OTD in History… August 23–29 1968 violent protests rage outside the Democratic National Convention as Hubert Humphrey nominated
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history August 23–29, 1968, anti-Vietnam War demonstrators descend upon Chicago, Illinois to protest the Democratic National Convention (DNC) and Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who the Democrats nominate and delivers his acceptance speech on the last night of the convention. Thousands of protesters clashed with National Guardsmen and Chicago Police under Mayor Richard Daley’s orders, even “innocent bystanders” felt the fury. At the convention, in the International Amphitheater, the national guards beat up journalists and delegates. The scenes of violence shown on television epitomized the dire situation the country faced with its involvement in the Vietnam War and the lack of law and order. Despite, the protests Humphrey still secured the nomination, in what is the “most violent” presidential nominating convention in U.S. history. Journalist Joel Achenbach writing in the Washington Post called the 1968 DNC, “Easily the most disastrous political convention of the last century.”
In the fall of 1967, Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy entered the race to challenge President Lyndon Johnson for the nomination. McCarthy was a critic of the Vietnam War, he garnered support from the liberal doves and the youth, who volunteered to campaign for him, they were called the “Children’s Crusade.” McCarthy came close to winning the New Hampshire primary against Johnson in an upset. New York Senator Robert Kennedy entered the Presidential race four days after the New Hampshire primary in opposition to Vietnam and Johnson, but in “in harmony with McCarthy.” On March 31, 1968, Lyndon Johnson announced at the end of a televised address that he was not seeking re-nomination, saying, “I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of’ my party for another term.”
Afterward, Vice President Humphrey decided to enter the race for the nomination, emphasizing “the politics of joy”, he was too late to enter the primaries and he gathered delegate support from “behind the scenes” where Johnson helped Humphrey garner the delegates for the nomination. Eugene McCarthy won the crucial Oregon primary, while Robert Kennedy won the Indiana, Nebraska primaries, and decisive California primary in June before he was assassinated after the primary results. McCarthy lost interest in the nomination after Kennedy’s assassination, while most of his supporters backed South Dakota Senator George McGovern.
At the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Democrats were almost as divided between the doves and hawks inside the convention as the protesters and police were outside. The Democratic convention sharply contrasted with the relatively placid event Republicans held earlier in the month, where they nominated former Vice President Richard Nixon for president and his running mate Spiro T. Agnew. At the Democratic convention, there were fights over delegate credentials, and “procedure and platform votes” resulting in walkouts. Political reporter and author Jules Witcover recalled, “The whole convention was shrouded in gloom.”
There was a debate over the nomination process, especially the “unit rule” where the majority of the delegates determined the entire vote of a delegation; McCarthy supporters wanted this century-old rule abolished since it denied minorities a voice; Humphrey had supported the concept, motion approved to abolish it. Democrats allowed a few Southern delegations whose credentials were questioned to be seated including voting rights activist and civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer Mississippi and Democratic loyalist group.
Kennedy supporters wanted to draft his brother, Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, who did not want to be drafted so soon after his brother’s death. The party leaders supported Hubert Humphrey’s nomination, and he won the nomination on the first ballot as did his choice for the Vice Presidential nomination Senator Edmund Muskie. The fight over the platform was the most contentious. McCarthy and the doves wanted an “unconditional halt” on the bombings in Vietnam and then negotiate a withdrawal of troops. While the hawks under Humphrey supported Johnson’s plan for Paris peace talks, no unilateral troop withdrawal, and bombing halts that would only be done if it is safe for the troops and based on Hanoi’s actions. Humphrey’s plank won out and the doves protested with black armbands and singing civil rights songs.
The actions outside the convention affected it as much inside. The protesters were mostly youth against the Vietnam War; some were pacifists, anti-interventionists, Yippies, hippies, black militants, while some were radicals who supported the North Vietnamese government. Mayor Daley vowed to stop the protesters and enlisted the entire Chicago police force of 12,000 to fight them; they worked 12-hour shifts, while over 5,000 Illinois National Guard was put on alert, as were Army soldiers. Early on, the police prevented the protests from gathering in parks and near the convention center.
The protesters first arrived on August 23, where Yippies nominated a pig named Pigasus for president at Chicago’s Civic Center, resulting in seven arrests. On August 24, as delegates arrived, the protesters did drills in Lincoln Park, while Day imposed a curfew. On August 25, the Yippies held their Festival of Life in Lincoln Park, with 2,000 in attendance; they are forced to leave at the imposed curfew. The convention opened on August 26, as protests continued on multiple fronts including South Loop, Grant Park, and Lincoln Park, where the Yippies continue their The Festival of Life. Police unleashed tear gas on the protesters at Lincoln Park after they refused to abide by the curfew. On August 27, the protests continue with peaceful ones in Grant Park and violence in Lincoln Park. The violence spills over in the convention where police “rough up” journalists including CBS News’ Dan Rather and Mike Wallace on live television.
The protests and confrontations with the police were minor until the night the delegates gathered to nominate Humphrey. Bloody Wednesday protests outside the convention hall developed in a confrontation with police, and violence erupted. About 10,000 protesters gathered at Grant Park, where protesters were granted a permit to gather. Anti-war leaders including Jerry Rubin, co-founder of the Youth International Party, or Yippies, and Black Panther leader Bobby Seale delivered speeches. The confrontation started when a protester lowered the flag at Grant Park, as the police beat him, the anti-war protesters attacked the police in retaliation, with “rocks, fragments of concrete, and bags of urine.” When protesters replaced the American flag with a red cloth representing the Viet Cong, the violence started as police beat up protesters.
On another front, the protesters wanted to march towards the convention hall on Michigan Avenue but were stopped by National Guardsmen wielding machine guns. Police made a “human barricade” to keep the protesters from marching. Nothing stops the protesters, as the Police and National Guard beat the protesters and reporters trying to cover the events. The Battle of Michigan Avenue resulted in hundreds of injuries and arrests. Historian Paul F. Boller in his book Presidential Campaigns: From George Washington to George W. Bush recounts the violent clashes that went beyond just the protesters. Boller writes, “The police suddenly charged into the crowd with billy clubs, tear gas and Mace, and savagely attacked hippies, yippies, radicals, anti-war Democrats, reporters, photographers, and passers-by alike.” (Boller, 323)
In the convention center, the delegates and party members were able to view the violence on television screens, as did the nation, 89 million viewers through television coverage as the protesters chanted, “The whole world is watching!” Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff was heckled throughout his speech after condemning the Chicago police’s actions against the protesters, where Ribicoff decried, “Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago!” A Wisconsin delegate went as far and suggested the convention be postponed, saying, “Thousands of young people are being beaten on the streets of Chicago! I move this convention be adjourned for two weeks and moved to another city.” The convention continued and after midnight on August 29, Humphrey secured the Democratic presidential nomination.
On August 29, Humphrey accepted the nomination as the violent protests raged outside with police using tear gas on the protesters as they attempted to march towards the International Amphitheater. The violence again spilled over into the convention. After an emotional video tribute to Robert F. Kennedy where Kennedy supporting delegates sang “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Humphrey delegates booed and “Fights broke out.” Throughout the convention, Daley sat front and center, while his city burned in the backdrop, an investigation later faulted Daley for the violence that ensued.
Historian David Farber in his book Chicago ’68 called the eruption at the DNC, not just a protest of “violence, intolerance, and excess.” Farber indicates, “Chicago ’68 marked a crisis in the nation’s political and cultural order.” Farber explains, “The struggle between protesters and protectors of the social order at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago framed the breakdown of both social order and political discourse in the 1960s. At Chicago ’68, many of the main performers of the 1960s played out their violently different understandings of political process, daily life, and what it meant to be an American. At Chicago, the rage and the hope, the certainty and the fear, the willfulness and the self-righteousness of both protesters and protectors of the social order were put on display.” (Farber, xiii) While the Vietnam War remained the key campaign issue, law and order gained importance among the so-called silent majority, the voting bloc, who ushered Nixon into the presidency as he promised to bring back law and order to a country that was clearly out of control.
SOURCES AND READ MORE
Boller, Paul F. Presidential Campaigns: From George Washington to George W. Bush. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Farber, David R. Chicago ’68. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.