Forms of Protest: the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Violence, and Activism

To coincide with the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, this post highlights two letters held by Washington University Archives which outline the anti-war efforts of activists at the historic 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

In 1968 numerous civil rights and anti-Vietnam war organizations faced internal and external crises. In that year Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, and anti-Vietnam war protests reached a fever pitch. While anti-war groups faced opposition from hawkish groups on the right, they also faced obstacles to unity  within their own movement.  The Democratic National Convention, held in Chicago in 1968, would become a testing ground for differing approaches to anti-war demonstration and activism.

Anti-war protests on Washington University campus, early 1968 protest-68-066A-12a

Anti-war protests on Washington University campus, early 1968. From: WU Photographic Services Collection, 68-066A-12a

The following two letters, sent from the National Mobilization Committee to end the war in Vietnam and the Radical Organizing Committee to members of their organizations highlight how approaches to anti-war advocacy differed within the movement. While the NMCEWV favored an explicitly pacifist approach, the ROC determined that the time had come for more strident measures.

The environment in Chicago was tense, as the first letter attests:

 

“We are sure that you realize that this is a testing time in Chicago. Although our plans are for nonviolent actions and we have made clear for months that we do not desire to obstruct the convention or to interfere with the movement of delegates into or out of the convention, Mayor Daley and the Democratic Party have turned Chicago into an armed camp of national guardsmen, airborne troops on standby, barbed wire, tanks, mace, and every conceivable weapon of intimidation and repression.”

Letter, National Mobilization Committee to end the war in Vietnam to Terry Kock, August 1968. Students for a Democratic Society Records, 1956-1969. Series 1: Students for a Democratic Society Material, Series 1, Box 1, Folder 1: Unclassified letters, Dec. 1966 - Aug. 1968.

Letter, National Mobilization Committee to end the war in Vietnam to Terry Kock, August 1968. Students for a Democratic Society Records, 1956-1969. Series 1: Students for a Democratic Society Material, Series 1, Box 1, Folder 1: Unclassified letters, Dec. 1966 – Aug. 1968.

“…we are appealing to people to make it clear that we will not lose our democratic rights by default. We plan to assert our right to march to the Convention and to hold public hearings there… It is our hope that the pressure of tens of thousands of persons ready to march and the pressure from people all over the country will cause the city Administration and the Democratic Party to draw back from the brink and avoid this disgrace, the onus of which will fall heavily on them.”

click here for a full transcription.

A military police vehicle caged in barbed wire. Source: Time Magazine.

A military police vehicle with a barbed wire barricade. Source: Time Magazine.

Protestors confronted with national guard and police forces at the convention. Source: Chicago Tribune.

Protestors confronted with national guard and police forces at the convention. Source: Chicago Tribune.

By contrast, the ROC’s letter advocates more direct action and a fund raising campaign. They viewed the convention in Chicago as a call to action, and planned “educational and training” workshops as well as demonstrations to urge a radical turn in the anti-war movement.

 

letter, Radical Organizing Committee to unnamed recipient, July 25 1968. Students for a Democratic Society Records, 1956-1969. Series 1: Students for a Democratic Society Material, Series 1, Box 1, Folder 1: Unclassified letters, Dec. 1966 - Aug. 1968.

letter, Radical Organizing Committee to unnamed recipient, July 25 1968. Students for a Democratic Society Records, 1956-1969. Series 1: Students for a Democratic Society Material, Series 1, Box 1, Folder 1: Unclassified letters, Dec. 1966 – Aug. 1968.

click here for the full transcription.

“We, the Radical Organizing Committee (roc), are a band of organizers who understand that a radical reconstruction of our society is necessary. To bring this about we must build a world of radicals. Since a person develops a radical critique of his society through an evolutionary process of reading, observing, and direct involvement, our role is to encourage this development…

…While we as a group do not accept any single ideology for building a viable society, we do agree on the necessity of radical education, organization, and confrontation with the social structure…

…At this point we are the only student organization mobilizing support nationally for the demonstration in Chicago while the warmakers [sic] convene. We tentatively plan to hold educational and training workshops as well as demonstrations in Chicago before and during the Democratic Convention.”

More About SDS and the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago

On August 28, some 10,000 protestors gathered in Grant Park for a peaceful demonstration. Mayor Richard J. Daley and other local authorities, on edge from strikes and student activism in Europe and the tumultuous political climate at home, vowed to repress public demonstrations to the fullest. Daley refused to grant protestors the necessary permits to assemble, and called in 23,000 police and national guardsmen to surround the convention space. The result was a melée of violence: police forces incited hostility by assaulting a young man who lowered an American flag in the park. They  used pepper spray and tear gas on the protestors, who responded by hurling rocks and chanting “the whole world is watching” while NBC broadcasted the incident live.

injured protestor_chicago tribune

A protestor injured during clashes with police. Source: Chicago Tribune.

The long-term effect of the protests outside the convention and the disunity and political discord within was the re-shaping of the Democratic National Party. Immediate changes included altering the party’s policies to be more inclusive of minorities in the delegate selection process.

For more about the anti-war and civil rights aims of the SDS see the finding aid to Washington University’s collection of  SDS documents, or consult this guide to archive and library sources about the Vietnam War.   For more about the history of Students For a Democratic Society at Washington University, check out the Special Collections blog post, “The Power of Student Activism.”


This post is part of an occasional series, “Special Delivery – Letters from the WUSTL Archives and Special Collections.”

For more information about the letters and documents displayed here, or in general about Special Collections please contact us.

About the author

Lisa Lillie is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Washington University in St. Louis.