In 1968, Chicago experienced a breakdown in the political process.
At the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in August, delegates came to the city to select their next presidential candidate. Activists gathered to protest United States policies at home and abroad during the convention.
Political delegates fought inside the convention arena. Protestors and police brawled on the city's streets. Meanwhile, the news media depicted division and violence.
1968: A Year of Shock
January: Vietnamese communist guerillas launched attacks throughout South Vietnam. These battles showed the United States military involvement there might continue much longer.
March: President Lyndon B. Johnson announced he would “not seek” nor “accept” the Democratic presidential nomination for another term.
April: An assassin fatally shot Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee. Dozens of cities, including Chicago, burned in rebellion.
June: Another gunman killed presidential hopeful New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy. After his assassination, some worried Chicago's Democratic National Convention might turn violent.
August: In an era of civil rights, anti-war protests, and social revolution, the forces of law-and-order braced for a fight at Chicago's Democratic National Convention.
Events in April in Chicago set the stage for the Democratic National Convnetion in August.
April 5 and 6: Police struggled to contain the mass urban uprising triggered by the murder of Martin Luther King Jr.
Afterwards, Mayor Daley publicly criticized the police for allowing rioters to destroy several square blocks of his city.
April 15: Daley ordered officers to “shoot-to-kill” arsonists and “shoot-to-maim” looters in the event of any future disturbance.
During a peaceful anti-war protest in Civic Center Plaza on April 27, Chicago police officers responded with violence. Their attack sent a message to future protestors—come to Chicago at your own risk.
In early August, the Republicans held their national political convention in Miami Beach, Florida. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and conservative Ronald Reagan, governor of California, both fought for the nomination. They evenutally lost to former Vice President Richard M. Nixon.
The convention itself unfolded with no drama. Some African American residents, however, took to the streets in Miami’s first large-scale rebellion. This civil disturbance left three people dead, again suggesting violence might come to Chicago's convention.
The Democratic National Convention took place in Chicago August 26 through 29, 1968. It was a disaster for nearly everyone involved.
Many delegates experienced bullying on the convention floor. Anti-war activists watched their peace plan get defeated at the convention.
Protestors experienced several days of intimidation and beatings by police in Lincoln Park and Grant Park. Chicago law enforcement endured long hours under dangerous conditions. Media members also took their own beatings.
The week of violence culminated with the Battle of Balbo. At South Michigan Avenue and East Balbo Street police attacked the crowds near the Conrad Hilton Hotel where convention goers stayed. Network television cameras rolled, broadcasting everything.
With President Johnson's departure and Senator Robert F. Kennedy's assassination, the race for the Democratic presidential nomination seemed wide-open.
Some, however, predicted an easy win for Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey.
Whose City is This?
Chicago 1968 often boiled down to a battle over turf. While protestors argued the people’s right to the streets and parks, the police kept authority and enforced curfew laws.
Democratic National Convention Aftermath
On Election Day, Republican Richard M. Nixon squeaked out a narrow victory over Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey.
Hoping to encourage revolution, militant protestors during convention week actually turned some Americans against them. Many did not like these protestors' approach to social and political change. Nixon’s win started several decades of Republican Party dominance.
All sides wanted to tell their own version of what happened that violent week in Chicago.
The Days of Rage
The Weatherman, a radical student group, came to the city in October 1969. They rallied against the Chicago 8 trial. The federal government put eight activists on trial for starting the Democratic National Convention riots a year earlier.
Weathermen performed street theater, vandalized, and sabotaged during its Days of Rage. Unlike 1968, though, few Chicagoans supported these demonstrators.
Chicago 8 Trial
Chicago officials wanted to hold somone responsible for the 1968 Democratic National Convention violence. The federal government indicted eight protest leaders on anti-riot charges. The government, however, could not secure lasting convictions.
The Legacy of Chicago 1968
Chicago 1968 immediately became part of 1960s folklore, with images of blue-helmeted police and long-haired youth stuck in people's minds.
Some viewed Mayor Daley and the Chicago Police's reaction to the convention week activists as the only correct response. Others saw Chicago 1968 as another example of Boss Daley and his thugs out of control in the streets and on the convention floor.
Each story contained some truth. Still, Chicago 1968 symbolized a national breakdown in the normal political process.
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The Chicago History Museum gratefully acknowledges the support of The Nicholas D. Chabraja Center for Historical Studies at Northwestern University.
Curator — Andrew S. Baer
Curatorial Assistant — Pieter de Tombe
Rights & Reproductions — Jessica Herczeg-Konency
Rights & Reproductions — Angela Hoover
Imaging Specialist — Joseph Campbell
lmaging Specialist — Stephen Jensen