbor during this pivotal time in history and presents scenes Michigan students protesting across campus. In a montage of images, students carry signs that read “Wake Up America,” “What kind of World is this?” and “Bring the troops home now,” among others.

“Through a constellation of phenomena, young people and students had much more influence for a moment than they had any reason to ever expect they would,” Courant said.

Rejecting the prior systems of American life wasn’t confined to just protesting for a new political system and advocating for civil liberties. People also saw a new movements emerge in art, music and literature scenes. The first signs of punk music, a genre that didn’t fully develop until the ’70s, were seen in Detroit. Psychedelic drugs altered the mindsets of their users and the work of poets became more socially and politically conscious.

“What I saw was a desire to have a complete upheaval in society, to remake society in its entirety — in drugs, sex, art, music, politics, racial equality and feminism. It was that ‘question everything’ idea,” Ken Mikolowski, a creative writing lecturer in the Residential College said.

Mikolowski started a publishing company, The Alternative Press, with his wife in 1969. Local and national writers such as Allan Ginsberg and John Sinclair found a safe place to write about such controversial topics as their opposition to the war. It provided an alternative to commercial publishing, which was often conservative in selecting writing for publication.

Before coming to Ann Arbor Mikolowski lived in Detroit, where he was heavily influenced by the riots of the ’60s.

“We were shaped by different forces, making a life out of the rawness that Detroit presented to its residents,” Mikolowski said. “That gritty urban life that we were surrounded by couldn’t help but influence our art, our poetry and our music.”

Although the ’60s undoubtedly gave a new meaning to social protest, it is perhaps today’s generation that’s responsible for the real change that must occur. Not only are we are living in a time of advanced technology that will continue to change the way social protests are conducted, we are still dealing with a financial crisis, a war overseas struggling that’s left us without allies and the aftermath of a historic presidential election.

Mikolowski expressed the need to escape nostalgia for his generation’s past and to face current events that will shape the future.

“I am very curious about what is going to happen next,” Mikolowski said. “I very much want to live in the 21st century.”

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