Boomers Witnessed The 1968 Democratic Convention

The Republicans have finished their nominating convention, and it is the Democrats turn this week. That has prompted Mister Boomer to recall that there were many memorable political conventions from both parties during the boomer era, from Eisenhower to Kennedy, Johnson to Nixon and on to Carter. Yet none was more memorable — and infamous — than the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, Illinois, which took place from August 26 to 29.

The time leading up to the convention set the stage for conflict in all its forms. There was a Democratic president — Lyndon Johnson — who declined to run for re-election based on public protest of the Vietnam war; the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam proved the war was far from over, and the response was additional troops were committed; the country had experienced two years of race riots in major cities; and Dr. Martin Luther King and Senator Robert Kennedy, both proponents of the Peace and Civil Rights Movements, had been assassinated.

In March of 1968, representatives from more than 100 anti-war groups met in Illinois in an effort to coordinate protests during the convention. Their objectives were varied, but the common thread was “change” and especially, an end to the hostilities in Vietnam.

Chicago’s mayor, Richard Daley, was an influential leader of the Democratic Party. Together with President Lyndon Johnson, they effectively lobbied to keep the convention in Chicago when some party members suggested to moving it to Miami. Daley was known to run a “tight ship” when it came to control of his city, and his police force already had a reputation for strong-arm tactics before the delegates and protestors arrived.

Daley had the convention hall ringed with a fence topped with barbed wire, which afforded delegates only one way in and out. Protests were to be kept away from the arena area and any requests for permits to march near the hall were denied. A force, numbering more than a  thousand, composed of police, National Guard, army and Secret Service would be called upon to defend the hall space and “keep the peace.” To top it off, there was a taxi cab driver strike underway, and a heat wave caused sporadic outages of air conditioning inside the hall.

As protests grew in size and rancor outside, inside the hall there were protests among the delegates themselves. First, when a “peace plank” was proposed for the platform, party leaders postponed discussion for two days until protests inside the hall forced a debate. A representative from each side of the issue was selected to debate for one hour. Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine was chosen to represent the Johnson-Humphrey argument for continued Vietnam intervention, while Representative Phil Burton (CA) spoke on behave of the peace plank, which would, among other things, call for an immediate halt to the bombing of North Vietnam. Party leaders gave the win on all counts to Muskie, so delegates from New York and California began singing We Shall Overcome. Since the convention was televised, this internal protest among Democrats was available for all to see.

Word was that Vice President Hubert Humphrey had already quietly locked in enough party delegates to secure the nomination weeks before the convention. Humphrey did not run in any state primaries. Since Humphrey was perceived as “Johnson’s man,” the Peace Movement delegates were opposed to his nomination.

Senator Eugene McCarthy (WI), a Peace Movement candidate, had won six state primaries, and Senator Robert Kennedy (NY) won four. Bobby Kennedy had just won the primary of the most populous state — California — when he was assassinated. Most of his delegates were picked up by Senator George McGovern (SD), a third peace candidate, but he remained uncompetitive. Behind the scenes, Mayor Daley had kept his controlled delegates uncommitted in the hope of persuading Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy (MA) to run, but Kennedy expressed no interest.

Nonetheless, in 1968, the Parties, and not the voting population, decided who would be the nominee. The Democratic Party chose Hubert Humphrey as their banner bearer. This enraged protestors outside, and violence — which was escalating throughout the week — increased in clashes between police and protestors. On the final day of the convention, Humphrey had chosen Edmund Muskie as his Vice Presidential running mate, while outside the hall it was to be the bloodiest day of an already bloody week as protestors attempted to get closer to the convention hall.

Reports indicated that police were taking off their identification badges when they took to swinging billy clubs at protestors, injuring hundreds in the process. The smell of tear gas entered the hotels of some delegates and members of the press were also attacked. Mayor Daley had let it be known he felt the press was as much a part of the problem as the protestors. Nearly two dozen reporters were seriously injured. Officially more than 500 people were arrested. A report issued by an Illinois businessman after the convention put the majority of blame for the violence on the police. Mayor Daley responded by giving the police a raise.

The most famous of the arrested protesters became known as the Chicago 8. They were the first people tried under the 1968 Civil Rights act, which made it a federal crime to cross state lines to incite a riot. They were Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin (leading members of the Youth International Party [YIPPIES]); David Dellinger (chairman of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam); Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden (members of the Students for a Democratic Society [SDS]); Lee Weiner (a research assistant at Northwestern University); John Froines (a professor at the University at the University of Oregon); and Bobby Seale (a founder of the Black Panthers). The group was tried together. In the courtroom, the defendants were intent on voicing their displeasure at their arrest and treatment. Bobby Seale became so disruptive that the judge had him bound and gagged, and tied to a chair. He then was separated from the others and given his own trial. In the end all were convicted for either contempt of court or crossing state lines to incite a riot.

In November 1968, Humphrey was soundly defeated by Republican Richard Nixon. The voices of unhappy Democrats caused the Party to develop the current system of primaries, and during the 1972 election, added superdelegates. 1968 was to the be the final convention where the Party chose the nominee. Nixon pursued a “peace with honor” strategy in Vietnam but the U.S. finally left when the Viet Cong took Saigon in January of 1975.

In 1968, Mister Boomer was a mid-teen. He was a sheltered Midwesterner who did not understand the complexities of the situation. He saw the violence from Chicago on TV and could not comprehend the whys and wherefores that led to these clashes. Four years later, in 1972, he had registered for the Draft, the Vietnam war was still ongoing, and he saw Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in concert. He had already purchased the album 4 Way Street, and the protest songs on the album, Chicago, about the ’68 convention, and Ohio, about the shooting of unarmed protestors at Kent State University in 1970, struck a chord with Mister B. It was the spark that initiated his political awareness.

What do you recall about the 1968 Democratic Convention, boomers?