1968 had been a terrible year so far. The “Summer of Love” the previous year was long forgotten. Americans were greeted by newspapers and TV broadcasts telling them about the Tet Offensive in Vietnam (January) which elevated the level of brutality a well as increasing Lyndon Johnson’s determination to send more U.S. troops over there. In April, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis and riots broke out across the country. Then in June, Robert Kennedy was shot in the head after winning the California primary. Over 100 American universities had been shut down by protests against the war. Lyndon Johnson’s approval rating dropped to 23%, and he decided not to run for another term. Hubert Humphrey entered the presidential race in April. Many saw him as just “Johnson’s Man.”
If you are under forty years old, you won’t remember what happened in Chicago between August 25th and 29th in 1968. It’s only history. But if you are older, you may recall one of the most divisive events in contemporary American history (in one of the most tumultuous years). During those five days, the forces of the “Establishment” and law and order faced off against the rising anger of the “Anti-war” liberal youth of the country during the Democratic Party National Convention. Violence spilled out onto the streets and parks of Chicago. It was 44 years ago this week.
LEADING UP TO THE CONVENTION
Many Democrats had wanted to move the convention from Chicago to Miami. They were concerned about logistical problems (a continuing telephone strike) and disruptive protests outside. Most of all, they feared Mayor Richard Daley’s hard line when dealing with demonstrators (he had given “shoot to kill” instructions to police during the riots after MLK’s death). The television networks also wanted to move the event to Miami. Daley would have none of it. He pledged to prohibit disorderly protests, and threatened to withdraw Illinois’ delegate votes from Humphrey. There was even a rumor that LBJ had said, “Miami is not an American city.”
In April, during the demonstrations following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Mayor Richard Daley ruled Chicago with an iron fist. His orders were to, “shoot to kill any arsonist and shoot to maim or cripple anyone looting.” Three weeks later, an anti-war march in Chicago drew 8,000 people; and when the march ended, the police waded into the demonstrators with clubs. By late July, both MOBE and the YIP Party applied for permits to camp in Lincoln Park, and to march and rally for peace. All permits were denied.
The day before the convention commenced, 5,000 people had gathered for “The Festival of Life” concert in Lincoln Park. After the program (and now after the curfew time), most of the crowd began to leave the park ahead of a police sweep. A line of police moved into the crowd, pushing it into the street. Many of the attendees including reporters and photographers were clubbed and some arrested.
On this day, Mayor Daley formally opened the convention. He promises the delegates, “As long as I’m Mayor, there’s going to be law and order in Chicago.”
Hubert Humphrey arrived in Chicago with the nomination effectively sewn up, having a 100 to 200 vote margin in his favor. He had the support of Southern Democrats, African Americans, and organized labor. Johnson had seen to it that delegates from those states loyal to Humphrey were assigned to the best seats in the convention hall.
That evening about 2,000 people had gathered in the park and built a makeshift barricade against the police line. A police car that moved forward and knocked down the barricade is battered with rocks. The police move in with tear gas. The violence is worse than the previous night. Even some residents were pulled off their porches and clubbed. More reporters are attacked on this night than at any other time.
Outside on the streets were authors Norman Mailer, Terry Southern, and Allen Ginsberg; entertainers Dick Gregory, Mary Travers, Phil Ochs, and Peter Yarrow; and Rev. Ralph Abernathy. Also outside was the film crew of director Haskell Wexler who was filming the demonstrations to be used in scenes for his motion picture “Medium Cool.” His story takes place in Chicago in 1968, and uses real actors and a fictional script combined with actual documentary film as background. It features confrontations between the police and demonstrators. This 1969 film presents an eerie but fascinating merging of art and politics.
That same evening, a group of 200 clergy carrying a 12’ tall cross are joined by 2,000 demonstrators on the edge of Lincoln Park. As soon as the curfew time arrives, tear gas and club swinging police clear the park.
Inside the convention the most contentious issue by far was Vietnam. A debate was planned on the minority proposal to include a “peace plank” in the party’s platform of stated beliefs. The convention managers (largely controlled by Richard Daley) scheduled the debate for late in the evening on Tuesday, after prime time TV coverage was shut down. But the pro-peace delegates had staged a noisy protest that forced the debate to be rescheduled to this afternoon. The Humphrey/Johnson position on Vietnam was approved anyway. A huge and angry delegate demonstration followed. The New York and California delegations sang “We Shall Overcome” and they were joined by other states marching around the convention floor. Convention controllers tried to hide the rebellious delegations (those favoring the peace initiative) in the back of the hall and turned off their microphones.
While trying to get to a Georgia delegate for an interview, correspondent Dan Rather was forcefully grabbed by security guards and roughed up. CBS anchor Walter Cronkite directed his attention, and the TV cameras, toward Rather who had his microphone headset on. You could hear him say, “Don’t push me; take your hands off me unless you plan to arrest me.” The guards continued their assault and punched Rather in front of a national audience. Rather continued, “This is the kind of thing that has been going on outside the hall, this is the first time we’ve had it happen inside the hall.” Cronkite replied, “I think we’ve got a bunch of thugs here.” Newsmen Mike Wallace of CBS and John Chancellor and Edwin Newman of NBC were also roughed up by the guards. Over the following two days, fifteen other newsmen were attacked by either the police or convention security guards.
Humphrey’s name was put into nomination as was Sen. George McGovern’s. McGovern was being nominated in a speech by Sen. Abraham Ribicoff, who stopped in mid-address to tell the delegates what was going on outside the convention hall. He said, “With George McGovern as President, we wouldn’t have these Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago.” Daley, sitting just in front of the podium, exploded in anger. He shook his fist furiously at Ribicff and shouted using the most vitriol profanity imaginable. Some observers said that threats were made.
About 6,000 people break off from the crowd and move toward the Amphitheatre were the delegates are in session. The police refuse to allow them to pass. The bridges across the river are sealed off by the National Guard armed with machine guns and grenade launchers. Finally, the demonstrators find a single bridge across the river that has not been closed, and cross. Thousands of people surge onto Michigan Avenue. James Rochford, the Police Superintendent, orders his officers to clear the streets.
Humphrey won the nomination of his party. Today the convention featured an orchestrated pro-Daley demonstration inside the hall. Hundreds of “We Love You Daley” signs were carried around the convention hall. This left a sour taste in the mouths of many delegates; just as the image of Chicago had turned bitter in their minds.
The morning after the convention ended, at 5:00 A.M., police raid the rooms occupied by supporters of peace candidate Eugene McCarthy. The police say that objects were allegedly thrown from their hotel rooms. Originally a small incident, it escalates and McCarthy campaign workers are beaten.
The riot by the numbers:
27,900 Troops (11,900 police, 15,000 National Guard/U.S. Army, 1,000 Secret Service)
12,000 Demonstrators (but this was likely closer to 15,000)
1,192 Injured (192 Police: 49 hospitalized; 1000+ Demonstrators: 111 hospitalized)17 Members of the media were attacked by the police.
668 Arrested (all Demonstrators)
1 Known death (a Demonstrator)
(During that same week, 308 Americans were killed and 1,144 were wounded in Vietnam)
Seven months later, a Chicago Grand Jury indicted the seven principal organizers of the demonstrations, “The Chicago Seven.” They were charged with crossing state lines to incite a riot. Their trial began in September 1969. Five of them, plus their two attorneys (for contempt of court), were convicted. Wiener and Froines, were acquitted. All those convicted were sentenced to five years in prison. In 1972, the Circuit Court of Appeals reversed all convictions.
Haynes Johnson, a reporter covering the convention for the Washington Post, wrote,” The 1968 Chicago convention became a lacerating event, a distillation of a year of heartbreak, assassinations, riots, and a breakdown in law and order that made it seem as if the country were coming apart. In its psychic impact, and its long term political consequences, it eclipsed any other such convention in American history, destroying faith in politicians, in the political system, in the country, and in its institutions. No one who was there, or watched it on television, could escape the memory of what took place before their eyes.”