America in 1968: An Overview in 17 Quotes

Few Americans could have expected the year lay ahead of them in 1968. In this tumultuous year, half a century ago, they would see events that would challenge their faith in America’s government and people. Their country would appear to grow more violent and more divided. In spite — or maybe because of — the turmoil, it was also a rich creative period in art, music, and pop culture. 

Here are 17 quotes that reveal the year that was 1968. 


“No one really knows why they are alive until they know what they’d die for.”  

—Martin Luther King Jr., speaking with unwitting prophecy. His own death came on April 4 at the hands of an assassin. 

 Dr. Martin Luther King

“Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”  

—Robert Kennedy, while announcing the death of King to a crowd of supporters on the night of April 4. Two months later, he was also assassinated. 


“I shouted out ‘Who killed Kennedy?’”  

—The original line in the Rolling Stones’ song “Sympathy for the Devil.” When it was recorded just days after Robert Kennedy’s death, Mick Jagger changed the line to ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’ 


“The policeman isn’t there to create disorder; the policeman is there to preserve disorder.” 

—Chicago Mayo Richard J. Daley’s unfortunate slip of the tongue when commenting on his police department’s actions on August 24. On that night, thousands of law officers clashed with thousands of anti-war protestors resulting in a general melee, 200 injuries, and 600 arrests. 


“I covered up the ‘USA’ on my chest with a black t-shirt to reflect the shame I felt that my country was traveling at a snail’s pace toward something that should be obvious to all people of good will.” 

—John Carlos, recalling the moment when he and fellow athlete Tommie Smith raised their fists in a black power salute when the national anthem was played during an Olympic award ceremony. 


“Take a sad song, and make it better.”  

—A verse from the Beatles song, “Hey Jude.” 

 The Beatles

“A meal disguised as a sandwich.”  

—Tagline in a McDonald’s ad introducing America to the Big Mac. 


“Sock it to me.”  

—Richard Nixon, Republican candidate for the presidency, on the TV show, “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In.” The line had become a running gag on the irreverent, unconventional comedy program. Nixon’s five-second video announcement was all the funnier given his reputation for being stuffy and humorless. 


“The destiny of the entire human race depends on what is going on in America today. This is a staggering reality to the rest of the world; they must feel like passengers in a supersonic jetliner who are forced to watch helplessly while a passel of drunks, hypes, freaks, and madmen fight for the controls and the pilot’s seat.”  

Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver 


“You have made my life a wreck…err, complete”  

—Elvis Presley pretending to get the lyrics to “Love Me Tender” wrong as he sang to his wife, Priscilla. The moment came during a 1968 televised concert that launched a big comeback for the legendary singer. 


“Hello, gorgeous.”  

—Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl 

 Barbra Streisand

“Get your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!”

—Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes 


“Book ’em, Dano.”

—Jack Lord in Hawaii 5-0  


“Open the pod bay doors, HAL.”

—Keir Dullea in 2001: A Space Odyssey 


“You’ve come a long way, baby.”  

—The advertising slogan for Virginia Slims cigarettes, which were marketed to women. The campaign celebrated women’s accomplishments, including winning the right to smoke. 


“We act insane, because if we didn’t, we would most surely become insane.”

—Hawkeye Pierce in MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors by Richard Hooker 


“You’re going to get a concept that maybe this really is one world and why the hell can’t we learn to live together like decent people.” 

—Astronaut Frank Borman’s thoughts on seeing the entire earth from outer space as he and the crew of the Apollo 8 returned from orbiting the moon. 

Earth in space