Let's Learn From the Past -- 1968: The Year that rocked America

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The year 1968 represented a watershed in American history -- a turning point for the nation and its people.

From assassinations and conflicts, pop culture and free love, civil rights and women's rights, Americans questioned traditional values and authority that sent shock waves across the country, including here in Western Pennsylvania.

The year began with the Tet Offensive, the deadliest period of the increasingly divisive and unpopular Vietnam War.

Just as baby boomers came of age and started to question their parents' values, international turmoil -- including Prague spring, Paris riots and student demonstrations in Mexico City -- helped to fuel domestic unrest that polarized the nation.

The Beatles released the "White Album" in 1968, "Electric Ladyland" rose to the No. 1 album for Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison became icons for a generation, while Pittsburghers rocked to Tommy James and the Shondells' "Mony Mony" and "Crimson and Clover."

By the late 1960s, more and more Americans owned color televisions. "Star Trek" beamed viewers to different universes, and hit shows such as "Laugh-In" and the nationally syndicated Pittsburgh-produced "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" provided diversions as Walter Cronkite described the horrors of war during the evening news.

Moviegoers rushed to see Dustin Hoffman in "The Graduate" as the locally made "Night of the Living Dead" terrified viewers during its debut at the Fulton Theater in Downtown Pittsburgh.

Assassins felled Martin Luther King Jr. and presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy, and the civil rights movement took a violent turn. Race riots set cities, including Pittsburgh, ablaze. Protests at the Miss America competition fueled the women's movement, and TV viewers saw riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

By President Richard M. Nixon's election in the fall of 1968, the generation gap widened as the counterculture movement expanded.

The year ended with hope for the future, as the Apollo 8 capsule beamed back images of "Earthrise" from the far side of the moon for the first time. Pittsburghers gathered around their television sets to hear astronauts reading from the Book of Genesis. This moment helped to briefly calm the chaos that rocked the nation during the previous 12 months.

The Heinz History Center's newest exhibition, "1968: The Year That Rocked America," explores this decade-defining year using evocative objects, state-of-the-art multimedia displays and more than 100 artifacts related to 1968's seminal moments. The exhibit opens Saturday with a special public event featuring Mr. McFeely from "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and other special guests. Information: www.heinzhistorycenter.org.

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