1968/2008: Reflections on Social Movements in an Age of Permanent War

  • Nikhil Pal Singh


1968 represents a crossroads of sorts, whose alternative political trajectories continue to influence the present in often confusing and contradictory ways. We have an increasingly exhaustive historical narrative detailing the long Black freedom struggle against white supremacist monopolizations of power and resources in the era before the Montgomery bus boycott. From the heroic mobilizations of Reconstruction-era Black politics in the face of white terror, through two great migrations, the mobilizations of Black labor, a new Black urbanism, and forms of worldly engagement in an era of global wars and decolonization struggles, the Black freedom movement simultaneously carried and deepened a demand for racial democracy. It is ironic, however, that even as aspects of this past become clarified, the more immediate history and political meaning of this long struggle have grown murky. I am specifically thinking about the foreclosure of Black freedom imperatives in the United States, particularly in the late 1960s and early 1970s, for which the year 1968 retains an iconic significance. Here the story often bifurcates, becoming a tale either of teleological fulfillment and narrative closure, or of violent fragmentation and ragged endings. These different trajectories lead us in turn to starkly different eventualities: the election of Barack Obama and the symbolic validation of the promise of Black politics, or the increasingly global US war-prison complex, where the tattered ends of our social contract once again meet the unforgiving cut of racialized governance. In this context, the searching question asked by Martin Luther King in his fateful final year—“Where Do We Go from Here?”—remains as relevant as ever.