On July 4th, 1968, the Cleveland Plain Dealer front page carried a notice of that evening’s Festival of Freedom, the annual fireworks extravaganza at Edgewater Park. All would seem normal if one’s eyes simply stayed on that notice, but the headline was about a sniper attack in New York City, where one person was killed and several injured. All in all, it was another piece of bad news in a bad year.
The Tet Offensive opened the year and, for many Americans, destroyed any hope they had for a victory in Vietnam and their faith in the reports of progress that had been presented by the administration and the armed forces. Then on April 4th Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down by an assassin in Memphis, Tennessee. Urban rebellions quickly followed in many American cities. Cleveland, however, was spared the violent aftermath, thanks to the leadership of Mayor Carl Stokes and Black community leaders. The day after Dr. King’s assassination, Democratic presidential contender Robert F. Kennedy gave a scheduled speech at the Cleveland City Club. Its title “On the Mindless Menace of Violence” spoke volumes about the chaos of the era and referenced, obliquely, the events of the night before when Kennedy broke the news of Dr. King’s death to an outdoor audience of African-Americans in Indianapolis. But even while staying on script in Cleveland, Kennedy was powerful, noting that “the slow destruction of a child by hunger and schools without books and homes without heat in winter.” Just a little over two months later, Kennedy was also dead, murdered by an assassin after giving a speech in Los Angeles.
Whatever plans Clevelanders had for July 4th 1968, they were doubtlessly heavily encumbered by the state of the nation. Overall the mood of America was bleak. At the start of summer, a Gallup poll found that 36 percent of Americans felt the country was a “sick society.” Another, earlier poll in that year found that 48 percent felt the war was a mistake and 40 percent believed it wasn’t. By the end of summer, the number had flipped to 53 percent against and 35 percent for participation in what they felt was a justified war. While we don’t know with certainty as to what Clevelander’s attitudes were, they may well have paralleled national opinion.
The July 4th issue of the Plain Dealer – all 136 pages – echoed the bad and the good news of the time. The New York sniper incident was accompanied by calls from the President and others for better gun control, but then Cleveland pitcher Louis Tiant had struck out nineteen the previous day. And the Cleveland Browns were getting ready for a new season, but there were racial tensions on the team. John Wooten had met with coach Blanton Collier to discuss those issues, most notably one directed toward black players at a celebrity golf outing at the Ashland Country Club. The combination of war, violence, and racial conflict is clearly apparent in the newspaper, but often obscured by pages of sales and entertainment advertisements. But then Cleveland was at peace, one could perhaps enjoy the Fourth. But that would last only until July 23, when the Glenville Shootout took place claiming the lives of seven people, including three police. That would be followed by the chaos of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in late August. It was, perhaps, a year and a time unlike any other for those who experienced it.