It was a year of death and destruction. Shootings happened and led to calls for gun control. A president was under attack for his policies and was mocked on the cover of Time magazine. African-American athletes staged a protest and were vilified for their action. America was a nation in crisis and many worried whether there would be a path forward.
The National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition, One Year: 1968, An American Odyssey, opens at the perfect time. Those worried about our nation’s future will be reminded that we have seen worse and survived. In 1968, our nation was mired in a war that we couldn’t win and one that claimed thousands of lives. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. Chicago was rocked by violent protests during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The Civil Rights Act was signed into law but racial unrest continued.
But there were hopeful signs. The counter culture led to the rise of protest songs by iconic groups whose music remains popular today. The astronauts of Apollo 8 orbited the moon, leading the way for future missions that would land on the moon. Entertainment, particularly the Smothers Brothers and Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, provided comic relief. And while racial inequality continued to be a theme, barriers were broken. Member of Congress Shirley Chisholm became the first African-American woman to run for the presidency, tennis great Arthur Ashe won the U.S. Open, and Sidney Poitier was being hailed as a big box office draw.
It’s perhaps fitting that the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery is hosting this exhibition since the museum itself opened its doors to the public on October 7, 1968. “The occasion provided an opportunity for citizens to recognize how far the nation had come and to rededicate itself to a sense of unity, despite growing social unrest in the aftermath of the brutal assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy,” said the museum’s director, Kim Sajet. “It was a reminder for people to reunite amidst deep uncertainty.”
The one-room exhibition consists of 30 objects including photographs paintings, prints, drawings, and magazine covers. Curator James Barber explained that in putting together the exhibition, the museum tried to use as much of its collection as possible. “What you are seeing is 50 years of collecting,” he said. In 1978, the Portrait Gallery was gifted 2,000 portraits that once graced the cover of Time magazine. Included in the show are David Levine’s drawing “Johnson as Lear,” that depicts the beleaguered president as the tragic king, and Roy Lichtenstein’s “Gun in America,” that takes aim at the rising threat of gun violence.
Beginning with the museum’s collection, Barber said the focus was on the newsmakers of 1968. Robert Kennedy is shown sharing bread with Cesar Chavez as the activist breaks his 25-day fast intended to bring attention to the plight of farm workers. A photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr. is juxtaposed with a aerial shot of Resurrection City, a tent city that housed 3,000 people for six weeks on the Washington Mall. Barber described those protests as “peaceful resistance,” compared to the more aggressive stance by Stokley Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, shown in one photo, and Bobby Seale, the founder of the Black Panthers, in another.
The year also saw the Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France, where figure skater Peggy Fleming brought home the only U.S. gold medal. She graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. The 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City produced perhaps the most famous photo to come out of those games, Gold Medalist Tommie Smith and Bronze Medalist John Carlos raising their black-gloved fists on the podium after the 200 meter race.
Several videos depict game-changing events from 1968. CBS’s anchor Walter Cronkite delivers a searing editorial about the Vietnam War being unwinnable. (Barber said that Johnson remarked that if he had lost Cronkite, he had lost the country.) Robert Kennedy is seen delivering his California Democratic Primary victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles to a jubilant crowd, only to be gunned down minutes later.
In conjunction with the exhibition, the museum, in partnership with the DC Public Library, is sponsoring a book club. At 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, July 17, the group will discuss Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and at 5:30 p.m. on Tueday, August 21, George Pelecanos’ Hard Revolution. For more information, click here.
One Year: 1968, An American Odyssey
Through May 19, 2019
National Portrait Gallery
Eighth and G Streets, NW
Top photo: Curator James Barber during the press briefing.
Johnson as Lear
By David Levine
Ink and graphite pencil on paper
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution,
gift of Time magazine
by Hector Garrido
Watercolor, pencil tempera Masonite
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution;
Gun in America
by Roy Lichtenstein
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution;
gift of Time Magazine
Estate of Roy Lichtenstein
Tommie Smith and John Carlos
Gelatin silver print
Image/Sheet: 21.6 × 17.4 cm (8 1/2 × 6 7/8″)
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; acquired through the generosity of David C. Ward