In Part Four of our year-long series “1968: Year of Discontent,” the Democratic National Convention was held in Chicago in August 50 years ago – becoming a microcosm of the turmoil felt across the nation.
With President Lyndon Johnson on the sidelines and an open seat in the White House, the Democrats were tasked with finding a challenger to Richard Nixon -- who had won the Republican presidential nomination in Miami Beach three weeks earlier.
“The Democratic Party was in shambles, to put it politely,” said Andy Barbero, a historian at Pensacola State College and an authority on 1960s America. “Robert Kennedy had been assassinated; Eugene McCarthy had run on a heavy anti-war campaign that had alienated a lot of the more conservative Southern Democrats as well as the old-guard, New Deal Democrats."
“I choose not simply to run for president; I seek to lead a great nation,” said Vice President Hubert Humphrey to cheers from the delegates.
Humphrey emerged as the nominee, which was considered to be a nod to the New Deal Democrats from the 1930s and 40s, along with continuing support of the war in Vietnam – which Humphrey later opposed.
“Humphrey’s was the only kind of candidate that the old guard would really support,” said Barbero.
If only it had been that easy.
One of the major disputes in the run-up to the convention was the seating of the party delegates. Some of it had racial overtones.
“There were issues regarding the Mississippi Freedom Party with the Southern delegates,” Barbero said. “It was a party divided within itself. And the only person that was going to be able to get enough votes to get the [nomination] was going to be Humphrey.”
Humphrey entered the race too late to enter any primaries. Instead, he relied on "favorite son" candidates to help him win delegates. He also lobbied for endorsements from powerful bosses within the Democratic Party, including LBJ and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.
After selecting Maine Senator Edmund Muskie as his running mate, Humphrey used his acceptance speech to call for unity. He also told the delegates that winning the presidency was not to be seen as a “compact on extremism.”
“And either we achieve true justice in our land, or we shall doom ourselves to a terrible exhaustion of body and spirit,” Humphrey told the delegates. “That the American people will stand up; that they will stand up for justice and fair play. And that they will respond to the call of one citizenship open to all for all Americans.”
Amid party business, there was violence both inside the International Amphitheatre and outside. One incident in the hall involved CBS News correspondent Dan Rather, who was grabbed by security guards while trying to interview a Georgia delegate being escorted out of the building. CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite watched from his broadcast booth high above the floor.
“I’m sorry to be out of breath but somebody belted me in the stomach during that,” said Rather on live TV.
“I think we’ve got a bunch of thugs here, Dan,” replied Walter Cronkite, also on the air.
“The party loyalists and the people working for them didn’t want any part of [the altercations],” said Barbero. “It was really one of several things that backlashed against the Democratic Party at that convention.”
Meanwhile, an anti-war demonstration was underway at Lincoln Park – about five miles from the convention center. The event was organized by the Yippies – the Youth International Party.
“Left-wing, Marxist [organization] that was the brainchild of two men: Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin,” said Barbero. “Their goal in 1968 at the Democratic National Convention is to point out the hypotrophy within the Democratic Party and its support of the Vietnam War.”
Daley believed that the way to curb demonstrations was to deny organizers permission for the Yippies to sleep in parks near the convention.
“And Mayor Daley is absolutely not going to go along with this, because he doesn’t want them there because they’re a bunch of dirty hippies; they’re going to make everything look bad, and it’s just going to breed chaos,” said Barbero. “Daley’s office refused to give them the permit, knowing that they were going to come anyway.”
Chicago cops in helmets with Billy clubs and tear gas converged on the demonstrators, joined by troops from the Illinois National Guard in full battle dress. The scene was broadcast on live television nationwide, with demonstrators chanting “The whole world is watching.”
Mayor Daley had intended to showcase his and the city's achievements to national Democrats and the media. Later, he claimed to have called in the massive police and Guard force, because of reports indicating possible assassination plots targeting him and other leaders.
“This administration and the people of Chicago have never and will [never] condone brutality at any time,” said Daley in response to criticism of the police force. “They will never permit a lawless, violent group of terrorists to menace the lives of millions of people; destroy the purpose of this national convention, and take over the streets of Chicago.”
Afterward, the demonstrators believed most Americans would side with them over what had happened regarding police behavior.
Polls showed the majority supported Daley’s tactics. And many believed that the chaos in Chicago paved the way for Richard Nixon’s election two and a half months later.