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50 years ago the 1968 DNC changed politics forever: here's the full story

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During the last week of August in 1968, almost 29 million television viewers in the United States and millions around the world watched as police and anti-Vietnam War protesters clashed violently in the streets of downtown Chicago, while a party in turmoil battled over who would be its eventual presidential nominee during a contentious Democratic National Convention.

"It was a tragedy not only for the Democratic Party, it was a tragedy for the United States, it was a tragedy for the democratic process,  it was a tragedy for the world, " said Newton Minow, the legendary former FCC chairman under President John F. Kennedy, who served as an alternate Illinois delegate at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

“It was a horrible time,” added Tom McDonough, a now-retired Chicago police officer who responded to demonstrators during convention protests in Chicago’s Lincoln Park 50 years ago.  “I was young, I wasn't married and --if I sound like I'm getting to be like a poet-- my heart was down.  I thought this country and this city was going to hell in a hand basket."

The images from that week still have the power to shock today. We’re still incredulous after seeing the grainy nighttime images of hordes of Chicago police swinging their billy clubs indiscriminately while rampaging through a crowd of protesters, some of whom fought back; the tear gas released by law enforcement officials, in an attempt to incapacitate the protesters; and the epic floor battles back at the convention, where two broadcast journalists – Mike Wallace and Dan Rather – were physically taken down by security at the political event.


But for most of the surviving participants 50 years later, the clashes between protestors and police outside of the convention and the verbal and physical skirmishes inside the convention at Chicago’s long-since-demolished International Amphitheatre were inevitable. It was the culmination of a year of turmoil and violence throughout the world, from the assassinations of civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. and Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy; to violent student protests in Paris and Mexico City; to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, where Russian troops crushed the Prague Spring reform movement.

“I always compared it to all of this boiling water going on in '68 and finally the top blew off in Chicago,” said William Daley, the son of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, who attended every day of the convention with his father.

That explosion occurred in the streets of Chicago, where 10,000 demonstrators were pitted against approximately 18,000 Chicago police officers and members of the National Guard, a battle which ended with over 650 arrests and hundreds of injuries to protestors and law enforcement.

And the explosion also occurred at the Amphitheatre, where Vice President Hubert Humphrey was nominated as the Democratic candidate for president, propped up by delegates controlled by President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had announced earlier in the year that he would not seek re-election, after the increasingly unpopular war he supported was beginning to be seen as an unwinnable quagmire, especially after North Vietnamese forces launched its successful Tet Offensive on U.S.-backed South Vietnam earlier in the year.


"There was no way to beat Humphrey, who was racking up delegates without ever entering a primary,” said Jeff Greenfield, the national journalist and author who had been RFK’s speechwriter in 1968. “Back in those days, most of the delegates were picked by party insiders or bosses, and they were all going for Humphrey."

Supporters of the party’s anti-war candidates – Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D – Minn.) and Sen. George McGovern (D – South Dakota) – were outraged that Humphrey wouldn’t agree on a Vietnam peace resolution, proposed during the convention. Those divisions led to a splintered Democratic Party – one which then consisted of an uneasy alliance between conservative white Southerners and blue-collar workers from the North, along with minorities, women and younger voters.

Some believe the Party still hasn’t recovered from those rifts 50 years later, during a time when the Republicans control both houses of Congress, along with the White House.


“It wasn't identity politics, but the lack of inclusion that determined the fate of the Democrats in '68 and beyond,” said Marilyn Katz, a longtime Chicago-based Democratic consultant who was a young demonstrator on the streets of Chicago in 1968.  “The Democratic Party did not embrace its young, its anti-war, it’s women, it’s blacks. It did not embrace diversity.”

“1968 signaled dramatically how much trouble the Democratic Party was going to be in in the South - because between (third party candidate George Wallace) and Nixon, you know, Hubert Humphrey was just about shut out of the South,” added Greenfield. “And that had never happened to a Democrat, even in the Eisenhower landslide. And so it presages the long decline of the Democratic Party.”

Violence in the streets

But more than anything else, the convention will forever be remembered for the violence that occurred in the streets during the week of August 26, 1968 – violence which was later famously defined as a “police riot” in the “Walker Report”, the federal investigation into the clashes between police and protestors, headed by future Illinois Governor Dan Walker.

The report said that while some protestors may have instigated the violent police response, the officers involved were primarily to blame for using violence indiscriminately against those on the streets.

It’s an observation that still rankles Chicago police and law enforcement officials.

“Policemen did not run into the crowd and just start beating people,” said John O’Shea, a first-year Chicago police officer in 1968, who was assigned to respond to protesters in Grant Park. “What initiated confrontations between the police and the demonstrators was objects being thrown at us. That really, from my perspective, changed the whole environment.”

But what can’t be denied is that the city of Chicago had every intention of making the life of the anti-war demonstrators as uncomfortable as possible, starting not long after the city was awarded the convention on Oct. 8, 1967.

The riots on the city’s West Side after Martin Luther King’s assassination in April 1968 -- when Daley famously ordered to “shoot to kill or maim” arsonists and looters --  was one key impetus for a strong, consolidated reaction against visiting demonstrators during the convention.

“(Daley’s) number one concern, through all of the preparation, and his biggest fear, was not that there may be trouble on Michigan Avenue or in the parks, but that there would be trouble in the neighborhoods where people lived,” said his son, William.

So the city engaged in a multi-pronged effort in the months leading up to the convention, in an attempt to neutralize the activists, according to both city officials and activists. Daley promised to vigorously enforce 11 p.m. curfews in the city’s parks, in an effort to keep activists from congregating. And the city also denied all but one of the permits requested to demonstrate by the two main activist groups at the convention – the Youth International Party (or “Yippies”) and the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (the “MOBE”).


“We were dedicated to nonviolence and our logistical, tactical objective at the convention was simply to have our protest outside the International Amphitheatre where the convention was taking place,” said MOBE organizer/leader Rennie Davis. “ That was really the goal of our permit strategy. That permit request was turned down."

Davis and other MOBE organizers went to federal court to petition for permits the week before the convention, but that request was denied as well, before the city finally agreed to allow a permit for one demonstration in Grant Park on Aug. 28.

Steve Zucker, the well-known sports agent who was Chicago’s assistant Corporation Counsel in 1968, admitted that the city’s decision to not grant permits was by design.

“I know it was our intention to try to keep the crowd as small as possible,” Zucker said. “We had heard hundreds of thousands were going to be there and descend on Chicago for the convention.”

“Red Squad” surveillance

Davis and other activists who flocked to Chicago during the summer of 1968 were also a target of the Chicago Police Department’s notorious “Red Squad”, an Intelligence unit which had engaged in the surveillance of political dissenters and civil rights organizations going back to the 1930s.

The “Red Squad”, which was disbanded for unlawful surveillance under a 1985 federal court decision, trailed activists like Davis as far back as 1965. In documents obtained by the Decades Network, Davis is labeled as a “subversive”, whose actions between August 25, 1968 and August 29, 1968 are exhaustively documented by undercover intelligence agents.

"(‘Red Squad’ agents) basically showed up and said that they would follow me everywhere I went," Davis recalled.  "They made it clear that I was not to shake them under any circumstance and they were suggesting that it could be dangerous to my health to shake them.”

Fifty years later, former city officials like Zucker admit that the undercover surveillance of activists by Chicago police was a major part of the city’s response to convention protests.

“They gave us a lot of information and they were also on the streets with us (during the protests)”, Zucker recalled. “You could notice them very easily. They’d be wearing trench coats, sunglasses, slicked back hair. I mean, they looked like undercover policemen.”

Daley the “dove”

Ironically, the activists who converged on Chicago did share one commonality with Richard J. Daley – an opposition to the war in Vietnam.

"That's such a colossal irony,” said Minow, a friend of Daley’s. “The fact was, he was not a supporter of the war and I knew that and, in fact, I had heard it - and one day I called him, I said, 'I'd like to come over and see you.' And I said, 'I heard that you were against - that you're against the Vietnam War.' He said, 'That's right.' He said, 'My best friend's kid.' He said, 'A Harvard kid, no less, was killed there.' He said, 'for what?!'”

“My father would go into the oval office with Johnson and he would argue that he thought it was bad in private, but then when he would go out, he was always supportive of the president,” William Daley said. “I think he just was of that generation and of a belief that the commander-in-chief, he may know more than the mayor of Chicago knows.”

Daley was prepared to support Robert Kennedy –a strong anti-war candidate-- for president before he was assassinated, according to his son.  And on the days leading up to the convention, he was secretly involved with unsuccessful attempts to endorse another Kennedy – Edward – for president.

“The Illinois delegation traditionally meets on the Sunday before the convention,” Daley said. “They (held off) voting for Humphrey or anyone else, because (Richard J. Daley) was still holding out hope that (Teddy) Kennedy would get into it.”

When an emissary finally told Daley late Sunday before the convention that Kennedy was not running, Daley instructed Illinois delegates to support Humphrey.

Fifty years later

The aftermath of the 1968 Democratic National Convention is well-known. Republican nominee Richard M. Nixon adopted the mantle of the “law-and-order” candidate, and he used the convention violence to his advantage – even staging a September 1968 campaign parade in Chicago which ended at Michigan Avenue and Balbo Drive, the same downtown Chicago location where much of the violence occurred a few weeks earlier. He would win the general election in November of that year, winning the popular vote by a small margin, but carrying the Electoral College by winning 32 states.

“It's pretty likely that Richard Nixon won partly because of the protests in Chicago in 1968,” said David Farber, the author of “Chicago ‘68”. “In his speech (at the Republican National Convention),in early August of 1968, he says, ‘I'm the man for the non-shouters, for the non-demonstrators, the good Americans who go to work every day.’ Then three weeks later, all hell breaks loose in Chicago. Nixon becomes that candidate to protect your domestic tranquilities.”

But the 1968 Democratic National Convention also initiated reforms which continue to effect national politics to this day.

Most notably, the nomination process was fundamentally changed after 1968. Only 14 states held Democratic primaries in 1968, and the party’s nominee, Hubert Humphrey, did not participate in any of them. Many pro-McCarthy and McGovern delegates felt cheated by the process.

So an election reform commission co-chaired by George McGovern came up with a revised system, dramatically expanding binding primaries, making changes to the delegate selection process and limiting the influence that state party bosses have on the nomination process.

“I think the one lasting reform that came out of that horrendous convention was creating a primary system for nominating the candidates,” said Don Rose, the longtime Chicago-based political consultant who was an anti-war activist during the 1968 convention.  “That's what we've been doing ever since. Now, there are all sorts of irrationalities in that system, but it's a lot different from having 20 powerful bosses like Daley going in the back room (to select a nominee).”

The broadcast media also revised the way it covered large protests after the 1968 convention, by suggesting restraint among its crews.

“(Former CBS News President) Richard Salant issued what was called the ‘Cap Up Memo.’,” recalled  Ron Bonn, Walter Cronkite’s producer at CBS. “What that memo said was this, "If we were filming anything that was happening and any member of the crew, the producer, the correspondent, the cameraman, the soundman, thought that our cameras were making it happen, then we were to cap up, turn off our lights and drive away."

And the events in 1968 would also affect activists in the years to come.

Rennie Davis, who would be tried and eventually acquitted as one of the “Chicago Eight” accused of conspiring to incite a riot during the 1968 convention, said that the “Occupy Wall Street”, “Black Lives Matter” and  the series of women’s marches after the 2016 election of President Donald Trump all have parallels to 1968.

“The '60s changed the culture of this country,” Davis said. “And now you have maybe the largest protest in the history of the world occurring the day after Trump is inaugurated: the Women's March. So, it would appear to me that a movement is beginning again today.”

Watch “Decades Presents 1968: The DNC” on the Decades Network on Monday, August 6 at 9 p.m. ET; Friday, August 17 at 10 p.m. ET; Saturday, August 25 at 9 a.m. ET; and Wednesday, August 29 at 12 a.m. ET.

Watch Decades Presents: 1968 on Decades

A new episode every month of 2018!

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