Sep 3, 2018
In 1968, the Democratic Party met in Convention in Chicago to nominate its presidential candidate. This is the Convention that has gone down in history – in the words of Hodding Carter, one of its participants – as the work of “a party that had lost its mind.”
For most people who still remember, the 1968 Convention is associated with the 14-minute live telecast from the streets of Chicago, showing police clubbing and viciously kicking unarmed demonstrators, people who had come to protest the U.S. war on Viet Nam and the Democrats who were carrying it out. Some of those people, bloody on the ground, were shown yelling, “the whole world is watching.”
Or people remember from inside the Convention, Chicago’s mayor, Richard Daley, yelling “fuck you” to Senator Abraham Ribicoff from Connecticut, who had criticized “Boss Daley’s” cops.
In fact, the 1968 Democratic convention should go down in history as the symbol of the inability of the Democratic Party to respond to the deep problems of this country – even at the very moment when social forces were urgently pushing those problems forward.
Opposition inside this country to the U.S. war on Viet Nam had become so strong that Lyndon Baines Johnson, the Democratic president associated with the war, had been forced in March 1968 to announce he would not run for office again.
Only months before, the heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali had refused induction into the army, facing prison for doing it and losing his boxing title. His resistance to the war became a symbol for millions of black people.
“Why should they ask me,” he demanded, “to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Viet Nam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”
With the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April, outrage overflowed into riots that marked most cities in the country. Racist indignity and violence, the war, the poverty – it was all part of the tinder that the assassination of King put the match to.
In Viet Nam itself, U.S. troops had turned to “fragging,” the conscious attacks on commanding officers. The U.S. army was turning itself into an army that would not fight.
Finally – by their actions and sometimes in their statements – workers were turning their backs on the patriotic claptrap that insisted they must support the war by foregoing their demands. They expressed their vast discontent through their strikes. The number of major strikes jumped from 181 in 1963, to 268 in 1965, to 392 in 1968 and 412 in 1969. (To get an idea of the vastness of the workers’ mobilization, compare these figures to the number of major strikes recorded in 2017: seven.)
By the time Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, he had publicly made the connections between the fight of workers for a decent life, the fight of the black population for their rights and the fight against the war. One year before he was killed, King stood at the head of a huge mobilization against the war in New York City. The day he was killed, he was with striking workers in Memphis.
On May 2nd, the Poor People’s March – a mobilization initiated by King before he was killed – took off from Memphis, on the way to Washington, D.C.
Johnson’s War on Poverty, proclaimed so loudly only three years before, was already in retreat. Funds for Head Start and other programs were being cut.
The marchers came from all parts of the country and from different ethnic backgrounds. Setting up a tent city, they called it “Resurrection City.”
Their shanty-town facing the Capitol physically indicted the men who ran this richest country in the world for its rampant poverty. It was an open reproach to Johnson and to the Democrats who controlled not only the White House, but also the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court and most state governments.
Facing clear demands for an end to the war, an end to impoverishment, an end to official racism, the Democrats in Convention had no answers, other than to defend the status quo.
Symbolic of this was their nominee for president. On the first ballot, stifling all attempts to address these issues, they nominated Hubert Humphrey.
Humphrey had been LBJ’s vice-president. He had supported every step of the way into the Viet Nam war – including the early steps taken by John F. Kennedy, the president before Johnson. He continued to support it in his speech to the Convention.
This was not so much a “party that had lost its mind,” as Hodding Carter had put it. It was a party that directly represented the interests of the American capitalist class – just as the Republicans do. In a period when those interests had openly come into collision with the interests of the vast majority of the population, the Democrats sided with the ruling class – even if it cost them the presidency, as well as an enormous loss of Congressional seats.
The Democrats were so much defenders of the capitalist system that they were ready to sacrifice themselves for it. Humphrey, in and of himself, was not the problem. He was only a symbol – to choose him demonstrated openly how totally the Democratic Party stood on the side of the American ruling class.
If there ever was a time when all these social forces in movement called out for the formation of a party that represented the interests of the whole working population, it was 1968. And the Democrats demonstrated then, once and for all, that they cannot be that party.