March 18, 2011

Battle of Michigan Avenue: Chronicles of Chicago

The summer of '68 was a wild one. That summer shook Chicago, changed American politics, and devastated the civil rights movement against the backdrop of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

On March 31st, President Johnson announced he would not seek a second term. The man who won with the highest margin of votes in American history in 1964 had only 30% approval ratings by 1968 due to the Vietnam War.

Less than a week later one of the greatest Americans that ever lived, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Riots on Chicago's West Side broke out and lasted for several days with 9 people killed, over 1,000 homeless, and 2,500 arrested. Mayor Richard J. Daley, unhappy with reports that the police had shown restraint when dealing with the rioters, ordered a shoot to kill order for arsonists and a shoot to maim order for looters. A black could hung over Chicago.

A month later on June 5th, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated after claiming a victory in the California primary election. The shot to the head from Sirhan Sirhan caused RFK to die a day later and ended a political era in American history.

Chicago felt like a city under siege. The nation was tense.

Vietnam protesters organized marches against U.S. involvement in Vietnam during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Mayor Richard J. Daley was prepared to use heavy handed tactics to maintain law and order, and most of the nation agreed with him. With all of the hotels filled with convention goers, thousands of protesters from outside of Chicago gathered in Lincoln Park for the night. The scene was set for a clash. Police ordered everyone out of the park by 11 PM. Final warnings were issued and then the police marched in. The picture above will give you an idea of the kind of chaos that ensued. Police proceeded to beat and arrest not only protesters but the press. The cameras of photographers were smashed and because of this very few images of this battle can be found.

One protester remarked: "This city and the military machine it had aimed at us won't permit us to protest. . . . Therefore we must move out of this park in groups throughout the city and turn this excited, overheated military machine against itself. Let us make sure that if blood is going to flow, let it flow all over this city. If gas is going to be used, let that gas come down all over Chicago. . . . If we are going to be disrupted and violated, let this whole stinking city be disrupted and violated."

"The worst day of protesting was Wednesday, and was dubbed the 'Battle of Michigan Avenue'. Protesters were stopped during their march to the convention site and the media recorded graphic violence on the part of the Chicago police. Many innocent bystanders, reporters and doctors offering medical help were severely beaten by the police."

The scene inside the convention was just as chaotic. Vice President Hubert Humphrey had the nomination sewn up on paper, but this was before Presidential nominees were selected entirely by primary voters. With Humphrey's support of the Vietnam war, his nomination was anything but certain. Things were intense and became negative. The keynote address, usually a positive message, was a rant about how bad the country was. Humphrey did win the nomination, although he would later lose to Nixon.

The most memorable moment from inside the convention was when Sen. Abraham Ribicoff nominated Sen. George McGovern for President and when he did he looked directly at Mayor Daley and said "with George McGovern as President of the United States, we wouldn't have Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago." Mayor Daley was furious and stood up and shook his fist at Ribicoff and yelled either obscenities or what he later said was the word "faker". King Richard I was not an enemy any politician wanted to make. He completely controlled the electorate in Chicago and is widely credited with supplying the margin of victory that got Kennedy elected.

The downtown hotels where the delegates and convention goers were staying were affected by the tear gas. Humphrey, looking down from his hotel room after being nominated as the Democratic candidate for President, was crying from the tear gas used by the police on the protesters as he looked down upon the madness in the streets.

Many hotels where the delegates were staying were affected by the riots. Fumes from the tear gas used by the police and "stink bombs" thrown by the protesters drifted into the buildings.

"When the convention was finally over, the Chicago police reported 589 arrests had been made and 119 police and 100 protesters were injured. The riots, which were widely covered by the media, led to a government funded study to determine the cause of the violence. The study was led by Daniel Walker, a Democratic businessman from Illinois who ran successfully for governor in Illinois in 1972. The study placed most of the blame on the Chicago police. Mayor Daley disagreed with the report and issued the Chicago police a pay raise."

In most cities Daley would've been ran out of town. Chicagoans loved him even more and showed it by electing him with an overwhelming majority in the next election.

For previous Chronicles of Chicago click here. 

Information in quotes taken from here.


  1. Years ago, I wrote a research paper-type thing on Haymarket Square - the bombing , anarchists, and executions. That part of Chicago's history makes the 1968 thing look ALMOST mild in comparision.

    Y'all really know how to do police/protester encounters up there...

  2. God, being away from Chicago so long, I had nearly forgotten the monarch that was the Daley family. It's hard to comprehend a mayor acting with so much power. Living in California, and despite all the crazy that is San Diego, you never hear or see from the mayor. In a way its good and bad. I hated how media-whorish the Daley family was, but at the same time I like seeing someone talk (or BS)to me.

  3. The elder Daley was an evil man. Oddly you can argue that Lyndon Johnson was a great man in terms of social justice being that he was the architect of Head Start, food stamps, Work Study, Medicare and Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act, enabling large amounts of federal Money to be used in state schools and setting up a student loan program for College. He set up the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, to support humanists and artists, passed the Public Broadcasting Act, one of the first expansive Federal Gun law, laws against age discrimination, and more.

  4. Christopher, they should call Chicago and Detroit "twin cities" since they have so much in common- violence, mayoral dynasties, more violence and serious anger issues. On the other hand, we still have our looks and attitudes.

  5. More evidence that government funded studies are useless. And typically meaningless.

  6. Katy: Definitely. I actually wrote a piece on the haymarket affair a while back I might post up again. That whole scene was really insane. A while back when the WTO meetings were here I sort of stumbled on the protest after work and decided what the hell looks like fun. It was a bit surreal, there was a shoulder to shoulder wall of police around the protesters and I probably couldn't have got out of the protest if I wanted to. I just kept thinking back to the history there and thinking well, I might get my ass kicked tonight. It was all pretty peaceful in the end and we got to Michigan Ave. and I got bored with the nonsense the speakers were saying and went home. The police though, really intimidating. It was a cool experience.

    Dutch: Yep, crazy times.

    Tori: And they're only now on their way out... till the next generation anyway.

  7. Laoch: It really goes to show you how much one bad decision can ruin your legacy. If he wouldn't have escalated the Vietnam War so much he would have gone down in history as the second coming of FDR.

    margg: Glad you enjoyed it!

    Rick: Ha, good comparison. I've always liked Detroit and wish it hadn't have fallen on such hard times. I think it's that common trait that we're not afraid to get our hands dirty and disregard the rules just a bit.

    Jayne: Very true, generally by the time they are completed and come in way over budget no one even cares anymore.

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