Belfast Telegraph

Why those turning 50 in 2018 should reflect on world-changing events that happened in year they were born

By Mary Kenny

Those due to celebrate their 50th birthday in 2018 may enjoy contemplating the fascinating year in which they were born - the legendary 1968. This is "the year that rocked history", in the words of one of its many biographers.

The French even have a word for those defined by 1968 - 'soixante-huitard', though admittedly it has a mixed implication of either radical revolutionary or old hippy who doesn't grasp that everything has moved on.

The glorious revolution predicted by those dazzling slogans postered up in the streets of Paris and elsewhere - 'Power to the Imagination!'; 'Underneath the pavement, the beach!' - hasn't always matched the stubborn realities of life.

But 1968 was a seedbed of modern politics and for contemporary lifestyles: the hippies of yesteryear begat the hipsters of Silicon Valley, who revolutionised the world with the laptop computer and the iPhone.

Sixty-eight saw the emergence of the civil rights movement both in the United States and Northern Ireland. The October march in Derry organised by Eamonn McCann and banned by William Craig was what launched the events that would change the north forever. And in the US, the assassination of Martin Luther King made the black preacher a martyr to the cause of African-Americans, who, until 1968, were called negroes'.

The armed invasion of Czechoslovakia by Brezhnev's Soviet Union, when Alexander Dubcek tried to "humanise socialism" was, in retrospect, the beginning of the end for Communism. Czechoslovakia was the only country that had freely voted itself into a communist system but was learning that the system could only be upheld by force.

The American-led war in Vietnam preoccupied many - even Wall Street turned against it. All wars are horribly cruel, but Vietnam was the first war that was seen live on TV. It led to a revulsion against the means of waging such a war, which the late President Kennedy had undertaken to support what he believed was a democracy.

There were riots in London's Grosvenor Square (location of the American Embassy) in which the young marched with Tariq Ali behind banners shouting 'Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh!' - yes, I was actually there, probably for the same reason that many people still join street demonstrations: because it's fun, it's exhilarating and it annoys fusty old opponents.

President Lyndon Johnson was in the White House, promising to get on top of gun control and rid society of the scourge of drugs. His decision not to run again prompted Bobby Kennedy to campaign - and to be assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan.

The word 'Palestinian' came into currency for the first time, according to Mark Kurlansky, one of 1968's chroniclers, as in the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which was led by a famous guerrilla fighter called Abu Amar, later to be known as Yasser Arafat. The Basque separatist movement, ETA, also came into existence.

An anguishing civil war was occurring in Africa, where Biafra sought to establish its own sovereignty apart from Nigeria. A Swedish aviator, Count Carl Gustav von Rosen, flew in supplies to support a starving Biafra, and several Irish priests, who had been involved in missionary work with the Ibo people, piloted planes to help Biafra. The Dublin government's economic interest in a unified Nigeria prevailed.

Muriel Siebert became the first woman in 175 years to own a seat on the New York Stock exchange - she made more than a million dollars by doing so. But Women's liberation burned bras in a gesture against the Miss America beauty pageant. Jane Fonda starred in the movie Barbarella, uncomplaining, at the time, about being regarded as a sex-object.

It was also marked as the year when 'free love' gained popularity as sexual mores changed. The Paris student rebellion actually began with a protest in favour of (forbidden) mixed dormitories in university accommodation. Traditional values elsewhere also disapproved of all this free love: in America, the poster for the movie The Graduate was banned by transport authorities - it showed Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft in bed together.

After deliberating long with his advisers, Pope Paul VI finally came out with his decision that artificial contraception would not be approved by the Vatican. Many conscientious Catholics were bitterly disappointed and courageous Cork priest Fr James Good - still with us - openly dissented. However, some 50-year-olds might not be celebrating their birthdays at all in 2018 if the decision had gone the other way!

In Ireland, Captain Terence O'Neill, liberal Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, was voted Man of the Year, for his willingness to come to Dublin and talk to Taoiseach Jack Lynch.

And 1968 was also a year of radicalising globalism - TV was now reaching across the world. The most significant picture of the year, possibly, was the photograph of the earth taken from space by Apollo 8.

That affecting picture of planet Earth, our common home, surely launched the environmental awareness that, 50 years on, is so very much part of our world today.

Belfast Telegraph

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