The Democratic Convention of 1968 was held August 26-29 in Chicago, Illinois. As delegates flowed into the International Amphitheatre to nominate a Democratic Party presidential candidate, tens of thousands of protesters swarmed the streets to rally against the Vietnam War and the political status quo. By the time Vice President Herbert Humphrey received the presidential nomination, the strife within the Democratic Party was laid bare and the streets of Chicago had seen riots and bloodshed involving protesters, police and bystanders alike, radically changing America’s political and social landscape.
Chaos Precedes the Convention
The months leading up to the infamous 1968 Democratic Convention were turbulent: The brutal assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April had left the country reeling, and although segregation had officially ended, racism and poverty continued to make life difficult for many blacks.
The Vietnam War was in its 13th year and the recent Tet Offensive had proved the conflict was far from over, as the draft sent more young men into the fray. It was only a matter of time before a showdown would take place between the government of President Lyndon B. Johnson and America’s war-weary citizens.
By the time delegates arrived for the convention in Chicago, protests had been set in motion by members of the Youth International Party (yippies) and the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE), whose organizers included Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden.
But Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley had no intention of letting his city or the convention be overrun by protestors. The stage was set for an explosive face-off.
A Divided Democratic Party
The Democratic Party in 1968 was in crisis. President Johnson—despite being elected with a huge majority in 1964—was soon loathed by many of his peers and constituents due to his pro-Vietnam War policies.
In November 1967, a relatively unknown and unremarkable Minnesota senator named Eugene McCarthy announced his intent to challenge Johnson for the Democratic presidential nomination. In March 1968, McCarthy won 40 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire presidential primary, thereby validating his candidacy.
A few days later, Senator Robert F. Kennedy abandoned his support for Johnson and entered the presidential fight.
President Johnson saw the writing on the wall and, on March 31, told a stunned nation during a televised address that he would not seek reelection. The following month, Vice President Hubert Humphrey—backed by Johnson—announced his candidacy for the nomination, further dividing the Democratic Party.
Humphrey focused on winning delegates in non-primary states, while Kennedy and McCarthy campaigned hard in primary states. Tragically, the race was turned upside down again when Robert Kennedy was assassinated after giving his victory speech following the California primary on June 4.
Kennedy’s delegates were divided between McCarthy and dark-horse candidate Senator George McGovern, leaving Humphrey with more than enough votes to clench the Democratic presidential nomination, but also leaving the Democratic party in turmoil just weeks before their national convention.
Fed up with Democratic leadership’s penchant for war, yippies protesting at the 1968 Democratic National Convention conceived their own solution: nominate a pig for president.
Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman came up with the idea, named their candidate “Pigasus the Immortal” and pledged, “They nominate a president and he eats the people. We nominate a president and the people eat him.”
Pigasus the Immortal’s presidential campaign may have been the shortest in recorded history. His chance to become leader of the free world ended abruptly when he, Rubin and other members of his campaign staff were arrested at his first press conference in front of the Chicago Convention Center. (Pigasus’s eventual fate remains unknown to this day.)
Protestors Take Over Lincoln Park
In July 1968, MOBE and yippie activists applied for permits to camp at Lincoln Park and hold rallies at the International Amphitheatre, Soldier Field and Grant Park. Hoping to dilute the protestors’ momentum, Mayor Daley approved only one permit to protest at the bandshell at Grant Park.
About a week before the convention, despite not having permission, thousands of protestors—many of them from out of state and from middle-class families—set up camp at Lincoln Park, about ten miles from the Amphitheatre. Expecting resistance, protest leaders organized self-defense training sessions including karate and snake dancing.
In the meantime, Democratic Party delegates began arriving in a Chicago that was rapidly approaching a state of siege: National Guardsmen and policemen met their planes. Their hotels were under heavy guard and the convention Amphitheatre was a virtual fortress.
Violence at Lincoln Park
Initially, Mayor Daley let the protestors remain in Lincoln Park. The day before the convention began, however, he ordered Chicago police to enforce the city’s 11:00 p.m. park curfew hoping that a show of force would clear out the protestors before the convention began.
The mood at Lincoln Park was festive at first. There were impromptu yoga sessions, music, dancing and the general revelry that happens when like-minded people gather together to protest the establishment. But the mood turned tense as opening day of the convention approached and the police presence increased.
Around 11:00 p.m. on Sunday, August 25, a couple thousand police officers wearing riot gear, helmets and gas masks lined up at Lincoln Park. Some threw tear gas into the crowd.
Protestors scattered every which way and rushed out of the park, blindly falling over each other as the tear gas assaulted their eyes. The police attacked them with clubs and often didn’t stop when someone was subdued on the ground.
Eyewitnesses report it was a scene of unrestrained bloodshed and chaos. Later, the police defended their actions by claiming the protestors shouldn’t have broken curfew or resisted arrest.
According to Thomas Foran, the Chicago lawyer who would later prosecute protest leaders, many of the protestors were “spoiled brats who thought that they knew better than everybody…they were being encouraged to do things they shouldn’t do by these sophisticated guys whose idea was to shame the U.S. government.”
Infighting on the Convention Floor
On Monday, August 6, the 1968 Democratic National Convention officially opened at the International Amphitheatre. Television cameras captured everything happening on the convention floor but were unable to live broadcast the demonstrations happening outside.
Whether the news blackout was due to the electrical workers’ strike (as Mayor Daley claimed) or a deliberate attempt to prevent the public from learning about the citywide protests is unclear.
Several states including Texas, North Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama had multiple slates of delegates competing to be seated at the convention. Many took the battle to the convention floor. A racially diverse delegation from Texas was defeated.
The convention soon became a battleground between anti-war supporters and Vice President Humphrey’s—and indirectly, President Johnson’s—supporters. On Tuesday night, when a promised televised prime-time debate on Vietnam was postponed until after midnight when most viewers would be asleep, the anti-war delegates made their fury known to the point that Mayor Daley had the convention adjourned for the night.
National Guard Called Up
By Tuesday evening, protestors had gathered at the Hilton Hotel where many of the delegates and candidates, including Humphrey and McCarthy, stayed. As tense police officers tried to maintain control, Mayor Daley sent in the National Guard to help.
Protest leader Tom Hayden united the crowd by proclaiming, “Tomorrow is the day that this operation has been pointing for for some time. We are going to gather here. We are going to make our way to the Amphitheatre by any means necessary.”
On Wednesday, August 28, the promised televised Vietnam debate finally took place to determine if the Democrats would adopt a plank of peace or one of continued war. At the same time, MOBE convened their long-planned and highly-anticipated anti-war rally at the bandshell at Grant Park.
Up to fifteen thousand protestors gathered, much less than protest leaders had hoped for, and they were quickly surrounded by hundreds of police and National Guardsmen under orders to keep the protestors from reaching the Amphitheatre.
Around 3:30 p.m. that afternoon, a teenage boy climbed a flagpole near the bandshell and lowered the American flag. The police moved in swiftly to arrest him as protestors rallied to his aid, assaulting the officers with rocks and food or whatever else they had on hand.
Hoping to quell further violence, Davis reminded police that a legal protest permit had been obtained and requested that all police leave the park. In response, the officers moved in and beat Davis unconscious.
The police beat protestors at will with clubs and fists. Despite the hostility, anti-violence protest leader David Dillinger still supported protesting peacefully. But all bets were off for Hayden, who feared mass arrests and worsening violence. He encouraged protestors to make for the streets in small groups and head back to the Hilton Hotel.
Peace Plank Defeated
As things heated up in Grant Park, they also heated up on the convention floor. The peace plank was defeated, a huge blow to the peace delegates and millions of Americans who wanted the Vietnam War to end, and the delegates erupted into chaos.
In the words of one delegate, “We were desolate. All of the work that we had done, all of the effort we had made had, it seemed to us, come to naught…our hearts were broken.”
By nightfall, a standoff had ensued in front of the Hilton between thousands of angry protestors and thousands of police officers. No one knows who or what triggered the first blow, but soon police began clearing out the crowd, pummeling protestors (and innocent bystanders) with billy clubs and using so much tear gas that it reportedly reached Humphrey some 25 floors up as he watched the bedlam unfold from his hotel room window.
At home in their living rooms, horrified Americans alternated between watching images of police brutally beating young, blood-splattered demonstrators and Humphrey’s nomination. During the nomination process, some delegates spoke to the violence. One pro-McGovern delegate went so far as to refer to the police violence as “Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago.”
Late that evening, Humphrey won the presidential nomination with Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine as his running mate. But the win was nothing to celebrate. Any illusion of unity within the Democratic Party was shattered—after Humphrey’s nomination, many anti-war delegates joined protesters in solidarity and held a candlelight vigil.
The next day, the remaining protesters and hundreds of anti-war delegates attempted to reach the Amphitheatre again but were deterred with tear gas. At midnight on August 29, the bloody and contentious 1968 Democratic Convention officially ended.
Over 650 protesters were arrested during the convention. The total number of injured protesters is unknown but over 100 were treated at area hospitals. It was reported that 192 police officers were injured and 49 required medical treatment.
Davis, Dellinger, Hayden, Black Panther activist Bobby Seale and four other protest organizers, known as the Chicago Eight, were charged with conspiracy and crossing state lines to incite a riot and brought to trial. After Seale complained about being denied his right to choose his own lawyer, the judge ordered him to appear before the jury each day bound, gagged and chained to a chair.
Seale was removed from the Chicago Eight case and ordered to stand trial separately, making the defendants into the Chicago Seven. Seale was sentenced to four years for contempt of court, but the charges were later overturned.
After a lengthy, often circus-like trial, the jury found the Chicago Seven not guilty of conspiracy. Five defendants, however, were found guilty of inciting a riot. All convictions were eventually overturned on appeal.
The pandemonium at the 1968 Democratic National Convention did little to stop the Vietnam War or win the 1968 presidential election. By the end of the year, Republican Richard M. Nixon was President-elect of the United States and 16,592 American soldiers had been killed in Vietnam, the most of any year since the war began.
The events of the convention forced the Democratic Party to take a hard look at how they did business and how they could regain the public’s trust.
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An Excerpt From: Rights in Conflict: The violent confrontation of demonstrators and police in the parks and streets of Chicago during the week of the Democratic National Convention of 1968. Chicago 68.
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Riots Erupt at the Democratic National Convention. World History Project.