May 1968: To be free in 1968 means to participate

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This story originally appeared in the May 19 edition of the weekly LINK Reader. To get these stories first, subscribe at linknky.com/subscribe.

Rick Robinson is a local author who is writing a book based on life in Northern Kentucky in 1968 and what we can learn now. LINK will publish excerpts from the book regularly in the LINK Reader, as well as on linknky.com

In May 1968, Kentucky’s Governor, Louie B. Nunn, was the commencement speaker for 312 students graduating from Boone County High School. Nunn’s comments were pointed. He labeled those causing disruption in the streets as “noisy minorities challenging society” and called upon the graduates to: “Stand up and be counted. Grow up to be constructive … build, do not tear down. The strong in spirit and character are those who build. The weak in spirit and character are those who destroy.”

Nunn’s words were more telling than he may have anticipated.  While at the high school, Nunn received word of race riots taking place in Louisville. According to a reporter listening to Nunn as he took the call, the Governor said, “Okay, get ’em what they need … move in armed and do what is necessary to put it down – and right away.”

Baby boomers in high school in 1968 faced a set of circumstances their parents never expected, and today the children of those boomers cannot comprehend. Margo Grubbs and Gary Pranger weren in high school then.

Attorney Grubbs was a sophomore at Boone County High School. With her father an undertaker and the family living above his funeral home, she was used to hearing about and dealing with death. But 1968 was something different.

“We’d watch Walter Cronkite every night for the body count,” she said. “And we trusted the adults to do the right thing. Then two boys we all knew were killed. Our eyes were suddenly opened to the world around us. Enlightenment came as we buried our boys.”

And as many around the country were calling for civil rights for African Americans, Grubbs vividly remembers there was also a struggle for women’s rights in its infancy. Grubbs, a talented athlete, had limited opportunity to play.

“We had to find a teacher to fight for us to just get us practice time in the gym, and our seasons were only a couple of games,” she said.

High school became even more complicated in her senior year when she became pregnant, and her family had to fight for her to remain in school. Grubbs was allowed to participate in commencement only after other students threatened to boycott the event over her exclusion. 

Additionally, Grubbs, who came out about her sexuality in 1973, finds today’s LGBTQ movement interesting. She recalls that the only time alternative lifestyles were addressed in 1968 were when people used a pejorative insult to discuss someone’s non-straight sexuality.

In 1968, Pranger and his family were living on Pike Street in Covington, and he was a freshman at Covington Latin High School. His anguish about the times remains clear in his mind today.

“I had just finished my first year of high school and was well on my way to adulthood just at the time that everything seemed to be going to heck in a hand cart,” he recalled. “And it all troubled me greatly.” 

Pranger recalls that by day he was working hard at school to be successful, but when he went home and watched the news, he felt the entire system was falling apart.

“I felt like the world was coming to an end and I had yet to have the opportunity to participate,” he said. “I was too young to know how to process all of it, but I knew it didn’t bode well for the future.” 

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There was a  laundry list of items eating at his soul. 

Grubbs and Pranger remain passionate about the memories of the year that challenged (and perhaps changed) their youthful innocence. Despite their reservations at the time, the events of 1968 are a foundation for who they became in their separate lives.

In Vietnam, as a result of phase two of the Tet Offensive, May 1968 was the bloodiest on record. This second wave, aimed at Saigon and other urban centers, has come to be known as the May Offensive.  Articles in the Kentucky Post and Times-Star from the month of May certainly reflect the carnage. Many young men from Northern Kentucky were wounded or killed.

Danny Boone, an 18-year-old paratrooper from Ludlow with the 101st Airborne Division, was killed while stationed at an air base at Bien Hoa, just north of Saigon. The December before, he had written a letter to the editor of the Kentucky Post and Times-Star saying he wasn’t gung-ho and didn’t want to be a hero. 

“Actually, I’m like everyone here – pretty scared,” he wrote. “I believe that everyone should have a chance in life. It could mean giving my own life, but at least it would be worth it. At least I’d have died for a reason.”

He concluded his letter by stating, “Perhaps if people understood each other and cared for one another, this world might be a better place to live in.”

Boone was not the only Northern Kentuckian to lose his life during the May Offensive. A family in Boone County learned their son, Arthur “Teddy” Kramer Jr., had been killed in action. Marine Cpl. David A. Jones of Dayton was killed by shrapnel near Quang Tri. Spc. 4th Class Fred Bauerle was killed. All had brothers also serving in combat. 

Of Teddy Kramer, The Kentucky Post and Times-Star said his family could “envision him in the uniform of his country, forever youthful and free from anguish, a martyr and a hero who was called to the service and answered the call with the very last beat of his heart.”

A Marine from Covington, Pvt. 1st Class Phillip Wayne Salter, described in horrific detail how he had been wounded as his unit was attempting to hold a village on the Cua Viet River about 15 miles east of Khe Sanh.

“The NVA had a bunch of grunts pinned under fire and we took a 105 mm mounted gun into help them. We were told there was an NVA company in there, but it turns out there was a whole regiment. We started through a rice paddy, and they opened up on us. A bullet hit our radio and started a fire. We had to get out. I was the last one out. As I jumped, a bullet hit my right leg, knocked me over and I rolled off the tractor. About the time I hit the ground, I got hit twice – in the back and in the hip. I tried to roll around back and was hit in the shoulder. I scrambled through a rice paddy trying to get to cover – some bushes about 75 feet away. About halfway out another one got me in the left arm. It seemed like every time I moved, I got shot. So, I stopped and just lay there pretending to be dead.”

Salter said the two hours he spent waiting to be rescued seemed like a week. Remarkably, he spoke of the incident in a very matter-of-fact manner. “It was just one of those things. Some of my buddies got it worse.”

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During May, a 108-member National Guard Unit from Carrollton (nicknamed the “Old Ironsides Battalion”) that included Carroll County Judge/Executive John Tilley was called up to active duty. On a rainy day, the unit headed to Fort Hood in Texas. No one asked for a hardship deferral, but all worried about their families and the future.

The state representative was quoted as saying, “Outsiders can’t understand what this has done to our community. It would be like your area losing its largest industry and all the families moving out with it.”

Stories of other soldiers going to and returning from Vietnam also filled the newspaper. In May, Congressman Gene Snyder reached out to Marine brass to see if Gary Malapelli (the brother of Northern Kentucky’s first war victim) could serve somewhere other than Vietnam. Because of his brother’s death, Malapelli could have avoided the draft, per service guidelines. Instead, he enlisted and eventually got orders for Vietnam. 

“I believe in our country,” said Malapelli’s mother, “but as a family, I feel we have given one son and should not be asked to give another.”

Campbell County High School graduate Sgt. Hobart Strange learned he had been awarded a Bronze Star for his service. Strange said he did not want to brag about the award.

“I just did the best I could and tried to stay alive,” he said. “Over there, you get shot at so much and so often that if a day goes by without being shot at, it seems funny.”

Marine Pvt. 1st Class Jerry Gilbert of Fort Mitchell was hit in the hip by a round that first went through his wallet. In a letter to his mother, the 18-year-old said, “I’ll have to get a new wallet when I get home. And it better be bullet-proof.”

Mike Mulberry, also from Fort Mitchell, came home from Vietnam but did not want to talk much to a reporter about the fighting, noting instead that he felt much older than 20.

In a news story that garnered editorial comment, Marine Cpl. Randall Browning of Warsaw was awarded the Navy Cross for actions that saved an entire battalion  during a fierce battle near Quang Tri Province. He had been wounded in the battle but returned to “maneuver his vehicle through intense hostile fire and began delivering highly effective machine gun and recoilless rifle fire against the enemy’s successive human wave assaults.”

Browning’s actions were commended on the editorial page of The Kentucky Post and Times-Star: “His furious and highly effective mobile fire against the Reds at Con Thien in 1967 demand the highest praise and admiration from all Americans.”

In other stories dominating the national conversation and news coverage in May 1968,  local ministers planned the so-called “Poor People’s March” in the weeks following the death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The march was to start in Cincinnati and cross the bridge into Covington, where King’s brother A.D. King was scheduled to speak. Residents were asked to assist in providing lodging for the marchers.

The Rev. Edgar Mack of Barnes Temple AME in Elsmere said of the event, “We want to make this the largest outpouring of goodwill and brotherhood ever held in Northern Kentucky.”

On the day of the march, participants were advised not to cross the river. Still, a rally was held at the Ninth Street United Methodist Church to hear the Rev. Jesse Jackson speak. The meeting was heralded as the largest civil rights event ever held in the area.

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Despite the death of King and the supportive marches, news of racial harmony in Northern Kentucky was not forthcoming. The Kentucky State Human Rights Commission held a hearing involving an incident involving an African American sailor home on leave who was denied entrance to the Lamplight Patio in Bromley. The owners of the bar claimed the restaurant was a private club. 

Kentucky also conducted primary elections in May. With no real local races pushing voters to the polls,  turnout in Northern Kentucky was low.

“This was the pattern statewide as a disturbing psychology dampened what little interest had been evident” wrote Kentucky Post and Times-Star reporter John Murphy regarding the 22% statewide turnout. 

Statewide winners Kathrine Peden, a Democrat, and Republican Marlow Cook won Boone, Campbell and Kenton Counties in their respective primaries for U.S. Senate. Neither candidate spent over $50,000e. Democrat Gus Sheehan won the primary to face Republican Gene Snyder for the 4th District Congressional seat in the fall.  

Far more interesting than the primaries was the political news from Frankfort that  Rep. Ken Harper, a Republican, was vacating his seat in the Kentucky House of Representatives to join the Nunn administration as the assistant commissioner of Child Welfare. Harper recalls Nunn’s commitment to children’s issues as being key to Nunn’s term in office. Harper had been the first Republican to hold his legislative seat since 1920, and vacating the position in the middle of his third term left potential candidates salivating for their party’s nod in a special election.

Over and over, the research for this book revealed that many of the issues being dealt with today were already important issues as early as the late 1960s. Three of them in May of 1968 are worth noting. 

For one, the use of firearms by police officers was being scrutinized. The Kentucky Post and Times-Star called upon local law enforcement agencies to better define when police officers could use firearms. The gun policy at the time gave police authority to shoot people they believe may have committed a felony. The newspaper called for change. “Let’s have a set of clear-cut rules stating precisely when a policeman is justified in drawing, in leveling and in firing. Playing it by ear is not compatible with the civilized man’s concept of the value of a human life.”

Also, in what can only be described as “past being prologue” for what is today referred to as critical race theory, another editorial in The Kentucky Post and Times-Star warned the teaching of black history in schools “is particularly susceptible to distortion.” The editorial stated: “Any honest, self-respecting historian recording the progress of the American Negro in this decade will have to take into account the recent report by the House Un-American Activities Committee, which states that Communist-oriented black nationalists are fomenting riots as a prelude to open guerrilla warfare against the United States.”

Finally, in May 1968, student rioters filled the streets of Paris, protesting … well … a bunch of things ranging from the war in Vietnam to allowing male and female students to spend the night in each other’s dorm rooms. Regardless of the reason for the uprising, protesters were able to shut down Paris for weeks. The protests moved to the countryside and threatened the stability of the French government and economy. As this book was being written decades later, fires were burning in the streets of Paris over a government decision to raise the retirement age by a year. If the math is correct, some people likely participated in both riots.

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