It was 1968 in the United States of America. In January, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam shocked Americans who thought victory was looming; it fueled the anger of those who believed it wasn't. Two respected leaders were assassinated: in April, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and then, in June, Robert Kennedy. Across the nation, campuses erupted in protest; ghettos erupted in violence. An older generation watched in awe and horror as many of their children decried the Almighty Institution, set fire to their draft cards, and renounced the military industrial complex that had been credited with bringing happiness and prosperity to the nation just two decades before. The first generation reared on television now tuned in and turned on to something stronger and weirder than the airwaves could convey; then it dropped out. It was a nation that seemed on the verge of boiling, and it was a nation about to elect its thirty-seventh president.
In August in Chicago, the Democratic Party would select a candidate to replace the outgoing President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who had announced in March that he would not seek reelection to the nation's highest office. Several contenders had vied for a spot on the ticket. These were the main candidates: former senator Hubert Humphrey, Johnson's vice president, who championed the Civil Rights Act just a few years earlier; the former attorney general, New York Senator Robert Kennedy, until he was shot dead in a hotel kitchen in Los Angeles; South Dakota Senator George McGovern, to whom many of Kennedy's followers would transfer their allegiance; and Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, the antiwar candidate beloved by well-groomed (and some less-than-well-groomed) students on college campuses, who turned “Clean for Gene” to campaign door-to-door for their candidate. Whispered rumors of another Kennedy entering the race were heard even up to the convention, but the younger brother Ted did not run. By August, Humphrey seemed the likely winner. The question to be answered at the convention was not only what candidate would represent the party in November, but also the platform on which he would run. Would the Democrats support the president’s policies in Vietnam, or would they adopt the peace plan McCarthy advocated? Would Vice President Humphrey back the administration, or would he suggest a new direction for the party, as Johnson’s critics demanded? Despite a vocal dissent from antiwar delegates at the convention, the peace plank was voted down and the vice president captured more than 1,000 votes to secure the Democratic nomination on August 28.
If it had been a rough year for the nation, the city of Chicago—the great American city (as proclaimed by Norman Mailer that year)—fared no better than the rest in 1968. In April, after Dr. King's assassination, race riots in the black neighborhoods were answered with brutal police violence—when Mayor Daley famously ordered his officers: "Shoot to kill." In a city legendary for Law and Order, the mayor was powerful, a law man of mythic proportion; as such, he seemed reluctant to display weakness before the national television audience that turned its gaze to his city in the summer of 1968. But problems rose at every turn: a telephone strike, bus strike, and then a taxicab strike hindered preparations for the convention. Additionally, the mayor faced the arrival of thousands of protesters who intended to stage an anti-convention demonstration, the "Festival of Life," spearheaded by the newly formed and loosely organized Youth International Party (the Yippies). In January, the radical group began advertising in alternative newspapers and on college campuses, inviting all to Chicago in August to demonstrate and to nominate their own candidate for the presidency. (The Yippie candidate eventually nominated was a pig named Pigasus.) Unwilling to host the public spectacle promised by these rowdy protesters—one rumor alleged that the Yippies planned to spike the city's water with LSD—the city of Chicago refused to issue the group permits to demonstrate. Other groups, such as the National Mobilization Committee to end the War in Vietnam (MOBE) and the Coalition for an Open Convention, also applied for permits and were rejected. In the end, the city conceded to one demonstration: MOBE was allowed to hold a rally at the Grant Park bandshell on Wednesday, August 28. The permit, issued by the Park District, was delivered the evening of August 27, less than twenty-four hours before the event was scheduled to take place. Permits or no, thousands arrived in Chicago to voice their protest to the war and to the events held inside the International Amphitheater.
The following timeline offers a brief review of the year 1968 and identifies significant historical events that set the stage for the Chicago convention, as well as important events in the year's aftermath. The list is not meant to be a comprehensive record; rather it is intended to provide a sense of the complicated times.
The Student Mobilization Committee meets in Chicago for a planning conference.
U.S television broadcasts footage of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, overrun by Vietcong guerillas. The Tet Offensive begins, lasting until April.
Richard Nixon announces his intention to run for the Republican presidential nomination.
Alabama Governor George Wallace announces his intention to run for president as an Independent.
The “Orangeburg Massacre”—At a demonstration to integrate a bowling alley in South Carolina, state troopers shoot and kill three black students, and wound twenty-seven others.
Eugene McCarthy wins 40 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, narrowly losing to President Johnson.
Robert Kennedy announces his candidacy for the presidential office.
The “My Lai Massacre”—U.S. Marines kill unarmed citizens in Vietnam. Not made public until November 1969.
MOBE, Yippie, and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) activists meet in Illinois to plan convention demonstrations.
President Johnson, informed by advisers that the war in Vietnam is not winnable, announces a cessation to bombing in Vietnam, and that he will not seek re-election.
Blacks riot in more than 100 cities around the country. In Chicago, twenty city blocks are burned and nine blacks are killed. Mayor Daley orders his police force to “shoot to kill” arsonists and publicly criticizes his superintendent for inadequately controlling the riots. Later in the month, police attack a peaceful antiwar march in Chicago.
President Johnson calls 24,500 reservists to serve in Vietnam.
President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which includes a provision making it a federal crime to cross state lines with the intent to incite a riot.
Antiwar activists occupy several buildings at Columbia University. New York police retake the campus a week later.
Hubert Humphrey announces his intention to run for the Democratic presidential nomination.
FBI director J. Edgar Hoover initiates a counter-intelligence program to disrupt New Left groups.
In France, student demonstrations lead to a general strike throughout the country. In Paris, 10,000 workers battle police.
The Boston Five are found guilty of conspiring to aid draft dodgers.
In Miami, Florida, Richard Nixon wins the Republican presidential nomination. He chooses Spiro Agnew to be his running mate.
George McGovern announces his candidacy for the Democratic nomination.
The entire 12,000-man Chicago Police Department is placed on twelve-hour shifts for convention week.
Five thousand National Guardsmen come to Chicago, and 6,000 army troops are put on alert.
In Czechoslovakia, the U.S.S.R sends Soviet troops and tanks to crush the “Prague Spring” uprising.
Prior to the convention, Chicago police shoot and kill Dean Johnson, a South Dakota Sioux Indian teenager, who they say opened fired at them with a gun.
The Milwaukee Fourteen destroy 10,000 draft cards.
Three hundred and eight U.S. servicemen are killed in Vietnam during convention week. More than 500,000 troops are in Southeast Asia.
Police and protesters clash outside the Democratic National Convention; the riots are broadcast nationwide. (See convention week timeline.)
Polls show that Richard Nixon leads the race for the presidency.
Medium Cool is released in theaters, with little commercial success. Wexler later claims the film earned its X-rating for political content.
500,000 march against the war in Washington, D.C.
Police fire on a dormitory at Jackson State College in Mississippi, killing two students and injuring twelve others.
Almost 6,000 National Guardsman are mobilized and practice riot-control drills.
At the Hilton Hotel, where many delegates are staying, an organization of women pickets for peace.
At the 11:00 p.m. curfew, poet Allan Ginsberg and musician Ed Sanders lead people out of Lincoln park. This clip, from the film "America Against Itself" shows Ginsberg leading an "om" chant, and other scenes from the park. The voiceover narrator is Tom Hayden.
The Festival of Life opens in Lincoln Park; 5,000 attend the day’s events. When police refuse to allow a flatbed truck to be used as a stage for music performances, a scuffle breaks out, and several are arrested and others clubbed.
At the 11:00 p.m. curfew, most of the crowd of 2,000 leaves the park ahead of a police sweep and congregates between Stockton Drive and Clark Street. The police line then moves into the crowd, pushing it into the street. Reporters and photographers are among the many clubbed.
Mayor Daley formally welcomes delegates to the 1968 Democratic National Convention at the International Amphitheater. View a clip from "America Against Itself."
ABC news reports that 7,500 regular army troops are massed at military bases around Chicago; 5,600 National Guard are on standby; and 1,000 federal agents are at hotels and mingling with crowds. At the convention, former Kennedy aide and now McGovern worker Frank Mankiewicz claims that wearing a "Daley For President" button might be the best way to get through police lines.
In the afternoon, pacifist groups march to the Amphitheatre. The marchers, numbering about 1,000, set up a picket line and remain there until the following morning, when they are ordered to disperse.
Inside the convention, CBS reporter Dan Rather is struck by security officers when he attempts to interview a member of the segregated Georgia delegation (view clip).
In the evening, Black Panther Party Chairman Bobby Seale encourages demonstrators in Lincoln Park to defend themselves by any means necessary if attacked by the police.
ABC nightly news reports that seventeen newsmen have been beaten in the past two days in Chicago; four of them hospitalized. In a commentary, news anchor Frank Reynolds says that Chicago city hall mistakenly seems to think that reporters and cameras cause riots. He argues that police have no right to use force on citizens that are not causing a disturbance. Reynolds demands responsible conduct from those enforcing law and order.
Two thousand convene at the Chicago Coliseum to hold an "Unbirthday Party for LBJ” before marching to Grant Park. Speakers include Abbie Hoffman, David Dellinger, Terry Southern, Jean Genet, William Burroughs, Dick Gregory, Allen Ginsberg, Phil Ochs, and Rennie Davis.
In Lincoln Park, 200 clergy erect a large cross, and join protesters who remain in the park past curfew. Twenty-seven demonstrators are arrested when police again clear the park with teargas. Many of the demonstrators head to Grant Park, where television cameras are stationed in front of the Hilton Hotel. They hold a peaceful rally and stay in that park all night.
Disappointed antiwar delegates march inside the Amphitheater, singing "We Shall Overcome." Their voices are drowned out by state bands who play the party song from Roosevelt's campaign: "Happy Days Are Here Again." In this scene from Medium Cool, Wexler visually contrasts the words of the upbeat campaign song with the violence outside the Amphitheater.
The rally ends with the announcement of a march toward the Amphitheater. Police do not allow the march to move and, after an hour, the crowd begins to disperse, but the National Guard has sealed off nearby bridges, blocking them with heavy machine guns and grenade launchers. Many on Michigan Avenue join the passing mule train of the Ralph Abernathy's Poor People’s Campaign, which has a permit to go to the Amphitheater. Only the mule train is allowed to continue, however. Walter Cronkite introduces this clip filmed in front of the Hilton Hotel. The events, he says, speak for themselves.
Deputy Police Superintendent James Rochford orders the police to clear the streets, and the situation escalates when some protesters fight back; demonstrators and bystanders are clubbed, beaten, maced, and arrested. In this clip, Rochford tells reporters that the National Guard is subject to his requests. Because many television crews stationed in front of the Hilton capture footage of the event, this violent episode on Michigan Avenue receives more media attention than any other during the convention week. CBS later reports that 250 are arrested for disorderly conduct.
In the evening, a brawl erupts on the convention floor when security guards forcibly remove New York delegate Alex Rosenberg, who allegedly refused to show his credentials. This clip shows CBS coverage of the scuffle.
Inside the Amphitheater, many delegates learn of the violence outside when Senator Abraham Ribicoff, in a speech nominating George McGovern, denounces the "Gestapo tactics on the streets of Chicago.” During the roll call, Wisconsin delegate Donald Peterson announces that people are being beaten on the streets of Chicago (view clip). Hubert Humphrey wins the nomination on the first ballot. This clip from "America Against Itself" splices shots of the police charge at the bandshell in Grant Park in the morning with Ribicoff's speech later inside the convention, as well as Daley's angry reaction.
Later, five hundred antiwar delegates hold a candlelight march from the Amphitheater to the Hilton Hotel. Again, protesters stay in Grant Park all night.
The Democratic National Convention adjourns.
In an ABC News interview, Mayor Daley admits that police may have overreacted, but defends the department nonetheless (view clip). The same news segment reports that 83 policemen were injured since the convention's start; and the police were cursed, sprayed with gas, and hit with flying objects during the week. City public relations representative Frank Sullivan claims that reporters were not attacked unprovoked (view clip), and complains that dissident radicals received cooperation from the news media (view clip).
Mayor Daley tells CBS that police actions during the week were necessary because he was informed of plans to assassinate Senators Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern, Vice President Humphrey, and Daley himself (view clip). No evidence is ever produced to substantiate this claim.
The following sources were used to compile the timelines above: Battleground Chicago, Chicago '68: A Chronology, Chicago Eyewitness, Getting Elected, Rights in Conflict, Vanderbilt University's Television News Archive, and the Chicago Tribune. The video clips are taken from "America Against Itself" and "The American Experience: Chicago 1968." See about site for detailed citations.