[Note to readers: “Memories of the Student Movement and the New Left in the United States, 1960-1969” is a five-part participant-observer account of the period written in 1996 by Jim O’Brien, New Left activist, historian, and editor at New England Free Press. Part I of this essay can be found here, Part II of this essay can be found here, and Part III of this essay can be found here.]
A VIEW FROM THE WHIRLWIND: SDS AND THE CAMPUS REVOLT, 1968–1969
Between the East Lansing convention and the start of the 1968-69 school year, something happened that hurled SDS at the future like a hand grenade. That something was the Democratic National Convention held in Chicago at the end of August.
The Democratic Party in mid-1968 stood on the verge of being torn apart by the Vietnam war. Lyndon Johnson had left the presidential race and Bobby Kennedy was dead — shot in a Los Angeles hotel the night he won the California primary in early June. That left only one candidate who had faced the voters in the primaries: the aloof, mistrusted maverick Eugene McCarthy. Senator George McGovern of South Dakota put himself forward as a surrogate for the Kennedy delegates who shunned McCarthy. But most delegates had been chosen by party leaders in their states, not by presidential primaries. Their votes, for the most part, were locked up for Vice President Hubert Humphrey, whose loyalty to LBJ had never wavered. The man who once called the Vietnam war “a glorious adventure” was about to win the Democratic nomination for president. In the meantime, the former Democratic governor of Alabama, George Wallace, was running as an conservative independent with populist rhetoric. With Wallace and Richard Nixon already in the field (the Republicans chose Nixon at their July convention), the likely choice in November was among three zealous supporters of the Vietnam war.
That the Democrats were meeting in Chicago was symbolic. Chicago was the fiefdom of Mayor Richard Daley, the quintessential big-city white political boss and a stalwart of the regular party forces that were set to impose Hubert Humphrey’s nomination on the party. His police force seemed to be spoiling for a fight — in April, Chicago police had violently broken up a Vietnam demonstration. The Democratic convention promised to be a magnet for protest.
Three different groups announced demonstrations. The McCarthy campaign hoped to rally its young volunteers for one last stand in Chicago. But when city authorities refused a permit, the McCarthy leaders backed down and called off the demonstration. Less easily deterred was an anti-war coalition sparked by Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden, SDS leaders of the early sixties, who saw a chance to dramatize the depth of opposition to the Vietnam war. Finally, the “Youth International Party” (“Yippies”) of media celebrities Abbie Hoffmann and Jerry Rubin called for a festival in Chicago. Its leaders set forth a tongue-in-cheek list of promises that included putting LSD in the Chicago water supply.