The 1968 Democratic Convention

As another American Election comes about, Sam Keane takes a look at one of the most turbulent in the Democratic Party’s history.

As we approach the end of Donald Trump’s first presidential term, one may be forgiven for labelling the past four years as some of the most divisive in American political history. However, this is not the first time the United States grappled with explosive politics. The events that unfolded in and around the Chicago International Amphitheatre in August 1968 laid bare to the world deep societal divisions, the likes of which had never been seen before. These violent days would radically change the entire political and social landscape of the United States.

The months leading up to the infamous 1968 Democratic Convention were turbulent. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King had been assassinated earlier that year bringing race relations in the United States to a new low. Radical groups such as the Black Panthers and Young Lords began pursuing more militant tactics, espousing revolutionary rhetoric in their quest for civil rights and self-determination. The United States was also entering its thirteenth year in Vietnam, a conflict that was rapidly losing public support and resulting in hundreds of American casualties a week. Many Americans were convinced that their country was locked into an unwinnable and ultimately futile endeavour. Anti-war protest groups such as the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE) and the more radical Youth International Party (Yippies) were becoming more organised by the day, holding massive rallies and engaging in acts of civil disobedience. With President Lyndon B. Johnson’s first term in office coming to an end, the 1968 Democratic Convention was the perfect stage for an inevitable showdown between Johnson and America’s war-weary citizens. 

The Democratic Party was mired in crisis in the lead up to the convention. President Johnson, despite being swept to power with a huge majority back in 1964, was loathed by many of his former supporters for his escalation of the Vietnam war and faced a formidable challenge in attaining the Democratic nomination. In November 1967, a relatively unknown Minnesota senator, Eugene McCarthy announced his intention to challenge Johnson, running on an anti-war platform, and performed remarkably well in the New Hampshire primary. Robert F Kennedy, a fiercely popular politician among minorities and liberals and brother to the assassinated JFK, rescinded his support for the president and entered the race himself a couple of days later. President Johnson saw the writing on the wall and, on the 31st of March, made a televised address to the American people, informing them that he would not seek re-election. He threw his support behind his Vice President, Hubert Humphrey. The race was tragically interrupted by the assassination of Robert Kennedy following his victory in the California primary. This cleared the way for Humphrey to win the nomination but also left the Democratic party in turmoil just weeks before their national convention in Chicago.

About a week before the convention, despite being refused a permit by Chicago mayor Richard Daley, thousands of protestors set up camp in Lincoln Park, ten miles from the International Amphitheatre. As Democratic Party delegates began arriving, the city seemed to be entering a state of siege. The Illinois National Guard were deployed to protect delegate’s hotels and the convention Amphitheatre was turned into a virtual fortress. Mayor Richard Daly had no intention of letting protestors interrupt the proceedings and opted for severe preventative measures. Around 11pm on Sunday, the 25th of August, approximately two thousand police officers donned riot gear, helmets and gas masks and surrounded Lincoln Park, firing tear gas into the crowd. Panic spread throughout the protest camp with many attempting to flee the park only to be confronted and beaten back by police armed with batons. Later, Chicago police defended their actions, by claiming that protestors had resisted arrest and disobeyed a curfew.

On Monday, the 6th of August, the 1968 Democratic National Convention officially opened at the International Amphitheatre. News cameras alternated between broadcasting scenes inside the convention and the massive protests occurring outside. The convention quickly devolved into a battle between anti-war supporters and Vice President Humphrey’s supporters. By Tuesday evening, protestors had begun to gather outside the Hilton Hotel, where many of the delegates and candidates were staying. A second anti-war protest in Grant Park was attacked by police after a teenage boy attempted to tear down an American flag. Mayor Daley ordered the police and National Guard to prevent the protestors from reaching the convention and a tense standoff began outside the Hilton Hotel. Police began forcibly clearing the streets using tear gas and baton charges. Families across the nation tuned into the evening news to be met with scenes of bloodied young protestors being brutally beaten by police. Inside the convention, one anti-war delegate referred to the police violence as “Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago” provoking a furious response from Humphrey and Mayor Daley. Later that evening, amid mounting controversy, Hubert Humphrey was selected as the democratic presidential nominee. Despite his nomination, Humphrey had very little reason to celebrate. Any illusion of unity within the Democratic Party was shattered with many anti-war delegates joining protesters in solidarity at a candlelight vigil.

The police brutality which still taints the image of the ‘American Dream’ today was certainly rearing its ugly head in 1968. As reported by the Chicago Study Team in ‘Rights in Conflict’; “unrestrained and indiscriminate police violence on many occasions, particularly at night. That violence was made all the more shocking by the fact that it was often inflicted upon persons who had broken no law, disobeyed no order, made no threat. These included peaceful demonstrators, onlookers, and large numbers of residents who were simply passing through, or happened to live in, the areas where confrontations were occurring”. The protestors of Chicago had hoped that the blatant use of brute force would unite the American public behind them, however shockingly opinion polls at the time showed that many people sided with Mayors response, and believed the controversy over the war in Vietnam was of greater importance.

It was a year of political upheaval and civil unrest, spread over 100 cities through-out the United states. In the end, President Richard Nixon was the victor, and the ferocious response to peaceful demonstrations was swept under the Democratic-mat.