This year’s Democratic Party Convention marked the 40th anniversary of the momentous Chicago 1968 DNC—one that made the history books as a symbol of the radicalism sweeping the country at the time.
The U.S. anti-war movement was growing, and Columbia University was shut down by a student strike. In October 1967, hundreds of thousands had marched on the Pentagon to stop the war.
After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April, 1968, the country erupted. More than 120 rebellions took place in cities across the United States, including Chicago and Washington, D.C.
The civil rights movement was gaining ground, but also being brutally repressed. At South Carolina State University, three Black students were killed and 27 wounded when state troopers fired on demonstrators demanding the integration of a local bowling alley.
Students and workers in France joined in protests exceeding one million people, fought battles with the police, and launched a general strike of 10 million workers. Protests against war and injustice spanned the globe, and the independence struggle grew throughout Africa.
The Democratic Party, under both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, was identified as the “war party” that had initiated and escalated the war in Vietnam. Hundreds of thousands of young people were chanting, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” In 1968, the idea that simply electing another Democrat would end the war would be a hard sell. Rather, people were propelled into a radical and revolutionary direction against both capitalist parties, which were identified as supporters of the war effort.
As the DNC unfolded, tens of thousands of demonstrators protesting U.S. imperialist war in Vietnam clashed with 11,900 Chicago police, 7,500 Army troops, 7,500 Illinois National Guardsmen and 1,000 Secret Service agents over five days.
The attention of the world was riveted on the police riot that had been unleashed by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. Television cameras broadcast countless scenes of brutal beatings and gassings, which targeted protesters, innocent bystanders, reporters and doctors providing medical assistance to the injured.
Tear gas wafted into delegates’ hotels, and police reportedly broke into some hotel rooms and beat the occupants. A protest against the war broke out amongst delegates on the convention floor. At Fort Hood, Texas, when GI’s were notified they would be mobilized for “riot” duty in Chicago, more than 150 demonstrated all night and 43 Black soldiers were arrested at daybreak.
Eight protest organizers later were indicted. The “Chicago Eight” included Bobby Seale, chairman of the revolutionary Black Panther Party. During the trial, Seale was bound and gagged in his chair for three days, simply for demanding his right to fair representation. He was then convicted on contempt charges, sentenced to four years and his case severed from the rest.
Official police reports claim 589 people were arrested and 100 demonstrators injured, but the Medical Committee for Human Rights estimates that over 1,000 people were treated at the scene alone.
Chicago 1968 is worth remembering not only for the sake of the sacrifices made by the militant activists who courageously stood up to the army and police. The televised images of the brutal state repression entered homes throughout the whole country. They cemented within the consciousness of many where the Democratic Party truly stood on the issues of war, civil liberties and dissent.
Forty years on, the Democratic Party talks a big talk about “change” while it peddles endless war and dissenters are directed to cages. The Democrats have indeed changed little, and the lessons of ‘68 remain relevant today.