Chicago: Law and Disorder 

Chicago History Museum

“There were two Americas in Chicago, but there always are.”
Arthur Miller / 1969

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.

School boycott flyer, 1963
Anti-Civil Rights demonstrators, 1966

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.

Buildings burned by riots after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assasination, Chicago, 1968
Chicago police making an arrest, 1968
Natoinal Guard troops near the Water Tower, 1968

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.

Injured anti-Vietnam War protestor, Chicago, 1968

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.

Nixon supporter,  Miami Beach, Florida, 1968

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.

Democratic National Convention program cover, 1968

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.

Senator Robert F. Kennedy, 1968
Chicago Seed newspaper convention week edition (left and above), 1968
Activist Dick Gregory (left) and Senator Eugene McCarthy, 1968
Musician Mary Travers (left) and politician Julian Bond, 1968
Protestors'  hospital and communications center, Lincoln Park, 1968
Police arresting Pigasus the Pig, 1968
National Liberation Front flag, 1968

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.

National Guardsmen, South Michigan Avenue, 1968
National Guard jeeps, 1968
Chicago Police officers awaiting a possible confrontation, 1968
Protestors, S. Michigan Ave. and E. Balbo St., 1968

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.

Protestors marching on Michigan Avenue, Chicago, 1968

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.

Weatherman march, 1969
Door smashed during Days of Rage, 1969

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.

Five of the Chicago 8 defendants, 1969

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.

Battle of Balbo, 1968

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The Chicago History Museum gratefully acknowledges the support of The Nicholas D. Chabraja Center for Historical Studies at Northwestern University.

Credits: Story

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

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