Chicago Riots Mar the Democratic National Convention Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Antiwar protesters interrupted the Democratic National Convention with rioting that was met by indiscriminate police violence, representing one of the most tumultuous years in mid-twentieth century U.S. political history. The riots helped change the traditional “back-room” selection of candidates for office to a more open and participatory process involving the citizenry.

Summary of Event

By all measures, 1968 was one of the most tumultuous years in twentieth century American political history. The Vietnam War increased in intensity, escalating American casualties and citizen disillusionment with the conflict. Racial tensions exploded into riots in many cities, particularly after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Demonstrations on college campuses against the war brought students into conflict with police who were often called to maintain order. Lyndon B. Johnson, who had been elected president with one of the largest pluralities in U.S. history four years earlier, responded to the turmoil by deciding not to run for a subsequent term in office. Chicago riots (1968) Civil unrest;United States Democratic Party, U.S.;1968 national convention United States;counterculture Counterculture;activism Student protest movement Activism [kw]Chicago Riots Mar the Democratic National Convention (Aug. 24-30, 1968) [kw]Riots Mar the Democratic National Convention, Chicago (Aug. 24-30, 1968) [kw]Democratic National Convention, Chicago Riots Mar the (Aug. 24-30, 1968) Chicago riots (1968) Civil unrest;United States Democratic Party, U.S.;1968 national convention United States;counterculture Counterculture;activism Student protest movement Activism [g]North America;Aug. 24-30, 1968: Chicago Riots Mar the Democratic National Convention[09910] [g]United States;Aug. 24-30, 1968: Chicago Riots Mar the Democratic National Convention[09910] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Aug. 24-30, 1968: Chicago Riots Mar the Democratic National Convention[09910] [c]Government and politics;Aug. 24-30, 1968: Chicago Riots Mar the Democratic National Convention[09910] [c]Vietnam War;Aug. 24-30, 1968: Chicago Riots Mar the Democratic National Convention[09910] [c]Social issues and reform;Aug. 24-30, 1968: Chicago Riots Mar the Democratic National Convention[09910] Johnson, Lyndon B. [p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;1968 presidential elections Humphrey, Hubert H. [p]Humphrey, Hubert H.;1968 presidential elections McCarthy, Eugene Daley, Richard Davis, Rennie Dellinger, David Hayden, Tom Hoffman,Abbie

Frustrations with the political process mounted on both the Left and the Right. Left-wing thinkers attributed problems to the underlying causes of the demonstrations, notably the continuing war in Vietnam and the government’s failure to address racial and social inequities quickly enough. These individuals often argued for radical change in the political, judicial, and executive systems. Right-wing politicians argued that the demonstrators themselves were the problem and blamed the confrontations on indulgent political officials who failed to use sufficient force to suppress protests. George C. Wallace Wallace, George C. ran for the presidency as an independent candidate, demanding “law and order”—a catchphrase that became synonymous with the repression of political dissent.

Most American citizens fell somewhere between these two extremes. There was a growing feeling that the government’s Vietnam policy was not working and that many social injustices went unaddressed. Most citizens also feared the increased polarization of the society and hoped that the conflicts would be worked out within the confines of the present political system. Many young people who opposed the war expressed this hope by working on Eugene McCarthy’s or Robert F. Kennedy’s campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination. Both candidates enjoyed success in the Democratic primaries by taking a stance against Johnson’s war policies; McCarthy continued this crusade after Kennedy’s assassination. Many McCarthy delegates perceived the Democratic National Convention as a forum for challenging the administration’s Vietnam policy and its candidate, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. The Democratic National Convention, for several reasons, proved a suitable place for the conflict between left- and right-wing extremists to boil over into violent confrontations.

First, the city was run by Mayor Richard Daley, an old-style political boss who controlled the state Democratic Party system with unchallenged authority. Daley viewed disruptive demonstrations and calls for more participation in the choice of presidential candidates as a direct affront. He made this position clear during disturbances following the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., and during a peace march in Chicago in April, 1968. When police acted with restraint in the first case, they were chastised by Daley, who had issued a command to “shoot to kill arsonists and shoot to maim looters.” When police attacked demonstrators, bystanders, and media personnel in the second case, the mayor’s office ignored the violence.

Second, several groups planned to organize demonstrations Vietnam War (1959-1975);protests against the war and called upon supporters to join them in Chicago for the convention. Four of the main groups were the National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam , led by David Dellinger and Rennie Davis; the Yippies Yippies , led by Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, who attempted to combine the counterculture lifestyle of the hippies with a political statement against the war; Students for a Democratic Society Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a campus antiwar group led by Tom Hayden; and the Coalition for an Open Convention Coalition for an Open Convention , led by Martin Slate Slate, Martin , which attempted to bring together antiwar and anti-Humphrey forces in the Democratic Party.

Some McCarthy supporters also came to Chicago, despite the senator’s warning to stay away. The first four groups officially intended to demonstrate and rally but avoid disrupting the convention. Rumors and careless statements by some group leaders, and the presence of more militant minor groups, undermined these peaceful intentions. All four groups applied unsuccessfully for permits for marches, rallies, and access to the public parks for sleeping. The seemingly inevitable public assemblies were therefore illegal from the start, increasing the potential for confrontation.

Finally, the Chicago convention became a symbolic forum for the conflict between “old” and “new” politics. For many demonstrators, Humphrey’s presidential candidacy represented a continuation of the back-room politics that ignored public dissent on Vietnam and other issues. They viewed the convention as a confrontation between traditional machine politics, represented by Daley and the Democratic Party’s old guard, and the new (and often idealized) politics of increased citizen participation, represented by McCarthy supporters and young protest leaders.

As expected, the city’s prohibition of demonstrations was only partially successful in stopping protesters from arriving in Chicago. Group leaders’ early estimates of the number of participants proved to be overly optimistic, but approximately five thousand protesters had gathered in Lincoln Park by the Sunday evening before the convention was to begin. The first confrontations between demonstrators and law enforcement officials occurred following a peaceful afternoon march. The police, enforcing a ban on overnight camping in the park, randomly attacked protesters, bystanders, and media personnel, chasing them into the city’s Old Town district.

This pattern was repeated on August 28, following a legal rally in Grant Park, across from the Hilton Hotel, where a number of delegates were staying. The rally was attended by SDS, Yippie, National Mobilization, and Open Convention protesters in addition to a number of older, nonviolent demonstrators, including disillusioned McCarthy supporters. Altercations began at a flagpole, where an American flag was lowered. Police attacked Davis when he attempted to restore order by assembling rally marshals between the protesters and the police. The rally concluded and the demonstrators marched out with unclear objectives, eventually joining a legal march by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Approximately seven thousand people eventually massed in front of the Hilton, where television cameras were present. Police allowed the SCLC marchers to pass but began clearing other protesters from the site.

Suddenly, several police officers stormed the crowd and began indiscriminately attacking protesters and innocent bystanders with clubs, mace, and fists. A few protesters fought back with rocks and other projectiles. The violence continued for about three hours in front of the hotels occupied by Humphrey, George McGovern, and McCarthy. Television cameras recorded the entire confrontation despite police attacks on media personnel. The antiwar protesters retreated back to Grant Park for an all-night rally just as Humphrey received the Democratic nomination for president. Humphrey’s victory was to be remembered for the clashes between police and demonstrators that were televised as the final convention votes were tallied.

Significance

The immediate impact of the events in Chicago were felt within an already divided Democratic Party. There was an upsurge of support for the law-and-order stances of Wallace and, in a milder version, Richard M. Nixon Nixon, Richard M. [p]Nixon, Richard M.;1968 presidential elections . Humphrey’s standing in the polls suffered accordingly, even though he regained most of his support and lost the November election to Nixon by only 0.7 percent of the vote.

Longer-term effects involved the way in which the public regarded the press and its role in covering political upheavals. The Federal Communications Commission answered many complaints about the media’s coverage of the violence. The National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence held public hearings in late 1968 to evaluate whether the press contributed to such confrontations in Chicago and other cities. The press was cleared of complicity, but arguments about the impact of mass media on protest activity were to continue for years to come.

Also charged with complicity in the Chicago violence were Davis, Hayden, Dellinger, Bobby Seale Seale, Bobby , Hoffman, Rubin, and Mobilization officials Lee Weiner and John Froines. These individuals became known as the Chicago Seven Chicago Seven after Seale was removed from the courtroom and tried separately. All were charged with conspiracy to riot by U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell Mitchell, John , even though most had never even met one another until the convention. By this action, Nixon signaled his intolerance of protests and demonstrations. He made attacks on protesters one cornerstone of his 1972 presidential campaign, adapting Wallace’s hard-line law-and-order stance to a more moderate audience.

Perhaps the farthest reaching effects of the Chicago demonstrations, however, were the changes they prompted in the procedures for choosing presidential candidates. The unrest was interpreted as one sign that the back-room selection of candidates for office needed to be opened up to wider citizen participation. By 1972, the rules governing selection had been changed dramatically, providing for an expanded primary system and a selection process for delegates to the Democratic convention including significant numbers of women, young people, and racial minorities. In a final ironic footnote, the Daley delegation to the 1972 convention failed to meet the national party quotas for women and minorities and was not seated.

The changes in the presidential selection process, cannot, of course, be traced solely to the events in Chicago in 1968. The clashes, however, remained a major symbol of the conflict between the old and new politics, a conflict that redefined the direction and agenda of American politics for decades. Chicago riots (1968) Civil unrest;United States Democratic Party, U.S.;1968 national convention United States;counterculture Counterculture;activism Student protest movement Activism

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Farber, David. Chicago ’68. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. The work’s strongest point is that its author, a political scientist, was a resident of Chicago during the riots and knows the city well. Its weakest point concerns the author’s attempts to explain the Yippie movement within a philosophical context. At best, this book serves as a supplemental text, to be used primarily for its close-up views of many of the major personages in the drama. Index, notes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hayden, Tom. Trial. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970. Written by the founder of Students for a Democratic Society, one of the defendants in the Chicago Seven trial. Although the expected biases are present, Hayden does attempt to link the events in Chicago, and the subsequent trial, to the broader political and social confrontations in American society at the time. Hayden’s analysis presents the New Left critique of American society in a clear and doctrinaire fashion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kusch, Frank. Battleground Chicago: The Police and the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004. Chapters in this study of Chicago law enforcement during the Democratic convention include “’Freaks, Cowards, and Bastards’: The War at Home,” “’What’s America Coming To?,’” and “’A Perfect Mess’: Convention Week.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lukas, J. Anthony. The Barnyard Epithet and Other Obscenities. New York: Harper & Row, 1970. Presents a journalist’s perspective on the Chicago Seven conspiracy trial. The author, who was a reporter for The New York Times Magazine, carefully combines the trial transcripts with relevant news stories and commentaries by politicians and citizens to describe the atmosphere in the United States following the convention violence. Concludes that American institutions, including the courts, may have had difficulty withstanding the confrontations represented by the clashes at the convention.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. Congress. House Committee on Un-American Activities. Subversive Involvement in Disruption of 1968 Democratic National Party Convention. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1968. A record of the investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee into the violence at the Chicago Convention. The hearings were clearly designed more for political grandstanding than investigation but do represent the confrontation between left- and right-wing forces that characterized the violence. Taken as a historical document, the testimony of David Dellinger before the committee underscores the degree of polarization between the two sides during this period. Notes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walker, Daniel. Rights in Conflict. New York: Bantam Books, 1968. A transcript of the report submitted to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. Represents the most comprehensive study of the events surrounding the confrontations in Chicago, summarizing more than twenty thousand pages of testimony. The author sometimes strains to show both sides of the issue in the confrontations, but his straightforward analysis makes this book a critical resource for students of these events.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wiener, Jon, ed. Conspiracy in the Streets: The Extraordinary Trial of the Chicago Eight. New York: New Press, 2006. A historical retelling of the Chicago Seven trial, called the Chicago Eight trial here to include Bobby Seale.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Young, Marilyn B., and Robert Buzzanco, eds. A Companion to the Vietnam War. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002. Part of the Blackwell Companions to American History series, this 514-page collection covers events leading up to the war, the war itself, and the war’s aftermath. Provides more than a military history, however. Includes social, cultural, and political analyses as well. Recommended.

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