When Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, and a Presidential Election Converged on Notre Dame

In One Week in America, Patrick Parr guides readers through several earth-shattering events and their impact on the 1968 Notre Dame Literary Festival.

One Week in America: The 1968 Notre Dame Literary Festival and a Changing Nation
Patrick Parr
Chicago Review Press
March 2021

1968 was a turbulent year in the United States. The Cold War and the nuclear arms race were ever-present, the hard battle of civil rights activists against racism continued, and opposition to the war in Vietnam reached far and wide. 

In One Week in America, historical writer Patrick Parr examines what may be the most turbulent week of that turbulent year, coinciding with the University of Notre Dame literary festival. The inherently political – or deliberately politicized – elements of the festival were intensified by concurrent national events, in particular the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the subsequent rioting, looting, and killing that engulfed many urban locales, and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s (LBJ) announcement that he would not seek re-election. Parr brings forth the events and the on-the-spot reactions of attendees and guests at the festival, such as Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut addressing an audience shortly after learning of King’s assassination.

If there is a protagonist in One Week in America, it is 19-year-old student John Mroz, chairman of the newly-established (in 1967) festival. His approach is summed up on the first page of the prologue: “Let’s think big…Which writers would you like to see on campus?” Mroz is determined to attract the biggest living literary names in the country to the Indiana campus.

I found myself rooting for Mroz, hoping he could overcome the difficulties posed by his initial budget of under $3(US). With a combination of phone calls, letters, and the gumption to go knocking on writers’ doors, the committee successfully attracted the names Mroz they aspired for: Ralph Ellison, Norman Mailer, Wright Morris, Granville Hicks, and the aforementioned Vonnegut and Heller. They subsequently gain appearances from notorious conservative William F. Buckley Jr., Senator Robert F. Kennedy (RFK), and Senator Eugene McCarthy. (And they got a decent budget to work with.) 

Once Mroz received word that LBJ was not seeking a second term, he was pleased the political debate aspect of the festival would be enhanced, highlighted by the fact that McCarthy and RFK were both aiming for the presidency. ThatMroz e also openly received Buckley’s attendance shows that he was impressively committed to enabling heterodoxy and free speech in his desire. As Parr puts it:

Mroz respects Buckley but isn’t much of a fan. Still, he appreciates the fact that a variety of perspectives will now be represented. The more the merrier. 

In that same spirit, during October following the festival, Mroz arranged an on-campus debate between psychologists Timothy Leary and Sidney Cohen to talk about LSD. Leary’s advocacy of LSD and Cohen’s opposition to it enabled listeners to come to their own conclusions:

Mroz knew that in order to compete with the colossal giant of Notre Dame football in the fall, he needed to provide events that had the potency to generate a spike of attention. At the same time, he hoped to give students a chance to hear both sides of an issue escalating in popularity.

In other words, we can neither agree with nor oppose an argument unless we comprehend what the argument actually is, which inherently requires free speech, of which Mroz’s entire approach is an object lesson. Good for him.

Antiwar sentiment was a front-and-center topic at the festival, personified by Heller’s participation (Catch-22) and Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse-Five). For many students at Notre Dame (or any US university), perhaps the issue foremost on their minds was the US war in Vietnam and its reliance upon the draft. As long as male students were enrolled full-time, they had a draft deferment. With the corollary, any perceived infraction of campus rules had a potentially devastating consequence: suddenly losing the deferment.

One may assume many students were against the war on principle, not just out of self-preservation. (Indeed, during the festival, a group of 50 Notre Dame students protested against Dow Chemical, manufacturer of napalm, which was used to horrific effect in Vietnam.) But it’s complicated. Parr notes the audience’s subdued response to Kennedy’s statement that he would immediately end draft deferments if he became president. Kennedy asserted that the poor carry the heaviest draft burden (i.e., men who can’t afford to go to college) and that a fifth of America’s casualties were Black.

From an egalitarian perspective (a hallmark of liberalism), it’s hard to argue with this: if there is a draft, why should only men from higher-income backgrounds be spared? Perhaps at that moment, many young men were struggling with cognitive dissonance, though presumably, they would prefer a platform for ending the draft. (In an interesting contrast, RFK criticized US actions in Vietnam while he supported the draft; Buckley took the opposite view, saying that America was “not bellicose enough” in Vietnam, but he is “against any form of the draft.”) 

Parr includes considerable information on King’s activities in previous years leading up to his assassination. The shocked reaction to news of King’s murder is accompanied by descriptions of the subsequent violence that rocked many American cities. We see a panoply of other responses: Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael insisted that “[w]hen white America killed Dr. King last night, she declared war on us…We have to retaliate…”; King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, maintained her composure on several levels as she addressed a press conference; Chicago mayor Richard Daley pleaded on the phone for help with the riots from LBJ; and LBJ’s angst at how he should respond to the situation. As Ellison’s scheduled speech on “Life and Literature” approaches, he was uncomfortable with (but resigned to) being expected, as a Black intellectual, to “deliver some kind of profound insight” on the murder of King.   

The heavy history is balanced with a bit of levity in depicting the festival guests: Vonnegut and Ellison had martinis in a bar with a Notre Dame graduate student; Heller cut off the pedantic questioning of a stuffy English professor; and Mailer’s obvious addiction to adulation and praise. Heller and Vonnegut developed a lifelong friendship from their encounter at the festival.

One Week in America is an engaging, multidimensional snapshot of US society in 1968. It’s certainly a useful resource if you wish to research the civil rights movement, antiwar activism, and the literary scene in America in the ’60s. It’s also fascinating to the general reader interested in modern history, presented from many angles. 

RATING 8 / 10