Woog's World: Today reminds me of 1968

As Westporters watched the horrors of an insurrection unfold in Washington, D.C. last week, those of a certain age were reminded of an earlier time: 1968.

That year - more than half a century ago - was similar to 2020, and the first days of ‘21. Then, as now, a nonstop drumbeat of things-you-could-once-never-imagine headlines assaulted America. Then, as now, Westport was an affluent suburb, an oasis apart from whatever was happening in cities and towns elsewhere. But then, as now, Westport could not escape the clouds of chaos that scudded across the sky, then rained down on us just like everywhere else.

Tensions had been building for years. Civil rights protests, President Kennedy’s assassination and the escalating war in Vietnam roiled an increasingly young and restive nation. Westport - more progressive and artsy than our suburban neighbors, but still a Republican town filled with corporate commuters - reacted to the winds of change.

At the end of 1967, Saturday anti-war protests drew crowds to town hall (now the Don Memo and Walrus Alley restaurants). Staples Players - the award-winning drama troupe - produced an original work, “War and Pieces,” with a chilling but ultimately optimistic message about war and peace. It gained international renown, after its selection for a U.S. cultural exchange program. But pro-war students ripped down posters, and director Craig Matheson received a threatening phone call. Still, no one had any idea what lay ahead.

On March 31, Phil Ochs performed in Westport. The topical singer and social activist was partway through his set when he was handed a note. He announced the news: President Johnson would not run for re-election. The audience erupted in joy.

Four days later, Martin Luther King was killed in Memphis. The civil rights leader was no stranger to Westport. In 1964 he spoke at Temple Israel. He knew Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein; they’d been arrested together in Florida, during desegregation protests. King’s topic was “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” In subsequent years, he visited here for fundraisers, and to plan strategy with friends in town.

The day before his shocking murder, Staples played host to 50 students in a Yale program for minority youth. They engaged in earnest discussions about the differences between Westport and their hometowns. The local high schoolers were energized to help.

The day after King was shot, 600 students packed the Staples courtyard for a silent vigil. Vice principal Fermino Spencer spoke movingly about his own experiences as a Black man. It was a dramatic moment. No one knew what lay ahead for the country, but student Jim Sadler said, “I’m really frightened. Something is going to happen.”

Many Westporters tried to make something positive happen. A coalition of leaders from here, Norwalk and Bridgeport began planning an intercommunity summer day camp. Over 100 students, and many teachers, signed up to work with 120 children from those towns. There would be swimming, gymnastics, dance, sports, field trips, overnight camping, creative writing, photography and more.

Yet as rumors grew that this was the first step toward bringing out-of-town youngsters to Westport - and sending students from here to Bridgeport - opposition grew. It was a prelude to several years of bitter debates, culminating in an unsuccessful recall petition against Board of Education Chair Joan Schine.

In May, Vice Principal Spencer resigned. Students were chagrined. Inklings writer Steve Foley called him “the only man in the Westport schools who has made any effort to try to get rid of the problems of racism and apathy.”

The next month brought more brutal news. Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles, moments after winning the California primary. As his funeral train inched toward Washington, with millions of mourners lining the tracks, Westporters wondered if our nation could survive.

Those doubts became much more real in August. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago turned into a police riot. “The whole world is watching,” demonstrators chanted as they were beaten and teargassed; as Dan Rather was roughed up while trying to interview a delegate, and while Mayor Richard Daley yelled “f---ing Jew” as Connecticut Governor Abraham Ribicoff denounced the Chicago police from the rostrum.

Less than three months later, Richard Nixon was elected President of the United States.

His administration ended in disgrace. He escaped impeachment - barely. But he also never tweeted. He had no Fox News to pump him up - and no MSNBC to bash him - 24 hours a day.

History never offers exact parallels. Although 1968 - with its rat-a-tat, nearly incomprehensible news bulletins - seems similar to 2020-21, they are two different times.

Which raises this crucial question: We made it through those days. Will we say the same 52 years from now?

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.