A war playing out on national TV. Violent student protests. Assassinations of two key American leaders.
It all happened in 1968, and anyone who lived through the year or studied it knows it was a turbulent period, one marked by rising political and social unrest, and growing divisiveness over the Vietnam War.
“The 1968 Exhibit” opening today at the Durham Museum captures the events of the year and shows how they affected the American people and the country.
The exhibit is more than just pictures on walls. One of the highlights is a real Vietnam-era Huey helicopter that was brought into the museum in pieces and reassembled.
The exhibit captures pop culture from the year, and gives visitors a chance to sit in beanbag chairs and watch clips from 1968 shows such as “Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In.”
The exhibit also explores how the year played out in Omaha, partly through pages from The World-Herald and photos from the Durham's archives.
Visitors will learn, for example, about Robert Kennedy's campaign visit in Omaha just a month before his assassination.
Mark Scherer, chairman of the history department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said 1968 was one of the rockiest years of the last half of the 20th century, partly because of the assassinations of Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. just months apart.
“There was concern about what was next,'' he said.
JANUARY: THE VIETNAM WAR
Key exhibit object: A Huey helicopter flown in Vietnam; soldiers' memorabilia; draft cards; anti-war buttons
Event: North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces launched the Tet Offensive, a series of attacks on more than 100 cities and towns in South Vietnam. U.S. and South Vietnamese troops fought back the attacks, but news coverage of the offensive shocked Americans and hurt support for the war.
Memory: I was a 21-year-old college student and member of the U.S. Army Reserve in Omaha. I remember watching TV coverage of the Tet Offensive and was surprised the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong would carry out such a bold attack. A couple of months after Tet, my unit, the 172nd Transportation Company, was called up. Our unit was sent to Vietnam in fall 1968. I come from a military family and was proud I could serve my country in the war —Charlie Lee, 67, Omaha
FEBRUARY: ART AND MUSIC
Key exhibit features: Visitors can watch TV shows such as “Gunsmoke,” along with highlights from sporting events such as the 1968 Olympic Games. Items displayed include costumes worn by characters on the TV series “Star Trek.”
Events: The Beatles' “White Album” was released, and radio stations played music by the Doors, Simon & Garfunkel and Diana Ross and the Supremes.
Memory: My roommate at Iowa State University gave me a 45 record of 'Hey Jude' for Christmas and I listened to it over and over. I remember all the fun songs on the AM radio, like 'Dance to the Music' and 'Mrs. Robinson.' It was a great year for music. —Janet Redick, 63, Omaha
MARCH: GEORGE WALLACE CAMPAIGNS IN OMAHA
Event: Student demonstrators at Omaha's Civic Auditorium heckled Wallace and threw small wooden sticks and wads of paper at him. Wallace spoke for about 10 minutes before police tried to remove the demonstrators. A chair-throwing melee erupted, and violence spread to the streets. Ten Omaha businesses were looted, two white motorists were beaten and a 16-year-old black youth was shot by a guard who said the youth was looting a pawnshop.
Memory: My political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha told us to attend Wallace's speech as a class assignment. It got frightening when people started throwing chairs. I knew what Wallace stood for and opposed his beliefs. — Garry Knittel, 65, Omaha
APRIL: DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. ASSASSINATED
Exhibit: King's assassination and its effect on the American people are told through a media presentation that includes words from his “I've Been to the Mountaintop” speech, given the day before he was killed.
Event: King was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., where he had gone to support a sanitation workers strike. Anger and shock sparked rioting.
Memory: I was 8 years old and living in Little Rock, Ark. I had been outside playing and walked into the house and saw my mother in front of the TV with tears in her eyes. She was watching the news about Dr. King's death. I remember my parents and other adults talking about it with shock and despair. I was too young to know who Dr. King was. But I learned more and more about him as I grew older. His emphasis on social justice became a major influence on my own work as a minister. —The Rev. Kenneth Allen, 54, pastor of Omaha's Zion Baptist Church
MAY: SEN. ROBERT K. KENNEDY CAMPAIGNS IN OMAHA
Event: Campaigning for president, Kennedy made a brief stop at Boys Town, and came to the aid of Joe Marsh, above, who tripped and fell chasing after the candidate's motorcade. Kennedy sent two men to help the 9-year-old, who had a bloodied nose and cut lip and chin. The men placed the boy next to Kennedy, who was sitting on the back of a convertible. With a consoling voice, the candidate asked, “Are you all right?” After a few minutes, an aide helped Marsh out of the convertible. The boy turned and waved goodbye to Kennedy.
Memory: I happened to see Kennedy's motorcade pass by. I was 13 and crossing the pedestrian bridge over Dodge Street on my way to St. Margaret Mary School. I saw police lights in the distance and a line of cars. I looked down and saw Kennedy pass below the bridge in a convertible. I loved the Kennedys and couldn't believe I actually got to see Bobby in my own town. —Pat Ervin, 58, rural Murdock, Neb.
JUNE: SEN. ROBERT F. KENNEDY ASSASSINATED
Key exhibit object: Camera used at the Kennedy assassination
Event: Kennedy was shot in June 1968 at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after winning the California presidential primary. Kennedy was in a good position to get the Democratic nomination and face Richard Nixon in the general election.
Memory: I lived in south Texas, and even though I was 13, I was very aware of Kennedy and what he stood for. My mother was a civil rights and anti-war activist, so there were many discussions in my house on those issues. I was shocked and saddened by Kennedy's death, and knew it was a blow to the civil rights movement. —Paul Williams, 58, Omaha
AUGUST: DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL CONVENTION IN CHICAGO
Key exhibit objects: Convention badge; political buttons; police officer's riot helmet
Event: Political activists planned demonstrations in Chicago. Police refused to allow demonstrators near the main hotels and the convention hall, and riots erupted. As the violence escalated, Mayor Richard J. Daley called in the troops. In total, 11,900 Chicago police, 7,500 Army regulars, 7,500 Illinois National Guardsmen and 1,000 FBI and Secret Service agents posted in the city.
Memory: It was the summer before my sophomore year at a small college in Kansas, and I watched and read about the protests. I felt sympathy for the young demonstrators struggling to make sense of war and other problems. Young people felt the country's leaders weren't paying attention to them. Despite all the troubles, I was idealistic. I believed that the country could still end the war and solve the racial and political problems. —Eileen Burke-Sullivan, 65, Omaha
Sources: Durham Museum; World-Herald archives; Chicago Historical Society; the1968exhibit.org; history.com