This month marks fifty years since the contentious 1968 Democratic National Convention. This convention made headline news for more than the usual reasons. While there was still a bit of suspense about who would emerge as the party’s presidential candidate, unlike today, the bigger story was what was happening outside the International Amphitheater where the convention was held: the protests and riots that likely helped to tip a close election in Republican Richard Nixon’s favor. The atmosphere during the four-day event spanning from August 26-29 was expected to be tense, given the surrounding circumstances: Vietnam, incumbent Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to run, Martin Luther King’s assassination, the death of candidate Robert F. Kennedy in June, the general sense of unsettledness that had characterized 1968 thus far. And yet, what happened in Chicago provided an unexpected and dramatic climax to the 1960s as they are often typecast.
For many American cities, the opportunity to host one of the two quadrennial political conventions is a chance to show off, but the experience in Chicago instead exposed all that was wrong with the Windy City in 1968. Rather than preparing merely for an influx of politicians in local airports, hotels, and restaurants, Mayor Richard Daley essentially created a combat zone to keep the swarms of expected protesters from the delegates. With rumors spreading that the protestors would put LSD in the water supply, Daley’s administration denied all permit requests for sleeping in the city’s public parks, called in the police and national guard, and encased the conventional hall in barbed wire.
More than 10,000 protesters came despite these measures and warnings to stay away. An open letter from the National Mobilization Committee to end the war in Vietnam called on its supporters to flood the city, setting the stage for a showdown. “Although our plans are for nonviolent actions and we have made clear for months that we do not desire to obstruct the convention or to interfere with the movement of delegates into or out of the convention, Mayor Daley and the Democratic Party have turned Chicago into an armed camp of national guardsmen, airborne troops on standby, barbed wire, tanks, mace, and every conceivable weapon of intimidation and repression.”
Those watching the nightly primetime coverage for the politics were treated to live footage showing Chicago police and Illinois guardsmen bludgeoning and beating back protesters. Cameramen from the three major networks captured the worst of the confrontations, including Daley himself sparring verbally with demonstrators. Millions of Americans witnessed clashes that resembled the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia and brutal crushing of the Prague Spring just days earlier. It was “an atmosphere of hatred,” as Washington Post reporter Mary McGrory termed it. It was a scene without precedent at an American political event. By the week’s end, more than 600 protesters were arrested while more than 200 protesters and police required medical attention for their injuries.
It was far from convention business as usual inside the International Amphitheater either. The party was bitterly divided over Vietnam. Though they refrained from physical violence, the delegates argued loudly and at length over the idea of an antiwar platform and the nomination of Vice President Hubert Humphrey despite the fact that Humphrey had not run in any of the party primaries. These arguments also appeared live on television, though understandably they were overshadowed by events on the streets, like the famed Battle of Michigan Avenue between police and protesters on August 28. The convention closed with Humphrey as the first-ballot candidate and the defeat of the antiwar platform; the protests ended but the bitter legacy continued to build.
For millions of Americans who had watched the proceedings live or read the disturbing accounts in one of the many newspapers covering the event, the 1968 Democratic Convention was a powerful reminder that all was not well on a national scale. This was not just another student protest at Berkeley or Columbia University. These protests, met by national guardsmen with tear gas and orders to shoot if necessary, were yet another reminder of the seeming disfunction of American society. It was after the DNC riots and myriad other clashes between authority figures and protesters that the average Americans, the silent majority, as Nixon memorably termed them two years later, began to register their fatigue with or perhaps disapproval of such demonstrations. For in November, Nixon won a slim majority and slowly these events waned in frequency and scale, giving way to a more tranquil but less inspiring political atmosphere of the 1970s.
Yet, as bad as things seemed in 1968, it is important to remember too that these riots did end and the violence and radicalism that many feared had become permanent features of American society receded into memory. It was not quick nor was it clean, but the United States did finally extract itself from Vietnam. Though never fully healed, these old wounds did scab over enough for the party to elect Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton and Barack Obama since. Throughout the Ronald Reagan administration, Democrats continued to push their agenda, even when conservatism in economics and social policy was the ruling order. Though there were fears of violence surrounding the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, the pre-convention comparisons to Chicago proved wrong. Maybe this can be taken as a sign that the country did learn something from 1968. And so even now when the political news is often dark and depressing, maybe that like the aftermath of the riots and the contention of 1968, brighter days may still be ahead.
Haynes Johnson, “1968 Democratic Convention: The Bosses Strike Back.” Smithsonian Magazine(August 2008).
Letter, National Mobilization Committee to end the war in Vietnam to Terry Kock, August 1968. Students for a Democratic Society Records, 1956-1969. Series 1: Students for a Democratic Society Material, Series 1, Box 1, Folder 1: Unclassified letters, Dec. 1966 – Aug. 1968.
Mary McGrory, “Police, protesters clash in an atmosphere of hatred,” The Washington Post, 27 August 1968, A6.
Caitlin Gibson, “What happened in Chicago in 1968, and why is everyone talking about it now?” The Washington Post, 18 July 2016.