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What Happened at the 1968 Democratic National Convention?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The 1968 Democratic National Convention marked the nomination of Hubert Humphrey as the Democratic candidate for President, but it is remembered more for the riots and protests which surrounded it, along with the bitter contest for the nomination. The events of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago marked the height of the 1960s protest movement, with demonstrators and police clashing in the streets of Chicago for over a week in the hot August weather. 40 years later, protesters attempted to “Recreate '68” at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in Denver and Minneapolis/St. Paul respectively, with little success.

As early as 1967, major players in the protest movement were planning an epic series of protests for the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The idea was to get as many protesters there as possible, and to protest largely peacefully, but forcefully. Protest organizers from groups like the Youth International Party wanted to get a lot of coverage, attracting attention to issues like civil rights and the Vietnam War, and they certainly succeeded in this goal.

In the months preceding the Convention, protest groups filed permits for marches and rallies, often finding their requests stymied at every turn, while the city of Chicago prepared for an influx of demonstrators. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley indicated that he would take lawbreaking during the Convention very seriously, increasing the police presence in Chicago and requesting National Guard for backup. This created an explosive situation which appeared to be on a collision course with disaster.

The protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention might have gone off reasonably peacefully with marches, concerts, and rallies, except that on 22 August, four days before the Convention officially began, an American Indian boy named Dean Johnson was shot and killed by the Chicago police. This sparked mass demonstrations and rioting in which hundreds of police officers and demonstrators were severely injured; riot control agents like mace were utilized in an attempt to calm the crowd, along with billy clubs and mass arrests.

During the days of the actual Convention, the inside of the Convention Center was relatively peaceful, but the streets of Chicago were on fire, sometimes literally. Angry demonstrators boiled over, deviating from permitted marches and rallies, and the Chicago police fought back. In the wake of the convention, eight police officers were indicted, along with eight civilians, who came to be known as the Chicago 8. During the trial for the Chicago 8, winnowed to the Chicago 7 by the time they reached court in 1969, the defendants created a media circus, mouthing off to the judge and refusing to respect the rules of the courtroom.

The turmoil of the 1968 Democratic National Convention came in an already tumultuous year in American history; Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had both been assassinated earlier in the year, and support for the Vietnam War was at a low ebb. The media seized upon the chaos with delight, and it undoubtedly contributed to Humphrey's defeat at the hands of Richard Nixon. Nixon's margin of victory was less than half a million votes, illustrating how closely split the American people were at this point in history.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon233700 — On Dec 08, 2011

This is a very informative article. Good job.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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