The year 1968 marked a time of great social and political upheaval in America. The Vietnam War had reached a turning point, the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, and TV viewers followed everything from the Olympic Games to the first manned orbit of the moon.
The times they are a changin’
Newsmakers included President Lyndon B. Johnson, Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Richard M. Nixon.
1968 was also the year the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington opened to the public.
To celebrate its 50th anniversary, the museum is presenting a time capsule of that important year and the cultural icons who shaped it, with a one-room exhibit packed with history.
“One Year: 1968, An American Odyssey” offers 30 images — from photographs and paintings, to prints, drawings and magazine covers that represent that tumultuous period.
Museum director Kim Sajet says the exhibit is especially timely as the nation once again grapples with political and social turmoil.
“This [was] a year when we get two assassinations; we of course have the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and then later, Senator Bobby Kennedy. America is in Vietnam and it is not going well; President Lyndon Baines Johnson — who of course assumed the presidency because of the assassination of John Kennedy three years earlier — was having very bad approval ratings…and he announces that he’s not going to re-run for the presidency.”
Bring the troops home
A large part of the negative public opinion was the contentious issue of Vietnam; a war that most Americans increasingly opposed.
The unpopularity of LBJ, who had advocated passionately for that war, was reflected in a caricature by David Levine that depicts the president as King Lear, the title character of the Shakespeare tragedy, who gradually descends into madness.
Other social and political issues were seeping into American culture.
Sajet sees many parallels between 1968 and today…especially where the political merges into the cultural.
“So for example there is a very dramatic cover that was put on Time magazine in June to describe a story that they were doing about the gun in America, and it’s very confrontational because the gun is literally pointed at you, the reader, viewer,” she said. “This is of course a conversation that continues in America today.”
There’s also a photo of Shirley Anita Chisholm of New York. She was the first African-American woman elected to the House of Representatives and the first African-American woman to compete for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.
“We continue to have conversations about our electoral process and how women in politics are faring,” Sajet noted.
Another powerful image is the photograph of track and field athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who each raised a single gloved fist on the medal platform at the summer Olympics in Mexico City to protest the mistreatment of African Americans and racial inequality.
“So whether it’s MeToo or the Black Lives Matter…there was a sense at that time — that I think we can see now — of young people stepping forward and saying, ‘We want something different, we want a change, we want to be part of the conversation,’ and I think that is tremendously interesting,” Sajet said.
The National Portrait Gallery went through a careful process to select images from 1968 that best represented that era, said James Barber, the art museum’s historian and curator. “We were also looking at major newsmakers from that year,” he said, all of which had to be culled from a vast collection.
“People remember 1968. It has not been forgotten. There was no other year in the last 50 years that I know of that could compare to 1968,” he said.
Many images are presented alongside each other to make a point, Barber explained. The photo of Shirley Chisholm hangs near one of George Wallace, an American politician best remembered for his segregation policies. And the striking, close-up image of a gun is placed next to a poignant portrait of Robert F. Kennedy, who was of course slain by a gun.
The exhibit offers representations of great cultural icons as well. They include American football luminary Vince Lombardi; figure skating champion Peggy Fleming, the only U.S. competitor to win an Olympic gold medal for America that year, and tennis great Arthur Ashe, who captured the first U.S. Open men’s championship in 1968, becoming the first African American to win a major title.
Musical giants also made headlines that year, including Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. They are both present in a legendary black and white picture taken by well-known photographer Irving Penn.
“Janis Joplin takes up the left side of that photograph and Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead are on the right of that,” said Barber. “So he managed to get these 10 band members from two different groups for this iconic photograph.”
Movie stars are also represented in the exhibit: they include an image of Barbra Streisand from the movie Funny Girl, for which she won an Academy Award, and a full-length poster of actor Sidney Poitier. “Sidney Poitier was called the Martin Luther King of the movies,” Barber said. “He had that humility, if you will.”
Barber has included works by other prominent artists as well, including a poignant photo of Robert Kennedy with American labor activists Helen and Cesar Chavez by Richard Darby and a version of a colorful collage titled Hippies that was used as a Time magazine cover a year earlier.
One of the most compelling images of 1968 was taken on Christmas Eve by astronaut William Anders, one of three Apollo 8 crew members — the first manned mission to orbit the moon… providing a never-before-seen view of Earth.
“This is a moment, I think, when suddenly not just America but the world realizes how small we are; we’re all on this little blue marble and it is the start of really thinking about international cooperation,” Sajet said. “So this orients the globe, the citizens of the world, in a way that almost no other picture has done since that time.”
That historic space mission brought a more hopeful note to the end of one of the most turbulent years in American history.
“I want people to recognize that history is an arc, that what you do matters. So whether you protest or you vote or you’re an athlete, there are all sorts of motifs and stories this year in this exhibition that apply very much to people today.”