Like so many millions of others, I was thrilled by the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, and electrified by his eloquent words to the tens of thousands of people in Grant Park who were celebrating his victory.
At the same time, I thought back to an August night in Grant Park 40 years ago when I was eavesdropping on the remnants of the Youth International Party, the “Yippies,” who had spent the week trying to have their concerns heard by delegates to the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
They had come from all over the country to protest primarily the awful, needlessly prolonged war in Vietnam. But they also targeted the undemocratic way in which Democratic presidential candidates were chosen, a government that seemed to ignore its citizens, and the national shame of denying civil rights to black citizens. In sum, I think, they wanted to call attention to the great gap they saw between what America was meant to be and what it was.
I was in Chicago that summer working vacation relief in the national broadcast news department of United Press International, where I had been a writer and editor before going to graduate school. I had received my Ph.D., in June, but my teaching job—and regular income—did not begin until fall. When I was offered the temporary work, I took it. It was a job I had loved, and it gave me a ringside seat to observe what became a tumultuous convention.
Much of what I saw of the convention was on television and in stories from reporters on the scene. I was rewriting those for broadcast by UPI’s client radio and television stations throughout the country. The news from inside the convention hall, the International Amphitheatre, would have been enough to keep us busy. There were challenges in the credentials committee to delegates, mostly from southern states, who were unabashedly racist, and many other white delegates were reluctant to turn them away. The platform committee was embroiled in bitter arguments over a plank that called for an end to the war in Vietnam, and when the proposal was put to all the delegates, they defeated it. The major candidates for the nomination, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Sen. George McGovern and Sen. Eugene McCarthy, excoriated each other. Fist fights breoke out between delegates and security men. The chair of the New Hampshire delegation was arrested. So were television reporters, even with cameras documenting their treatment.
In the streets, the Yippies gathered night after night to try to march on the Amphitheatre only to be turned back by police wielding nightsticks and spraying Mace. They enraged the police with their beads and beards and sandals, and by scrawling four-letter words on their foreheads in lipstick. Police attacked them indicriminately and threw them into paddy wagons.
What I saw first-hand terrified me. One night, I watched several platoons of police, in uniform and plainclothes, holding shotguns and rifles at port arms, marching south in the middle of Michigan Ave. past Tribune Tower and the Wrigley Building. There was hatred on their faces. Throughout the week, our own UPI newsmen returned to the bureau from covering the melees between protestors and police with eyes watery and burning from tear gas and Mace; one came to the office with blood streaming down his face from a wound in his scalp, which had been laid open by a policeman’s nightstick.
I was assigned to write a wrap-up of the week’s activity for a package of features we sent to clients on the weekends, so after midnight on Thursday, the last night of the convention, I walked down Michigan Avenue to the Conrad Hilton Hotel, where main convention hotel where some of the tear gas police used against protestors wafted up to Vice President Humphrey’s room.
On Michigan Avenue, only a few of the blue-helmeted Chicago police were left, and those stood in the doorways of the convention’s main hotels barring persons who had no room keys or convention credentials, occasionally exchanging light banter with the youths who had been their antagonists for five nights.
I passed into Grant Park through a platoon of young National Guardsmen lined up, I supposed, to prevent the protestors camped there from crossing the street. But they should have had no fear; it was a subdued group. With them were a few delegates wearing McCarthy or McGovern buttons, few curious onlookers, a few newsmen, and all were singing. “Where have all the young men gone,” they sang. And then, over and over, “We shall overcome.”
It was the ghosts of those protestors that held my imagination as I watched and listened to Barack Obama Tuesday night. Was his election not clear evidence that so much that they were protesting has been washed away over the past 40 years? Was it not clear evidence that the gap between the America that was meant to be and the America that is has narrowed greatly?
I could imagine those voices I heard on that last night of the convention singing in counterpoint to Obama’s repeated refrain: “We shall overcome. Yes we can.” And then came the echo of the Yippies’ chant: “The whole world is watching.”