1968 was a hell of a year across America. Texas was no exception.
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WHEN HENRY KEITH STERZING ARRIVED FOR WORK at John Foster Dulles High School in Sugar Land on the morning of February 28, 1968, he was informed that he had been relieved of his duties. School board members and the district superintendent were seemingly unhappy that during the previous semester, in response to a question from a student about the marriage of U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s daughter to a black man, the popular young social studies teacher had said that he saw nothing wrong with interracial marriage.
It was the beginning of one of the most tumultuous years in modern history, and as Sterzing and everyone else would discover, we were all in for a hell of a ride. Assassinations, riots, burning cities, a revolution: In 1968 we expected the extraordinary, and nearly every day we got it. From France to Czechoslovakia to Texas, those who gripped the reins of power could feel the radiating ripples of change and were desperately trying to hang on—although, ironically, the Texan in the White House was trying to figure out how best to let go. “He was thinking, ‘If I’m not going to run, what can I get out of it that’s worthwhile to the country,’” recalls George Christian, who was Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary at the time. “He thought that maybe he could jolt Ho Chi Minh into doing something about peace talks.”
That spring, a 28-year-old philosophy professor at the University of Texas at Austin was administering his own jolt. “Either you change everything or you change nothing,” Larry Caroline told a peace rally on the steps of the Capitol. “The whole bloody thing has to go.” Although Caroline—the faculty sponsor of UT’s chapter of Students for a Democratic Society—later insisted that he wasn’t advocating violence, his remarks incensed Frank Erwin, Jr., the powerful chair of the board of regents. “I’m absolutely outraged that any teaching employee of the university would do such a thing,” Erwin told the Houston Post, “and I’m going to do something about it.” He didn’t have to: Caroline’s colleagues voted to remove him from his job after a year.
The powers that be were skittish elsewhere too. In Brownwood, officials of Howard Payne College announced they would not allow “hippies” to enroll. “Nor,” they added, “may students use drugs, alcohol, or participate in any movement that would directly or indirectly embarrass the president or the Congress of the United States.”
Early in 1968 John Connally, who was tired of being governor, declined to seek a fourth term, so a real political campaign began to heat up. The GOP chose its most viable candidate in years, Wichita Falls oil and gas lawyer Paul Eggers, while Lieutenant Governor Preston Smith, a colorless conservative from Lubbock, defeated nine fellow Democrats. (Among them was Dallas businessman Eugene Locke, whose incessant radio jingle—“Yew-Gene Locke should be guv-uh-ner of Texas / The guv-uh-ner of Texas should be Yew-Gene Locke”—so insinuated itself into our minds that it took Texans years to erase it.) Yet even if Connally was a lame duck in 1968, he was determined to wield his influence over the Texas delegation to the Democratic National Convention. His tool was the unit rule, which required that the votes of the state’s delegates be cast as a single block. Labor liberals were just as determined to thwart him. How determined? A fistfight erupted at the state Democratic convention.
Wichita Falls elected its first black city councilman in 1968, Austin its first black school board member, but in Texas, as elsewhere, racial strife was the norm. On April 4, when Martin Luther King, Jr., was murdered, student leaders at Prairie View A&M University asked school officials to postpone a dance. They refused, provoking a near-riot by four hundred people.
Three months later, Robert Kennedy was murdered, and as the summer wore on, anti-war protesters marched and carried placards. In August one of those protesters, Lee Otis Johnson, a young black field secretary for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, was found guilty of selling a marijuana cigarette to an undercover police officer in Houston. An all-white jury sentenced Johnson to thirty years for the crime. (Appearing in Houston two years later, Governor Preston Smith was met by a crowd chanting “Free Lee Otis!” “What’s all this about beans?” he asked a reporter, thinking he’d heard “frijoles.”)
Also in August Texas Democrats were still squabbling when they headed to Chicago for the national convention. Liberals who supported Eugene McCarthy, the peace candidate, organized a protest delegation, hoping to unseat the “Connallycrats.” The convention tossed out the unit rule, but the Texas delegation stayed with Vice President Hubert Humphrey. There was talk of a movement to draft Johnson, and Johnson himself had Connally and his appointments secretary, Marvin Watson, canvass Southern governors. Word came back to stay away. “I think the president was sorely tempted to go to Chicago,” Christian says. “Some of us were concerned that he’d go up there in a helicopter and land in the middle of a riot.”
Thirty-year-old Ben Barnes, who had been chosen three years earlier as the youngest House Speaker in Texas history, had bought a new blue suit at the Reynolds-Penland men’s store in Austin to wear on the first day of the Chicago convention. As he struggled to make his way into the lobby of the Hilton Hotel through a crowd of yelling, milling “yippies,” someone reached out and grabbed his delegate credentials, tearing off the breast pocket of his jacket.
Barnes says he felt closer to Humphrey than most Texans did. “I loved Hubert,” he says. “I just think how the course of history might have been changed if Hubert had been elected.” His own history too: Barnes says he could have seen himself in a Cabinet position in a Humphrey administration. What position? “I could have been president—I mean, secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, maybe Energy.”
Barnes went on to be elected lieutenant governor in 1968; he is now an Austin lobbyist. And what of the other players from 1968? Christian is an Austin political consultant. Smith, who was elected governor that year, is back in Lubbock; at age 86, he is a fundraiser for Texas Tech University. Lee Otis Johnson appealed his sentence and got out of prison after four years; he is rumored to be living in Houston.
Sugar Land teacher Henry Keith Sterzing also appealed and won: The State Board of Education ruled that he shouldn’t have been fired—as did the courts. After working for the federal government and living all over the world, he and his wife now live in Austin, where he is again teaching social studies.
Larry Caroline left Austin in 1970, moved to Buffalo, New York, with his wife and never taught philosophy again. “I was frozen out of the field,” he says. Unemployed for three years, he became a follower of the Lubavitcher movement of Judaism and later ran a day school in Philadelphia. He is now a fundraising consultant.
Connally died in 1993 at age 76. Frank Erwin died in 1980. And as for Johnson? The Texan in the White House in 1968 died of a massive heart attack on January 22, 1973, two days after his second full term would have ended.