The 1968 Democratic National Convention convened in Chicago, Illinois, at the International Amphitheater on August 26, 1968. Unbeknownst to many people was the fact that this convention would be an important turning point in the nation’s cultural and political history.
There was some hint that trouble was expected, which is why the insider Democrats wanted to move the convention to Miami, claiming that not only was an ongoing phone worker strike in Chicago portending trouble, but there was a very real chance of “unruly protests,” they argued. TV networks also wanted to go to Miami, where the Republican Convention was scheduled, because the phone lines and television cables were already there and that live coverage would be attainable, which may not have been the case had the phone strike in Chicago interfered with transmission. But Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, unwilling to lose the opportunity to host such an event, promised the world to the organizers of the convention. He promised that he would not allow any outrageous demonstrations and that he would move heaven and earth to keep the event peaceful.
1968 was a year of political turbulence and civil unrest, and saw riots in more than 100 cities in the United States following the April 4 murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and many younger Democrats had had their hopes dashed when Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in June of that year. And the Vietnam War had started to be a hige division in the United States.
What would become the main problem was the fact that young peace activists had met on March 23 to plan a protest march at the convention, and leaders of other, similar peace organizations had also planned events. Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, of the Youth International Party (Yippies) had planned a youth festival hoping to attract 100,000 young adults, and anti-war activists who had supported Senator Bobby Kennedy (New York), Senator Gene McCarthy (Wisconsin), and Senator George McGovern (South Dakota) were also amassing at the convention.
Mayor Daley, however, had different plans entirely. He thought this would be the perfect time to showcase his city to the national and international news media. He repeatedly told reporters, “No thousands will come to our city and take over our streets, or city, our convention.” He also used political pressure: threatening to withdraw his important support for Hubert H. Humphrey if the convention were moved from Illinois to Florida.
So, with those two opposing factions converging on the convention, disaster unfolded.
To be exact, the violence had begun on Sunday when anti-war leaders attempted to get permits from the city to sleep in nearby Lincoln Park and then demonstrate outside the Amphitheater. They were denied those permits but that did not stop their plans. They remained in the park, and that evening, they were bombed with tear gas, after which the police moved in with billy clubs, attempting to remove them from the park.
This scene was repeated every night through the end of the convention.
During the violence, at least seventeen journalists were injured by police attacks, including Mike Wallace and Dan Rather as well as Newsweek’s reporter at the time, Hal Bruno. Numerous innocent bystanders and even medical personnel who were offering help were badly beaten by police, and all on national television, live.
Given that the convention went on for days, we will leave out large portions of it and skip straight to the problem. The problem was that there was a debate at the convention about whether or not to include “peace plank” in the Democrat Party platform.
Now, again I tell you that the Vietnam War was without a doubt THE biggest issue of 1968, and the country was still bitterly divided over it. That being the case, all attention was on that plank.
The debate was scheduled for late Tuesday night, but there was a protest at the scheduled time, so it was rescheduled for Wednesday afternoon. Only one hour was allotted for each side, the reasoning apparently being that this would prevent hostile exchanges between the factions. In the end, the Lyndon Johnson side, via Humphrey, who was the surrogate, won the debate, meaning that the peace plank would not be included in the platform.
At that point, the California and New York delegations began singing the civil rights movement anthem “We Shall Overcome,” while other delegations marched around the floor of the convention as a protest.
Because of the live television coverage, it was impossible to hide from the public at home what was happening, so all eyes, across the United States, were on this spectacle.
To make matters more public, ongoing rioting had broken out outside of the Amphitheater in what would later be called “the Battle of Michigan Avenue.” Protesters, trying to march to the Amphitheater, had been stopped by the authorities and pushed back to the area to which Daley had assigned them.
A huge contingent of enforcement, including 11,900 Chicago police, 7,500 Secret Service agents, and 7,500 US Army troops clashed with the protestors outside over the span of five days.
As the police dragged demonstrators to paddy wagons, frequently hitting them with billy clubs as the cameras rolled, the crowd began to chant a phrase from a Bob Dylan song which has been used ever since in protests.
For seventeen minutes, with the full glare of the television lights on the protesters, the audience at home heard the chant “The whole world is watching.”
Although numbers of demonstrators are estimated, it seems that there were approximately 10,000 of them.
By the end of the convention, there had been 589 arrests, 100 protesters and 119 policemen were injured.
In the spring of 1969, a grand jury in Chicago indicted eight police officers and eight civilians -- who became known as the "Chicago 8" -- for the violence. The Chicago 8 were charged with a federal crime from the 1968 Civil Rights Act, which had to do with crossing state lines in order to incite a riot.
That is another lengthy story, and perhaps we can take a look at that trial in March.