Chicago 1968: The Whole World Was Watching

The 1960’s were a unique period in American history.  For a period of ten years, to a degree never seen before or since, the entire structure of American corporate society was examined critically by a new generation, and was found to be wanting in nearly every aspect. Protest, dissent and civil disobedience were everywhere; talk of revolution was not only commonplace, but was seriously listened to, advocated and debated.  No area of authority or social convention was left unchallenged—the movement against the Vietnam War questioned the post-World War II American role in the world and its ideological justifications; the flowering of Asian religious traditions challenged the authority of the mainstream American churches; the hippie culture of drugs, free love, “flower power” and individualism challenged conventional morality; the civil rights, gay rights and women’s rights movements unraveled and re-wrote existing race relations, gender roles and sexual relationships; the environmental movement attacked industrialization and its effects; the “New Left” challenged the very basis of the “free market” economy and faceless corporate authority; and a series of demonstrations, protest rallies, sit-ins, teach-ins, and other actions, legal and illegal, challenged conventional “law and order” and undermined all of the traditional authority structures. “Power to the people!” was the Movement’s battle cry.

It was a multi-faceted challenge that shook corporate America to its very roots. And it all came to a head on live TV, in Chicago, during the 1968 Democratic Convention.


A Yippie poster for the 1968 Democratic Convention, on display at the Chicago History Museum

The Cast of Characters, Or, A Readers Digest History of the 1960’s:

The Civil Rights Movement

Theoretically, the American Civil War resulted in the end of slavery and the establishment of Black Americans as full citizens with all the rights of citizenship.  In reality, though, this didn’t happen. When Reconstruction ended, the South came under the control of a virtual single-party political machine, in which Southern Democrats (known as “Dixiecrats”), dominated the Federal and state offices, and within a few decades had implemented a maze of laws and restrictions that turned the South into an apartheid system of racial segregation, known as “Jim Crow”, which left African-Americans voteless, powerless and rightless.

The first crack in Jim Crow came in 1954. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), formed in 1909 to win equal rights for African-Americans through litigation and political lobbying, filed suit in Arkansas against segregated schools. In the landmark Brown v Board of Education case, the Supreme Court agreed that segregated schools were a violation of the Constitution, and ordered that all public schools be made racially integrated.

Southern racist political authorities, however, openly defied the Court decision. White supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Councils used terrorism and fear to oppose integration, and on several occasions, the Federal government had to order US Army troops in to maintain order and enforce the law.

To counter this resistance, African-American activists decided on a course of “civil disobedience” and “nonviolent resistance”, in which boycotts, sit-ins, mass rallies and other actions would be used to force an end to segregation much more quickly and certainly than legal lawsuits and lobbying could.

One of the earliest successes of the civil rights movement was a boycott in Montgomery, Alabama.  In 1955, after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white person, a boycott of the city bus system was organized by local preacher Martin Luther King Jr.  After a year, a Federal Court ordered Montgomery to desegregate its mass transit system. With this success, King joined with other civil rights activists to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which practiced Gandhian nonviolence as a strategy to force social change.

In 1960, four African-American students sat down at a segregated lunch counter at a Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, North Carolina, and refused to leave until they were served. The sit-in sparked worldwide attention, and soon “sit-ins” were being organized at segregated facilities across the country.  By the end of the year, student activists formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC—pronounced “snick”) to continue and expand the fight.  In 1961, SNCC began organizing “Freedom Rides”, in which African-American and white civil rights workers piled into buses to desegregate Southern bus terminals, water fountains, and other public facilities. White supremacists responded by beating the activists, often with the cooperation of local law enforcement officials. “Freedom” buses were sometimes firebombed or shot at, and several “freedom riders” were killed.

SCLC, under the leadership of Martin Luther King, and SNCC soon began to cooperate on larger campaigns. During a desegregation campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, police commissioner “Bull” Connor unleashed fire hoses and attack dogs on the marchers. King was arrested and, in his cell, wrote “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”, spelling out the goals of the civil rights movement.

In 1963, King, SCLC and SNCC organized the March on Washington, and King’s address to the 250,000 marchers, “I Have a Dream”, became one of the most famous speeches in American history.

In the wake of the March on Washington, the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed by Congress.  In the South, however, local Dixiecrat politicians still refused to follow the law, and in response, the civil rights movement organized Freedom Summer, a massive effort to register Black voters and challenge racist institutions across the South. Three civil rights workers, two of them white students from the North, were murdered by the Klan.

Despite the 1964 civil rights law, the elections in Southern states were still heavily rigged by the racist Dixiecrats.  When the Mississippi Democratic Party “elected” an all-white slate of delegates to the Democratic Party Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, civil rights groups organized a “counter-election” and chose a “Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party” slate instead. The Democratic Party had expected the Convention to be a celebration of Lyndon Johnson’s bold actions on behalf of civil rights; instead, the Convention got a firsthand look at the racism in its own ranks. The Mississippi Freedom slate went directly to the Credentials Committee in an effort to be seated at the Convention instead of the all-white official delegation.  In response, other Southern states threatened to withdraw their own (all-white) delegations from the Convention if any of the African-Americans were seated. The Freedom slate was denied credentials, but after most of the official Mississippi delegates walked out in protest of the Party’s civil rights actions, the Freedom delegates were given passes by sympathetic delegates and sat in the vacant seats, singing civil rights anthems.  The next day, when the empty seats disappeared, they stood in the aisles and continued singing.

The Freedom Summer campaign (and the embarrassment caused to the Democratic Party by the Mississippi Freedom delegates) helped lead to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which repealed all of the Jim Crow-era impediments to Black voters, and used the resources of the Federal Government to enforce voting rights.

In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. Even before his death, however, a faction had appeared in the civil rights movement that rejected King’s reliance on nonviolence, and, impatient with the slow progress being made through legal actions and political maneuvering, advocated that “Black Power” be brought to bear on white racism.

Black Power

Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference based their strategy on two ideas; the idea that nonviolent civil disobedience, in the tradition of Thoreau and Gandhi, was the only method that the civil rights movement should use, and the idea that white liberal supporters were encouraged to join the movement as friends and advisers.

In the early 60’s, the best-known critic of both of those propositions was Malcolm X, who was a spokesman for the Nation of Islam. Rather than adherence to nonviolence, Malcolm X declared that African-Americans should win their rights “by any means necessary”, and advised Blacks to own and carry guns to defend themselves from white racists. Malcolm also argued that the organization of Blacks for civil rights was something that Blacks had to do for themselves—he encouraged white supporters to work against racism in their own communities, but insisted that they should play no leadership role within the African-American civil rights movement.

In 1966, in the face of massive and violent resistance to the Freedom Riders and Freedom Summer, a faction within the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee began to echo Malcolm X’s call. When Stokely Carmichael assumed leadership of SNCC, he called for Black activists to arm themselves as a method of defense against the Klan and other racist attacks. Carmichael also made the first calls for “Black Power”. After expelling whites from leadership positions within SNCC, Carmichael pointedly changed the name of the organization from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to the Student National Coordinating Committee.

Black Panther Party

The organization that, above all, personified the idea of Black Power, was the Black Panther Party.

In 1965, the Watts section of Los Angeles, frustrated by years of white racism and brutality at the hands of white police, exploded in riot. A year later, Huey P Newton and Bobby G Seale, inspired by Stokely Carmichael’s call for Black Power, formed an organization they called the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Carmichael soon became a member, as did activists Fred Hampton and Eldridge Cleaver.

The Black Panther Party took its inspiration from two sources. From the speeches of Malcolm X, came the program of Black nationalism, armed self-defense, and Black Power.  From the writings of Marx and Lenin, came an internationalist and socialist program that viewed African-Americans as part of an “underclass” that was being forced into a revolutionary attitude by its repressed social position. Along with “Black Power”, the Panthers declared “Power to the People”.

The Panthers organized a series of community services in Black neighborhoods, including free medical clinics, drug and alcohol rehab programs, and free breakfasts for school children. Much of the Panther activity, however, focused on self-defense against police brutality.  In 1966, fewer than 20 of Oakland’s 660 police officers were African-American, and the white police had reputations as racist bullies.  To combat police brutality, the Panthers sent armed patrols to follow the police and to intervene if necessary to protect civil rights.  When the state of California tried to pass a law making it illegal to carry loaded weapons, the Panthers marched on the state capitol, openly carrying their loaded shotguns.  Armed police and armed Panthers clashed on many occasions, with deaths resulting on both sides. On one occasion, Panther organizer Fred Hampton was shot, unarmed in bed, during a police raid

The Black Panther Party, with its militant Black Power stance and its open display of firearms, scared the shit out of white corporate America.  And, with its Marxist-Leninist rhetoric, the Panthers soon became the darlings of another revolutionary social movement, one that called itself “The New Left”.

The New Left

By the 1960’s, it was apparent that the Marxism/Leninism of the oldline Communist Parties was dead. The Soviet Union had descended into dictatorship, the militant labor movements of the 30’s were gone, and uprisings in Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary had (before being crushed) loosened the USSR’s ideological grip on the world communist movement. Radicals in the US, therefore, began to call for a “New Left”, one based not on authoritarian central authority, but on decentralized grassroots democracy.  They were heavily influenced by syndicalist and anarchist ideas.

The organization that was most closely identified with the New Left began as the student wing of an old-school socialist group, the League for Industrial Democracy. In 1960, the Student League for Industrial Democracy broke with its parent organization, embraced a New Left viewpoint, and changed its name to Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).  In 1962, SDS member Tom Hayden wrote the group’s call for revolution, known as the Port Huron Statement. The Port Huron Statement called for “participatory democracy”, in which grassroots political organization would be the weapon to bring about an end to the nuclear arms race, racial discrimination, poverty, and corporate domination. Hayden became President of the new organization.

For several years, SDS existed only as a small socialist education society with chapters in a few universities and colleges. One of these was the University of California at Berkeley. In October 1964, the campus administration attempted to close down the makeshift booths that SDS and other student political groups used to distribute literature on campus. In response, the Free Speech Movement erupted, and virtually shut down the Berkeley campus with sit-ins and protests, until students were once again given the right to set up literature booths on campus.

When President Lyndon Johnson escalated the Vietnam War in 1965 by bombing North Vietnam, and began expanding the draft to support the war, SDS chapters on several campuses responded by organizing local protest rallies.  SDS organized “teach-ins”, in which organizers explained to large groups of students what the war was all about and how they could organize to oppose it. By 1966, SDS was the largest student antiwar organization in the US. Embraced by the Black Panther Party, the New Left in turn became increasingly more militant in its Marxist and socialist rhetoric.

The Anti-War Movement

In 1954, the French, after losing a battle at Dien Bien Phu to an insurgent army led by Communist Ho Chi Minh, withdrew from their colony in Vietnam. An international conference in Geneva was called to decide what to do with Vietnam, and it was decided that the country would be temporarily divided in two, with the northern section under Ho’s rule and the southern under the leadership of Ngo Din Diem.  Elections were to be held in 1956 to reunify the country. Diem, however, refused to hold any elections and assumed power on his own.  The US, meanwhile, refused to sign the Geneva accords and began giving military assistance to the Diem government. Diem’s brutally heavy-handed methods, however, alienated most Vietnamese, and he was overthrown in 1963 in a US-backed coup. South Vietnam was then run by a series of military governments.

On August 4 1964, two American destroyers in Vietnamese waters reported (wrongly) that they had been fired upon by North Vietnamese gunboats. As a result, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution giving President Johnson authority to carry out military actions in Vietnam.  By 1968, there were 200,000 American troops in Vietnam, and the Tet Offensive demonstrated that they were no closer to “victory” than they had been in 1964. As the number of young people who were being drafted and sent to Vietnam continued to climb, opposition to the war increased, particularly when it seemed that the war was essentially a political one, and the escalating military involvement was accomplishing nothing. TV images of the war showed massive Vietnamese civilian casualties. Antiwar sentiment increased, and antiwar rallies in Washington DC routinely attracted 250,000 people. The war turned into a political disaster for President Lyndon Johnson—antiwar protesters outside the White House chanted “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” Johnson, for his part, believed that “foreign powers” were behind the antiwar movement, and directed many of the FBI’s illegal COINTELPRO efforts against various antiwar organizations, including Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

In the 1968 Presidential campaign, Senator Eugene McCarthy ran against Johnson in the Democratic primaries on an antiwar platform, and did well. As Johnson’s popularity declined, he surprised the nation by announcing that he would not run for re-election.  Johnson’s Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, entered the race and pledged to continue American military actions in Vietnam.

By 1967, various antiwar groups had united into a coalition called the National Mobilization Committee to End the War In Vietnam, more commonly known as “The Mobe”.  In October 1967, The Mobe organized a march on the Pentagon with 100,000 people. Some 800 protesters were arrested at the Pentagon for civil disobedience. Among the most theatrical and flamboyant protesters were the “Youth International Party”, more widely known as “The Yippies”.

The Yippies

The Yippies had their beginnings in the hippie counterculture. The hippies (no one is quite sure where the name came from) first came to life in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, where a group of young people, many of them veterans of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, adopted a lifestyle that emphasized peace, love, and individual freedom.  The wide-ranging hippie philosophy borrowed heavily from Eastern religion and Native American traditions, and they often referred to themselves as a “tribe”.  The hippies rejected “Establishment” values and embraced free sexuality, individual liberation, ecological awareness, and the recreational use of drugs like marijuana and LSD to expand consciousness.  Many hippies lived in large communes where everything was shared equally, rejecting the American consumer culture of materialism and greed.  They also rejected the American sense of aesthetics, which they viewed as a faceless mass of grey colorless conformists, and their clothing and art displayed an explosion of color—tie-dyed t-shirts, long hair, beaded jewelry, flowers, and colorful headbands became the hippie dress of choice.

In early 1967, a series of “be-ins” were held in San Francisco and New York, where thousands of beaded and bearded young people gathered to simply “be”, and to “celebrate the beauty of the universe and the beauty of being”.

While the hippies viewed themselves as a counter-culture and a deliberate challenge to mainstream American society, most of them rejected any sort of organized political action, dismissing it as a “power trip”.  One outgrowth of the hippie movement, however, not only advocated direct political action, but viewed the hippie counter-culture as a vehicle for doing it.

Without doubt, the Yippies were the most unique political movement ever experienced in American history.

The Yippies were never a real organization; there was never any formal structure or membership.  They never even had a real name; although they sometimes used the mocking title “Youth International Party” (a name used by no one else, except the utterly humorless FBI)—the name was simply a play on “yip yip yippeeee!”, the cry of the Native American coyote trickster.

The most prominent “spokesmen” for the Yippie movement were Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. In their speeches and writings, they advocated a “New Nation” that was based on the hippie ethic of peace, love, and individual freedom. “We are a people,” one Yippie leaflet declared. “We are a New Nation. We want everyone to control their own life and to care for one another.”

Rejecting the tired old authoritarian politics of the Old Left Communists and Trotskyists (one Yippie declared that if the oldline Left ever gained power, the first thing they would do is force the hippies to shave and get a haircut), the Yippies embarked on a program to topple American corporate culture by making fun of it.  Understanding the power of mass media, and with an uncanny eye for street theater and symbolic imagery, the Yippies used pranks, put-ons and “guerrilla theater” to mock the Establishment and point out its absurdities. In one famous incident, a group of Yippies took a guided tour of the New York Stock Exchange, and when the tour reached a balcony overlooking the trading floor, they threw hundreds of dollar bills over the railing.  The entire stock exchange shut down, as visitors were treated to the sight of wealthy white stocktraders in three-piece suits madly scrambling over top of each other to grab as many dollar bills as they could. In another piece of theater, when Jerry Rubin was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he appeared dressed in the uniform of a Revolutionary War soldier, passing out copies of the Declaration of Independence to onlookers.

In 1967, the Yippies organized a massive rally at the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War. With typical humor, they announced that they intended to invite a group of witches to exorcise the Pentagon of its evil spirits, and calmly applied for a permit to “levitate the entire building”. A newspaper photograph at the event, showing beaded hippies placing flowers into the rifle barrels of National Guard troops, became an iconic image of the 1960’s.


Me, at the General Logan statue in Grant Park, where the 1968 Convention police riot began.

The Chicago Demonstrations
In the summer of 1968, all these forces came together in Chicago.

After the assassination of Robert F Kennedy, who was running on an antiwar platform, in June 1968, it became apparent that Vice President Hubert H Humphrey would be the Democratic party nominee, and that he would continue the unpopular war in Vietnam.

In response, anti-war groups began to discuss plans for a protest at the site of the Convention, in Chicago. In March 1968, representatives from several groups, including Rennie Davis from The Mobe, Tom Hayden from SDS, antiwar activist David Dellinger, and Yippies Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, met near Chicago to organize demonstrations at the convention. The Yippies had already issued their own call for “A Festival of Life” at the Convention. In typical exuberant Yippie style, they declared: “Join us in Chicago in August for an international festival of youth, music, and theater. Rise up and abandon the creeping meatball. Come all you rebels, youth spirits, rock minstrels, truth-seekers, peacock-freaks, poets, barricade-jumpers, dancers, lovers and artists! . . . Bring blankets, tents, draft-cards, body-paint, Mr Leary’s Cow, food to share, music, eager skin, and happiness. The threats of LBJ, Mayor Daley, and J Edgar Freako will not stop us. We are coming! We are coming from all over the world!”

The Mobe planned a series of teach-ins and mass demonstrations. The Yippies, more creatively (and far less seriously), announced fanciful plans for a public “fuck-in”, declared that they would slip LSD into the city’s water supply, would infiltrate the Convention by seducing the delegates’ wives and daughters, and would pull down Hubert Humphrey’s pants while he spoke at the podium. They also proposed to nominate a pig (named “Pigasus The Immortal”) as the Democratic Party’s Presidential nominee.

“The Establishment” confronted “The Movement” in the form of Mayor Richard Daley, who ran Chicago like a personal fiefdom. When the demonstrators asked for a permit to sleep in the city parks, Daley denied the request and announced that an 11pm curfew would be enforced. After an appeal to a Federal Court failed to overturn the curfew, several protest groups called off the planned demonstration, but many protesters were already in Chicago. With nowhere else to go, they stayed in Grant Park, across the street from the convention. As the Chicago Police moved in to evict them, a few people climbed up the statue of General Logan and tied a Viet Cong flag to it. The police then pursued them with batons swinging, before quickly turning on the rest of the crowd and indiscriminately clubbing and tear-gassing protesters, journalists, and passers-by, in the park and then in the nearby streets, in what was later officially called “a police riot”. TV cameras showed images of helmeted police beating young teenagers into unconsciousness, while the onlooking crowd chanted, “The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!”


A Chicago Police helmet, on display at the Chicago History Museum


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