The South Loop Historical Society
at East-West University
819 S. Wabash Ave. 8th Floor
Chicago, IL 60605
A Virtual History Museum
1968 Democratic National Convention (August 26-29, 1968)
The nationally televised spectacle of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago changed American politics for the ensuing four decades. On August 28, 1968, violence erupted in front of the Chicago Hilton Hotel at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Balbo Street. For 17 continuous minutes, the nation watched in horror as Chicago police cracked down on demonstrators with billy clubs and tear gas. The chaos leading up to the convention-- culminating in a full-fledged riot on national television-- has affected American politics ever since.
The Democratic National Committee announced on October 8, 1967 that the party’s 1968 convention would be held in Chicago. Ironically, the announcement came on the 96th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire. In the months between the announcement and the convention, America was stunned by a series of tragic events and upheavals that divided the country and set nerves on edge.
On January 30, 1968, North Vietnamese forces launched the Tet Offensive, a surprise attack on a major Vietnamese holiday that pushed American troops back to the South Vietnamese capital and nearly took control of the American embassy in Saigon. The American and South Vietnamese forces eventually repelled the attack and won the battle on paper, but the incursion deep into South Vietnamese territory shook the confidence of the American public and provided a powerful argument to anti-war activists.
Nineteen-sixty-eight was the year that American forces reached their peak in Vietnam. The United States had 542,000 troops in South Vietnam shortly after the Tet Offensive-roughly half of one percent of the entire American male population, and more than the entire population of several U.S. states.
After nearly losing the New Hampshire primary on March 12, and after Sen. Robert F. Kennedy announced his primary challenge against President Johnson on March 16, Johnson surprised nearly everyone on March 31 by announcing, "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President."
Just five days later, on April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, sparking riots in many American cities, including Chicago. Mayor Richard J. Daley ordered the police and National Guard to shoot looters and arsonists on sight during riots on Chicago West Side-- nine African-Americans were killed, and 20 blocks were burned.
Two months later, on June 5, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles after his victory speech in the California primary. He died the next day from his wounds.
Amid what seemed like the total unraveling of American society in the first six months of 1968, and with the Democratic Party divided between pro and anti-war forces, elements of each side of the rift dug in their heels. Anti-war activists ranging from pacifist priests to radical anarchist activists made plans to demonstrate in Chicago, while Mayor Daley and the conservative wing of the party exerted their power in response.
The activists, the vast majority of whom were law-biding citizens seeking to make their voices heard in a confusing and turbulent time, attempted to participate in peaceful protests-but nearly all of their petitions to hold orderly demonstrations were denied. Meanwhile, radical groups like the Yippies, led by Abbie Hoffman, were making wild and outlandish threats of chaos in Chicago during the convention.
Mayor Daley, still reeling from the West Side riots following the Dr. King assassination, vowed that there would be law and order in Chicago during the convention. The weekend before the event, the mayor arranged for training sessions for police and the National Guard to combat against wild rhetoric and demonstration tactics of groups like the Yippies. Six thousand National Guardsmen were mobilized and trained in anti-riot techniques. Some of these training sessions and the milder skirmishes between police and demonstrators can be seen in Haskell Wexler’s 1969 film, “Medium Cool.”
Thousands of demonstrators converged on Chicago on the weekend before the convention and attempted to set up camp in Lincoln Park. Police attempts to disperse the demonstrators at the 11 p.m. closing of the park led to skirmishes and tear gas firings. During daytime hours in the first two days of the convention, there were ad hoc demonstrations against the war and in favor of anti-war candidate Sen. Eugene McCarthy.
By the afternoon of Tuesday, August 27, when the Yippies held an “Unbirthday Party” for Lyndon Johnson at the Chicago Coliseum, emotions on both sides had become raw. Two thousand demonstrators marched from the Coliseum at 1513 S. Wabash to Grant Park. On the way, they climbed the hill of the Logan Statue at 9th and Michigan, and covered the brass statue of the Civil War hero and former Illinois senator. The police charged the hill to disperse the long-haired demonstrators, some of whom were carrying North Vietnamese flags. The demonstrators were eventually pushed back across the Balbo bridge into Grant Park.
Above: Video from the film "Chicago 10" of demonstrators mounting the Logan Statue at 9th and Michigan on August 27, 1968.
Inside the convention center, the tension and frustration out on the streets of Chicago was also evident. CBS correspondent Dan Rather was roughed up by security personnel in street clothes on national television with Walter Cronkite expressing disgust at the “strong-arm tactics” on display on the convention floor.
Above: Video of security personnel escorting a delegate out the door at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, with Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather providing commentary.
Above: Video of Dan Rather getting roughed up at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, with Walter Cronkite comments.
The following day, Wednesday, August 28, 1968, a concert and rally at the old band shell on the south end of Grant Park was the site of another tense scene. After hearing that a plank supporting peace in South Vietnam was voted down at the convention at the International Amphitheater, a demonstrator lowered the American flag and replaced it with a bloody shirt. This prompted the police to charge into the crowd swinging billy clubs. Dozens of protesters and bystanders were injured. This set the scene for the most widely-filmed riot in American history.
Protesters in Grant Park attempted to cross over the bridge across the Illinois Central railroad tracks at Balbo and Congress, but found the bridges blocked by National Guardsmen with .30 caliber machine guns. However, two blocks north of Congress, the Jackson Boulevard bridge was unguarded, and thousands of protesters spilled over from the park onto Michigan Avenue and headed down to the Hilton. The surge of protestors was halted by police and the National Guard at Michigan and Balbo, where a tense impasse developed.
When the thousands of blocked-off protestors had reached critical mass, Deputy Police Superintendent James Rochford ordered the police to clear the streets. Demonstrators and bystanders were clubbed, beaten, sprayed with mace, and shoved into patty wagons on national televison for 17 continuous minutes. Several demonstrators, bystanders, and media members were pushed through the large plate-glass windows of the Hilton from the Michigan Avenue sidewalk. When some of the demonstrators fought back, and the attack became more violent, all of it was delivered into the living rooms of a horrified live audience on all three television networks.
Meanwhile, at the convention center, Senator Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut was nominating anti-war candidate George McGovern and denouncing the "Gestapo tactics on the streets of Chicago." Mayor Daley shouted back forcefully at Ribicoff on camera, but thankfully off microphone. Later in the evening, Vice President Hubert Humphrey won the party's nomination for President on the first ballot.
When it was over, the statistics didn’t accurately convey the extent of the chaos during the four days of the convention. Officially, 668 protestors were arrested and hospitals reported treating 111 demonstrators. The Medical Committee for Human Rights estimated that their medics treated over 1,000 demonstrators at the scene. The Chicago Police Department reported that 192 officers were injured, with 49 officers seeking hospital treatment for their injuries.
The disorder and violence at the Democratic Convention of 1968 prompted Republican Richard Nixon to re-orient his campaign to emphasize law and order. He appealed to what he would later call “The Silent Majority” to take America in a new direction. Nixon actively courted the conservative Democrats of the South and used the candidacy of segregationist George Wallace to split the Democratic coalition and form a new political coalition that won seven of the next 10 Presidential elections.
Eight protestors-- Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner, and Bobby Seale-- were indicted by the grand jury on March 20, 1969 to be tried for conspiracy and other charges. During the trial, Bobby Seale was bound and gagged in court for hurling epithets at the Judge Julius Hoffman. He was eventually severed from the case and sentenced to four years in prison for contempt-- an extraordinarily harsh sentence for contempt. On February 18, 1970, all seven remaining defendants were found not guilty of conspiracy, Froines and Weiner were acquitted completely, and the remaining five were convicted of crossing state lines with the intent to incite a riot. Two days later they were each sentenced to five years in prison and fined $5,000.
The United States Court of Appeals reversed all of the guity verdicts on November 21, 1972, on the grounds of bias by the judge and insufficient jury screening. The Justice Department elected not to retry the case.
Sources: Chicago Tribune, New York Times, JoFreeman.com, Wikipedia, YouTube
Photos University of San Diego Department of History,
Click here for a gallery of 35 photos from the Chicago Tribune.