1968: The Year America Almost Tore Itself Apart

Published November 29, 2016
Updated January 22, 2019

From the assassinations of MLK and RFK to antiwar and civil rights protests nationwide, these 1968 photos reveal a nation at war with itself.

1968 Photos Chicago
The year's political, social, and economic climate made it such that things very easily could — and very often did — turn violent.

Pictured: In one of the year's most devastating and infamous melees, police and demonstrators clash on Chicago's Michigan Avenue on August 28 during the Democratic National Convention.
Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images

Troops Fire
Indeed, as protests and riots ruled the day, many of America's greatest cities instead resembled war zones.

Pictured: Troops survey the flaming terrain on Washington, D.C.'s Seventh Street on April 6, amid the rioting caused by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4.
Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images

My Tho
Fittingly, one of the biggest factors in making the U.S. of 1968 look like a war zone was the actual war zone in which the country's troops fought in Vietnam. The country's deeply divided stance on the war helped further drive a wedge into a country already in danger of tearing itself apart.

Pictured: An American soldier looks on as a Viet Cong base burns in My Tho on April 5.

In fact, one of the most devastating incidents that helped reveal the war's brutality occurred not long after 1968 began.

On February 1, South Vietnamese General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executed Viet Cong Captain Nguyễn Văn Lém in Saigon. American photographer Eddie Adams' now iconic photo of the event helped the American people see exactly what their country was involved in, and thus helped turn the tide of public opinion against the war.
Eddie Adams/World Wide Photos via Wikimedia

Adam Clayton Powell
It wasn't just U.S. involvement in Vietnam that brought tensions to the breaking point. Chief among the country's domestic concerns was race relations, as the African-American population was growing ever more angry at the myriad injustices they faced day in and day out.

Pictured: African-American former Congressman Adam Clayton Powell delivers a speech in Harlem on March 23, vowing to seek reelection and promising that "the non violent days are over."
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I Am A Man
Six days later, on March 29 in Memphis, U.S. National Guard troops faced off with Civil Rights marchers wearing placards reading, "I AM A MAN."

This was the third march in as many days. Martin Luther King Jr. had been there on the first day to participate.
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Mlk Last Speech
Soon after, on April 3 at the Mason Temple in Memphis, King delivered his now famous "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech to 2,000 people.

This would be the last speech he would ever give.
Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images

King Assassination
The following day, April 4, King was assassinated by James Early Ray at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

Pictured: Civil rights leader Andrew Young (left) and others standing on the balcony of Lorraine Motel point in the direction of the then unknown assailant just after the bullet struck King, who is lying at their feet.
Joseph Louw/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

After King's death, in at least 100 cities across the nation, the rioting began almost immediately.

Pictured: On April 6, an unidentified man uses an axe to break into a store during the West Side Riots in Chicago. The riots caused widespread property damage (estimated at more than 10 million dollars), left thousands homeless and hundreds injured, and resulted in the deaths of 11 people.
Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images

Injured Man On Ground
On April 9, a man lays on the ground near two policemen during the riots in Baltimore. Those riots saw six deaths, 5,400 arrests, and $12 million-worth of property damage.Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images

Guard Street Litter
On April 7, a Pennsylvania National Guardsman patrols a street littered with wreckage from an afternoon of rioting in Pittsburgh.Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images

Soldier In Street
Out of all the cities brought to the brink of disaster, none took as hard a hit as the nation's capital. The rioting in Washington, D.C. began the very same day that King was killed and lasted for four days.

Pictured: On April 8, a soldier stands guard on the corner of 7th & N Street NW amid the ruins of buildings that were destroyed during the riots.
Warren K. Leffler/Library of Congress

Capitol Smoke Rising
By the end of the D.C. riots, 12 lay dead with another 1,000 injured. In addition, throughout the two weeks surrounding the riots, local authorities responded to more than 1,000 separate fires.

Pictured: Smoke from the mass fires rises behind the Capitol on April 8.
Marion S. Trikosko/Library of Congress

Dc Damage
Largely due to the fires, as well as widespread looting, more than 1,000 buildings incurred damage with an estimated total cost of about $13 million. Some areas of the city lay at least partially vacant and dilapidated well into the 1990s.Warren K. Leffler/Library of Congress

King Assassination Radio
On April 8, women at the Abe Schrader clothing shop in New York pause during work to listen to the funeral service for Martin Luther King Jr. on a portable radio.Kheel Center/Cornell University/Wikimedia Commons

On April 9, King's widow, Coretta Scott King (fifth from right), leads the memorial "March on Memphis" along with her children and other civil rights leaders.AFP/AFP/Getty Images

1968 Civil Rights Bill
On April 11, one week after King's death, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1968, which largely provided for fair housing regardless of race and granted a number of basic rights to Native Americans.

However, for many angry Americans reeling from King's death, this act was too little too late.
Warren K. Leffler/Library of Congress

Tet Bazooka
While matters of civil rights wreaked havoc on the homeland in the first half of 1968, U.S. involvement in Vietnam grew more contentious and more deadly.

In various waves throughout the year, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces launched decisive strikes, collectively known as the Tet Offensive, against the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces.

Pictured: Viet Cong soldiers in action in the Cuu Long Delta of South Vietnam during the Tet Offensive.
AFP/Getty Images

Soldiers In Vietnam
The Tet Offensive, the largest campaign launched by either side to that point, devastated U.S. and South Vietnamese forces, allowing the North to strike more than 100 towns and cities, including 36 of 44 provincial capitals.

Moreover, while the Northern forces were eventually beaten back, the Tet Offensive marked a turning point in U.S. public opinion against the war, as many now saw that the North was a formidable opponent, and not one that would be beaten with ease, as the U.S. had largely beed led to believe.

Pictured: Wounded soldiers in Hue City in early 1968.

My Lai Massacre
Further helping to turn American public opinion against the war was the Mỹ Lai Massacre.

On March 16, approximately 100 American soldiers stormed the Sơn Mỹ village (which included the Mỹ Lai hamlet) and slaughtered somewhere between approximately 350 and 500 civilians, including men, women, children, and infants. An untold number of further victims were raped, injured, and mutilated as soldiers razed the village, burning much of it to the ground.
Ronald Haeberle/Wikimedia Commons

My Lai Fire
Some of the men involved claimed that they had been told that everyone in the village was either an enemy Viet Cong operative or at least a Viet Cong sympathizer. Others claimed that they massacred everyone out of fear that even women and children would often booby-trap themselves with mines and grenades.

Nevertheless, it was perhaps the ugliest massacre in U.S. military history, and despite the military's cover-up attempts, reports finally surfaced the following year and helped change many American minds about the war in Vietnam.
Ronald Haeberle/Wikimedia Commons

Draft Card Burners
While events like the Mỹ Lai Massacre turned many Americans against the war — especially eligible-to-serve young men, many of whom burned their draft cards in protest — the country remained bitterly divided on the matter throughout 1968.

Pictured: Demonstrators from both sides stand on the sidelines of an anti-Vietnam War march in New York on April 27.
Harvey L. Silver/Corbis via Getty Images

Columbia Protest
Between April 23 and 30, New York's Columbia University, one of many campuses to endure rioting in 1968, descended into civil war over issues related to both the Vietnam War and civil rights.

For eight days, two different protest groups — one rebelling against Columbia's plans for a segregated gym and its encroachment into Harlem, the other against Columbia's recently revealed connections to a Department of Defense-affiliated weapons think tank — battled with both student counter-protestors and the police, who eventually moved in with tear gas to put an end to this round of demonstrations.
Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images

Robert Kennedy Wounded
As protests of all stripes and the killing of Martin Luther King Jr. brought America to its knees, the country lost another of its most inspiring leaders on June 5 with the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

In the midst of a presidential campaign that promised greater racial equality and deescalation in Vietnam, Kennedy was shot by Sirhan Sirhan — a Jordanian man who disagreed with Kennedy's backing of Israeli actions in Palestine — at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

Pictured: Clutching his rosary beads, Kennedy lies wounded on the floor of the Ambassador Hotel, just after being shot.
Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images

Crowd Around Washington Monument
In the months surrounding Kennedy's death, thousands of demonstrators descended upon Washington, D.C. as part of the Poor People's Campaign, a mass protest organized by Martin Luther King Jr. before his death, in response to the government's neglectful and harsh treatment of the impoverished across the country.

For six weeks in May and June, demonstrators rallied marched, and even set up a 3,000-person tent settlement for poor people on the Washington Mall, naming it Resurrection City.

Capitol Protest
On May 29, D.C. police tussle with a demonstrator of the Poor Peoples Campaign during a protest at The Supreme Court.Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

March Mall
By late June, police and National Guardsmen pushed the demonstrators out of Resurrection City and the protestors' demands went all but ignored.ARNOLD SACHS/AFP/Getty Images

Man Dragged Away
Following the Poor People's Campaign, the political establishment faced even more intense protest from the disenfranchised later that summer during both of the major parties' conventions ahead of the presidential election.

First came the Republican National Convention, held in Miami between August 5 and 8, which drew protests related issues of both race and the Vietnam War.
Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images

Angry Protest
Three weeks later came the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, which saw even more intense protests that descended into full-blown riots.

Between August 22 and 30, more than ten thousand protestors — largely those opposed to the Vietnam War and many from the anti-establishment Youth International Party — flocked to the city and often clashed with the police and National Guard.
Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images

Head Wound
On August 28, Chicago police confront an anti-war demonstrator injured in the scuffle. The demonstrators were preparing for a forbidden march on the Democratic National Convention when one protestor climbed a flag pole and attempted to lower the U.S. flag. As police pulled him down and began beating him, disorder erupted.Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images

Lined Up
Thus August 28 became the most violent and infamous night of the protests as demonstrators clashed with police in Grant Park (pictured) and on the abutting street right in front of the hotel housing many of the convention's key personnel.Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images

Riot Vehicle
After the violence on the night of the 28th subsided, the protests and accompanying police presence continued throughout the convention's duration.

Pictured: On August 30, National Guardsmen stand on their riot jeep, specially built with barbed wire frames, across the street from the convention headquarters.
Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images

Democrat Convention Boo
Inside the convention, things weren't as physically violent, but were every bit as contentious. The party lay bitterly divided over many issues, especially the Vietnam War and the subsequent treatment of antiwar protestors.

Pictured: On August 28, Illinois delegates react to a speech from Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff in which he criticized the violent tactics of the Chicago police against the antiwar protesters just outside.
Warren K. Leffler/Library of Congress

Draft Card
A National Guardsman looks on as two antiwar demonstrators burn a draft card in the encampment of the Youth International Party across the street from the convention headquarters./NY Daily News via Getty Images

Huey Newton
On September 5 in Oakland, civil rights activist and Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton waits in his jail cell while a jury decides his fate on charges of murdering one Oakland police officer and wounding another the preceding fall.

Newton was convicted, however subsequent retrials ended in hung juries and the authorities eventually dismissed the case. While Newton's guilt or innocence in the shootings remains a matter of contentious debate, his Black Panther movement would go on to have a large impact on civil rights in the U.S. in the ensuing years.
Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images

Miss America Protest
On September 7, demonstrators from the National Women's Liberation Movement picket the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

More than 400 protestors railed against the pageant on charges of promoting consumerism (in reference to the pageant's sponsors), racism (the only finalists ever selected had been white), and misogyny. While none of these protestors actually burned their bras, an erroneous report in the New York Post claimed that they did and hence the often dismissive stereotype of the bra-burning feminist was born.
Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images

Nixon Campaign
On September 21, with the volatile conventions in the rearview mirror and Richard Nixon the Republican nominee for president, he campaigns in Paoli, Pennsylvania. In November, Nixon would go on to win the general election and become America's 37th president.Ollie Atkins/National Archives and Records Administration/Library of Congress

Olympic Salute
In Mexico City on October 17, in one of the most remembered moments in both Olympic history and civil rights history, American Olympians Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos (right) raise their gloved fists in the Black Power salute to express their opposition to racism back home during the U.S. national anthem, after receiving their medals for first and third place, respectively, in the men's 200m race.-/AFP/Getty Images

In a year already subject to violence and strife along political and social lines, 1968 could not avoid horrific accidents, either.

On November 20, the Consol No. 9 mine in Farmington, West Virginia exploded in one of the worst disasters of its kind in U.S. history. Ultimately, 78 miners perished and, in response, Congress soon passed new legislation strengthening health and safety standards for such workers.
Wikimedia Commons

Trash Pile
Environmental disaster of another kind and severity altogether had struck New York City earlier in the year when the city's sanitation workers went on strike during a contract dispute. In a scene emblematic of the kind of year that the U.S. was having, trash piled up in the streets of the country's largest city as protests raged among frustrated sanitation workers and angry civilians alike.

Pictured: On February 12, sanitation worker Lorenzo De Francesco attempts to manage a mountain of garbage, which had accumulated during the strike, at a local disposal plant.
Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images

Bloody Protest
As 1968 drew to a close, violent protest fittingly ruled the day once more, chiefly at a protracted and intense conflict at San Francisco State College starting in November. Several student groups rose up in order to call for wider ethnic representation in both courses offered and faculty hired. When police were called in, the clashes sometimes grew violent, including one on December 3 (pictured).Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images

Protected By Police
On December 7, a San Francisco State student wears a satirical eye patch reading, "I was protected by the police" in response to the police violence on the campus.Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Mocking Police
On November 1, a San Francisco State protestor, arm raised in a mock Nazi salute, follows a San Francisco police tactical squad on campus.Garth Eliassen/Getty Images

A police officer restrains a demonstrator on the San Francisco State campus on December 3.

Ultimately, the college addressed some of the protestors' concerns and instituted an ethnic studies program, a move that was soon carried out by hundreds of other schools across the country as well.

Of all 1968's many protests and clashes, here was one of the ones that did effect change in a way that helped forge the United States we know today.
Underwood Archives/Getty Images

On Christmas Eve of 1968, Americans saw the first photos of Earth ever taken from deep space by humans, courtesy of the astronauts aboard Apollo 8. Gazing at the seemingly peaceful blue marble from more than 200,000 miles away, one of the crew members remarked, "It looks like one planet from here."

Yet, around the world -- from riots in Paris to uprisings in Prague to civil war in Nigeria -- Earth was anything but. And perhaps nowhere was this more apparent than in the United States, which indeed could only have looked like one harmonious nation from the deepest reaches of space.

Throughout this decisive year, the issues that had been bubbling up in the U.S. since the decade began (or even earlier) -- civil rights, the Vietnam War, women's rights, aid for the poor -- seemed to boil over all at once. From January to December across the country, demonstrations turned into protests that turned into riots that stopped not too far short of becoming civil war.

Some of the worst of those riots, for example, erupted in April following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Then, just two months later, with the nation still reeling, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated as well. That's the kind of year that 1968 was.

From those two assassinations to the war in Vietnam to the riots that made America look like a war zone itself, the 1968 photos above reveal a nation divided against itself like never before -- and, 2016's historically contentious presidential election notwithstanding, perhaps not since.

Next, check out 50 iconic photos that encapsulate the 1960s. Then, have a look at 44 spellbinding images that capture the upheaval of Paris in the 1960s.

John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society of history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.