40 years ago...


by Mike Kroll


As we rapidly approach an eagerly anticipated presidential election ten weeks from now the Democratic Party is holding its convention in Denver this week. The Republicans will hold their convention  next week in St. Paul. Both of these conventions promise to be highly organized and efficiently run kick-offs to the general election campaign. There will be few surprises, certainly not in terms of who will be the standard bearer for each party. But things were very different 40 years ago at the year 1968 was perhaps one of the most tumultuous of my lifetime.

Another Democratic convention was held in 1968 in my birthplace, Chicago. That convention was the antipathy of precision, organization and harmony. It led to changes in the way both American political parties operate and it helped elect a Republican to the White House that November. With the assistance of independent candidate George Wallace and the Democratic debacle in Chicago Richard Nixon was able to beat Vice President Hubert Humphrey by less than one percent of the popular vote. Nixon carried 32 states (301 electoral votes) to Humphrey's 13 states plus Washington, DC (191 electoral votes) and Wallace's five southern states (46 electoral votes).

While many have said that that 1968 election was all about the Viet Nam war, and it was no doubt a significant factor, civil rights was very much an issue. Despite significant civil rights strides earlier in that decade the reality was that many Americans still weren't ready or did not generally accept equal rights for blacks or even women for that matter. That is what prompted the candidacy of strident civil rights opponent Wallace and paved the way to Nixon's victory.

But it was clearly the war that undid President Lyndon Johnson's political career. An anti-war sentiment was growing across this country – and not only among the nation's draft-age youth. A year before the 1968 Democratic convention 3,000 delegates to the National Conference for a New Politics gathered in Chicago representing liberals wanting to foster greater civil rights and stridently opposed  to the war. Typical of dogmatic liberals this convention failed to come to a consensus and splintered into disaffected groups without a clear alternative presidential candidate.

October 1967 saw a huge anti-war protest at the Pentagon that reportedly attracted 100,000 where key anti-war leaders first began to plan protests at the Democratic convention the following August. In the run-up to the 1968 presidential campaign season leaders of the anti-war movement approach a number of prominent political figures to be their standard bearer but most refuse. Senator Robert Kennedy declined to oppose a sitting president, as did Senators Frank Church and George McGovern. Eventually Eugene McCarthy agrees on the eve of the Pentagon demonstration but doesn't make an announcement until the end of November.

If Democrats were reluctant to challenge their president there was little standing in the way of a wide field of Republicans who longed for the White House including some familiar names. Michigan governor George Romney (father of Mitt Romney) was among the first to officially declare his candidacy as the leading anti-war Republican. A comment to a reporter that he had been “brainwashed” by military and state department officials into initially supporting the war was used by Nixon supporter and the media to ridicule Romney out of the race before the end of February.

New York governor Nelson Rockefeller took up the anti-war banner when he got into the race as the darling of liberal Republicans (yes, such creatures once existed and even flourished). By the spring on 1968 California governor Ronald Reagan was in the race leading the conservative wing of the Republican party and quickly became Nixon's chief rival.

Election year 1968 was a very tough year for American troops in Viet Nam and those of us here at home got to see just how bad things were in this far-off war on the network television news broadcasts brought the death and violence into our living rooms night after night. On January 21st some 6,000 marines stationed at a former French base called Khe Sanh were surrounded by North Vietnamese troops and placed under siege. Supplies of food and ammunition had to be air dropped amidst daily artillery and mortar shelling of the base. A week later saw the beginning of the Tet offensive. North Vietnamese troops attacked Americans and South Vietnamese across South Vietnam nearly capturing Saigon and putting the U.S. embassy there under direct attack.

American military eventually break the siege of Khe Sanh and turn back the Tet offensive with massive North Vietnamese casualties in what military historians will later describe as strategic victories but to American families at home these incidents hardly seemed like victories but rather evidence that the war was becoming an unwinnable quagmire. Even the “most trusted man in America,” CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite said as much in an editorial on his newscast, “It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate."

On March 16 Charlie Company of the 11th Brigade, Americal Division entered a small South Vietnamese village called My Lai and killed more than 300 women, children and old men who were unarmed in an atrocity that will later be known as the My Lai massacre. It will be eight months before this is reported by the news media, after the 1968 presidential election.

Johnson had accomplished a lot domestically only to have his prospects for reelection dashed by his escalation of the Viet Nam war. Most observers expected Johnson to be the 1968 Democratic nominee until he took himself out of the race on March 31, 1968, after only narrowly beating antiwar Democratic Senator Eugene McCartney in the New Hampshire primary on March 12th and following the entry into the race of Democratic Senator Robert Kennedy on March 16th.

Just to underscore how interwoven opposition to the war and the political battle for civil rights were the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was felled by an assassin's bullet on April 4th as he stood on a motel balcony in Memphis. As news of the assassination spread across the county so too did riots in over 100 American cities, including Chicago. President Johnson had already taken himself out of the race days earlier and found himself facing violent race riots in cities across America in the wake of King's death as he spoke to the nation, "I ask every citizen to reject the blind violence that has taken Dr King who lived by non-violence."

In 1966 King had taken his campaign for civil rights to the north where he made Chicago the nexus of his effort by moving into an impoverished west-side neighborhood so he had strong ties to the African-American community of Chicago. On the afternoon of Friday, April 5th Chicagoans began to riot in that same neighborhood. Stores were vandalized and looted, so many buildings were set afire that every available off-duty Chicago firefighter was called to duty as alarm calls out-paced the ability of dispatchers. Half of the cities fire trucks and 2,000 firefighters fought 36 major fires and many more lesser fires as suburban firefighters were called in to help man empty city firehouses. Responding firefighter were pelted with rocks, bricks and debris and some were fired upon by snipers. On Saturday 6,000 National Guard troops arrived to protect the firefighters and quell the rioters but the efforts of police and National Guard were not enough and on Sunday 5,000 regular Army troops arrived in Chicago.

By Monday the Chicago riots were over. Over 170 buildings were destroyed creating millions of dollars in damage, twelve citizens were dead and one firefighter was wounded by gunfire. Well over 1,000 Chicagoans were homeless. And, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley was livid with anger and embarrassment. He publicly criticized his police superintendent for not taking a sufficiently firm hand with rioters and issued firm but frightening instructions directly to his police officers in the event of future rioting. Police were “to shoot to kill any arsonist and to shoot to maim or cripple anyone looting.” Admonishments that would contribute mightily to fuel events surrounding the 1968 Democratic convention only four months later.

 Less than two weeks following the King assassination riots Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968 focusing on open housing but which also had tacked on a brand new federal anti-riot law. It was now a federal offense to cross state lines to participate in or incite a riot. Anti-war protests and demonstrations continued all that spring and summer including an April 27th anti-war march in Chicago (just one of a series of anti-war marches held across the country that day). Organizers of the peace march bickered with Chicago officials over the necessary permits and were finally given permission to use half of the sidewalk (but not the street) and were to be allowed brief use of what was then called Civic Center Plaza (now Daley Plaza). After an otherwise peaceful march by 8,000 concluded at the Plaza Chicago police immediately ordered the crowd to disperse without the planned rally, firing tear gas and advancing on the crowd wielding billy clubs.

That month of April 1968 saw nothing but dismay and embarrassment for Daley. A race riot leveled blocks of the city's west side and while Chicago firefighters were generally portrayed as heroic by the press coverage of police and National Guard response to the riots was far from favorable. The anti-war movement was ratcheting up nationwide and anti-war leaders had made it clear that they intended to stage massive protests during the Democratic convention that would make the April 27th march pale by comparison. The mayor who commanded “the city that works” was seeing both his leadership and his city characterized quite differently in the national press. Daley became adamant that nothing would be allowed to mar the triumphant moment when his city was to host his party's national convention. His oft repeated mantra became, “Law and order will be maintained.”

During the run-up to the convention we witnessed the second political assassination of 1968 as Robert Kennedy was shot and killed in Los Angeles following his winning the California Democratic primary on June 5th. Humphrey had announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination in late April following Johnson's withdrawal and Kennedy was seen by many as Humphrey's principle opponent leading to what many assumed would be a wide-open convention battle for the nomination.

Daley replaced his police superintendent and he ordered new training and equipment for his police force during the months leading up to the convention. The standard issue police equipment at the time was a revolver, billy club and hand cuffs but the billy clubs were replaced with the then new police “nightstick” which was longer and heavier and officers were issued helmets, shields, mace and new personal radios obtained from the military. The city's reserve officer corps was expanded and hastily trained to augment the regular police force patrolling the city during the convention so that more regular officers could be freed for special security duty.

The Republican convention was held the week of August 5th in Miami Beach. While there were few protesters in the immediate vicinity of the Republican convention itself in predominantly black neighborhoods of nearby Miami hundreds are arrested and four people died during rioting. Meanwhile Nixon withstands a challenge by Reagan to become his party's nominee accompanied by Maryland governor Spiro Agnew as the vice presidential candidate.

The geography of Chicago contributed to the complexity of convention security. There are three major lake front parks, two of which would see large congregations of anti-war protesters. Lincoln Park is on the city's north side while Grant Park sits between Chicago's central business district, the “loop” and Lake Michigan. Nearly all of the hotels where convention attendees stayed along with the press were in the Loop while the convention itself was held in the International Amphitheater well south of the Loop and adjacent to what was once the stockyards. The 9,000-seat Amphitheater was an old WPA-era building and the home of the then fledgling Chicago Bulls basketball team. The original plan had been to hold the convention in the shiny new McCormick Place exhibition center on the city's lake front south of Soldier Field but that facility caught fire and burned in the early morning hours of January 16,1967 just before the opening of the National Houseware Manufacturers Association show. More than 500 firefighters fought the blaze and one security guard was killed and it would be years before the structure was rebuilt.

As the convention approached the anti-war protesters tried to obtain permits from the city to no avail. Daley stalled and stalled but his plans became clear, ultimately no permits would be issued and he hoped that would dissuade many of those planning to participate from coming to Chicago to embarrass him or his city. In any protest you have a small cadre of dedicated organizers and their followers who hope to attract many more moderate participants sympathetic to their cause. By delaying and eventually denying permits Daley hoped to limit the number of moderate supporters from making the trip to Chicago and his plan succeeded to a great extent.

The city's rationale for denying the permits was two-fold. First, following the April riots an unsteady calm had come over Chicago and city officials feared that if large groups of mostly white, middle-class protesters were permitted to march through predominantly black southside neighborhoods to and from the Amphitheater accompanied by a large police and National Guard presence might reignite tensions withing the black community. The city went so far as to encourage militant black leaders to leave the city during the convention “to avoid potentially being implicated in any violence that might ensue.”

Second, the anti-war protesters were asking city officials to ignore state and local laws and ordinances in granting some of the necessary permits. The plan of the protesters was to stage encampments at both Lincoln and Grant Parks where protesters would sleep overnight in tents in the parks but city ordinance closed the parks at 11pm. State law also bans night rallies and marches. While it is and was true that neither law is regularly or rigidly enforced they remained legal reasons to deny permits to people who were seeking same for the sole purpose of disrupting the smooth conduct of the convention.

Therefore, merely by gathering in the parks prior to the beginning of the convention the protesters instantly became criminals and those who traveled across state lines to come to Chicago were now Federal criminals too. The convention officially began on Monday, August 26th but protesters began arriving on Wednesday and Thursday of the preceding week. The main body of the protesters arrived on Saturday and Sunday just as the convention delegates themselves began to get to Chicago. On Thursday and Friday nights police monitors Lincoln Park closely and cleared the park at the 11pm closing without significant incident. Chicago police were put on 12-hours shifts from Saturday onward and the “real” demonstrations began that afternoon as a much smalled that expected all-women continent representing Women Strike for Peace picketed the Conrad Hilton Hotel that served as the principle delegate hotel for the convention.

It quickly became apparent to protesters and police alike that the huge anticipated number of protesters was not going to materialize as only about 60 women showed up in front of the Hilton Saturday while a mixed group of some 200 or so picketers showed up Sunday afternoon in front of the same hotel. Hundreds of others marched from Lincoln Park through the Loop chanting familiar anti-war slogans. When police showed up to confront of the marchers the hotel picketers retreated to Grant Park where the marchers soon joined them for a brief impromptu rally before protesters retreated back to Lincoln Park.

Meanwhile during the “pre-convention” there were disputes on another kind as multiple delegations claiming to represent the same states clashed over who would be seated in the convention. Southern states fought over integrated and segregated delegations while anti-war delegates promoting McCarthy clashed with party insiders loyal to President Johnson.

During the daylight hours it seemed almost like a game with groups of protesters picketing and chanting across from Chicago police officers. There were a few arrests and lots of taunting but relatively little violence until Sunday night. Estimates ranged from hundreds to perhaps a thousand protesters gathered in Lincoln Park Sunday evening for concert by the band MC-5 (the only band of the many invited who actually showed up). Efforts to bring a flatbed truck into the park to function as a stage were thwarted by police. Eventually police allowed the truck to be parked adjacent to the park but many of the protesters did not realize a compromise had been arrived at and began gathering around a small group of police by the truck shouting at them.

The violence didn't really begin until about 9pm when police formed a line between the park restrooms and the protesters and the crowd's heckling of police escalated until finally police charged the crowd brandishing their nightsticks. Lincoln Park was not well lit at that time and the darkness permitted both sides to exaggerate the violence committed by the other but few protesters were seen with weapons. At 11pm the police pushed the protesters out of Lincoln Park and into the street and the police were then ordered to use their nightsticks to clear the street itself for traffic but all this took place well north of convention hotels in the Loop.

It wasn't until 10-15,000 protesters began gathering in the streets surrounding the convention hotels on Wednesday night that convention attendees and the non-local news media became fully aware of the violent interactions between police and protesters. Until then most news coverage focused on the political battles at the Amphitheater and television showed CBS reporters Mike Wallace and Dan Rather “roughed up” by convention security guards on live TV. Cronkite told the audience after the incidents, “I think we've got a bunch of thugs here, if I may be permitted to say so.”

When candidate names were put into nomination Connecticut Senator Abe Ribicoff made an impassioned nominating speech on behalf of  McGovern including the now famous line, “with George McGovern as president of the United States we wouldn't have Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago.” This came after television coverage of police clashes with protesters beside the Conrad Hilton Hotel. While the protesters could be clearly heard chanting, “the world is watching,”  police were shown teargassing the crowd and beating them with nightsticks before dragging some away. It was an appalling sight later described in a report on the convention by a committee chaired by Dan Walker (soon to be governor and later disgraced himself) as a “police riot.”

In the aftermath of this debacle Humphrey went into the general elections mortally wounded by his association with the hugely unpopular Johnson, the distressing spectacle of the convention and the defection of southern Democrats to Wallace. In March 1969 eight leaders of the anti-war protesters at the Chicago Democratic Convention are indicted on Federal charges of crossing state lines “with the intent to incite, organize, promote, encourage, participate in, and carry out a riot.” At the same time eight Chicago police officers were charged with violating the civil rights of protesters and reporters. The “Chicago eight” trial began in late September and in February 1970 all of the defendants are acquitted by the jury of conspiracy changes but five are convicted on individual charges and sentenced to five years in prison. Not one policeman was convicted of any criminal charges.