When: Aug. 26-29, 1968
Nominee: Vice President Hubert Humphrey
Politics and history broke into pieces in 1968.
Anger and frustration with the seemingly endless Vietnam War had spilled from campuses to homes and businesses. The still-unfulfilled promises of the civil rights movement had left residents in major cities anxious and confused. And the culture was changing: Some first-wave baby boomers were finding new ways to tune in, or drop out.
In March, President Lyndon Johnson stunned the political world by announcing his decision to withdraw from the presidential race — an obscure anti-war senator, Gene McCarthy, had almost won the party’s New Hampshire primary. Four days later, an assassin murdered civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., touching off riots in dozens of cities, including Kansas City.
Then, in June, Democratic presidential candidate Robert Kennedy was murdered in California.
Against this sad backdrop of bloodshed and political unrest, Democrats traveled to Chicago in August to pick their nominee for president.
Vice President Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota was the clear favorite — yet he had not directly competed in the party’s 1968 primaries. Instead, he relied on caucuses and party insiders to build a delegate lead. Dozens of Humphrey delegates, in fact, were originally pledged to Johnson and had been picked months before.
McCarthy claimed delegates too, from primary victories in Pennsylvania, Oregon and other states. Kennedy supporters, still reeling from his assassination, halfheartedly gathered around Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, a liberal favorite. There were whispers Sen. Edward Kennedy would seek the nomination — or that Johnson, somehow, would get back in the race.
The competing loyalties would prove to be a volatile mixture.
At the same time, the delegates were deeply split over the conduct of the Vietnam War. Some delegates wanted a “peace plank” in the platform that would be seen as a direct repudiation of Johnson — and, by extension, Humphrey. Older delegates wanted to defend the war, and Johnson.
Among the delegates, “it was more about the war,” remembered Jim Bergfalk, a Kansas City-based consultant who worked for Kennedy’s campaign in 1968 and was in Chicago for the convention. “And the whole nature by which delegates were chosen — mostly backroom in those days.”
Those disagreements would have made the convention unruly under the best of circumstances. But ugly storm clouds had gathered outside the hall, too.
Leaders of the growing student protest movement decided that summer to come to Chicago. “It was time to risk our necks to take democracy back,” Tom Hayden, a leader of the Students for a Democratic Society, wrote in his memoirs. Other student leaders made similar statements at the time.
An estimated 15,000 students and protesters flooded into the city — where permits to march, or sleep in the parks, had been denied. Tensions rose throughout convention week as police and National Guardsmen clashed with those outside the hall. Then, on Aug. 28, authorities and demonstrators engaged in an open battle, with clubs and tear gas launched against bottles and rocks.
Television cameras broadcast the disturbance to an astonished nation, with bright lights piercing the smoke and gas. Words like “thug” and “Gestapo tactics” were tossed into the mix. America had never seen anything like it, not live, in their living rooms.
Back and forth, across the streets and into Grant Park, the two sides surged through the night. Blood mixed with spit and feces. Blue-helmeted officers threw demonstrators into waiting wagons as dazed onlookers choked back tears. Students chanted slogans and screamed obscenities at the cops. Hundreds were treated at hospitals or makeshift first aid stations near the hall.
The riot ended about 3 a.m., three hours after Humphrey claimed the nomination. The value of the prize, though, had dropped dramatically after the events along Chicago’s Michigan Avenue.
America would argue for years over the responsibility for the convention riots. Hayden and six other leaders were eventually indicted by the federal government for their role in the protests, and a jury found some of the defendants guilty of some of the charges, but the verdicts were overturned on appeal.
Other studies blamed the police, and then Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, for the violence.
The immediate impact seemed more clear: Humphrey left the convention badly wounded. Republican opponent Richard Nixon ran on a law-and-order platform explicitly aimed at events like Chicago, as did third-party candidate Gov. George Wallace of Alabama.
Today, it’s evident Chicago changed the way America picks its presidents. The sordid images convinced leaders in both parties that political conventions were events to be closely managed. Within a generation, conventions would be converted into infomercials designed to broadcast a party’s positions to the nation.
Convention security was also changed forever. Democrats and Republicans will spend more than $100 million on security this year, with heavily armed police defending security perimeters set up blocks from the convention venues.
More broadly, Chicago 1968 took control of the nomination apparatus away from party leaders and put it in the hands of voters. With primaries and open caucuses now a regular part of presidential politics, the chance for a true backroom candidate like Humphrey has been virtually eliminated (the Democrats’ reliance on “superdelegates” notwithstanding).
The 1968 convention disaster cleared the deck, ending decades of nominations controlled by a handful of powerful people. In the years to come, the people would have the most important voice.