32 Photos That Capture The Shocking Violence Of The 1968 Democratic National Convention

Published June 30, 2021

In August 1968, some 10,000 anti-Vietnam War activists descended on Chicago for the Democratic National Convention. Before long, they were confronted by the police.

Police Under 1968 Democratic Convention Sign
Young Woman Facing Police
DNC Protester And Army
Demonstrators On Statue In Grant Park
32 Photos That Capture The Shocking Violence Of The 1968 Democratic National Convention
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Of all the years of American history, 1968 stands out as one of the bloodiest. That year saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the escalation of the Vietnam War, and racial unrest. The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago embodied many of these tensions — with violent results.

No one had any illusions about the possibility of violence at the 1968 Democratic Convention. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley padded his police force with thousands of National Guardsmen and federal troops and swore to keep the peace. But nothing could stop the coming storm.

For a stretch of hot days at the end of August 1968, the streets of Chicago erupted in violence — as Democrats gathered a few miles away to nominate their candidate for president.

The Bloody Months Leading Up To The 1968 Democratic Convention

Anti Vietnam March

Wikimedia CommonsA march protesting the Vietnam War in August 1968.

The year 1968 got off to a bloody start. At the end of January, the Tet Offensive tore through Vietnam — and played out on Americans' television screens at home. This series of attacks by communist forces showed Americans just how badly the war was going. Even the trusted broadcaster Walter Cronkite noted a month later that:

"To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past ... To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion."

President Lyndon B. Johnson remarked that if he'd lost Cronkite, then he'd lost America. Indeed, he made the shocking decision not to run for reelection that March, throwing the country into further political confusion.

The dominoes of violence kept falling. In April that year, the prominent civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in Tennessee. In June, Bobby Kennedy was killed while running for president in California — just a few years after his brother John F. Kennedy met a similar fate.

Meanwhile, the antiwar movement was gaining steam and getting louder. Many young Democrats threw their weight behind Senator Eugene McCarthy, seen to be the antiwar candidate. Others, however, had given up on the process entirely.

"We didn't see the use of electoral politics," said Judy Gumbo, a member of the Youth International Party (called "Yippies"). "We hadn't seen it do anything to end the war."

As the 1968 Democratic National Convention approached, it seemed to many the perfect place to air their grievances.

A Divided Party And A Virulently Antiwar Movement Meet In The Hot Chicago Summer

Protestors Democratic National Convention

Wikimedia CommonsAn ocean of protestors gather outside the 1968 Democratic Convention.

Democrats arrived in Chicago in August 1968 without a candidate. That meant that they would choose a nominee from three men: Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Senator McCarthy, and Senator George McGovern. Thus, the 1968 Democratic Convention promised drama — even without the thousands of protesters that had descended in Chicago.

What did the protesters want? They came to Chicago with myriad motivations. But most agreed on two things: ending the Vietnam War and challenging the Democratic establishment.

As delegates, protesters, and spectators descended on Chicago, they found a city in the throes of a heatwave, its streets packed with police officers. Richard Daly had promised to maintain "law and order." Alongside thousands of Chicago police, he'd enlisted the help of the National Guard and federal troops.

Tensions sparked and crackled between police and protesters. And it wasn't long before that tension exploded into violence. The protesters, determined to march to the convention hall, were pushed back by baton-wielding police.

In one especially violent moment, police pushed protesters against the Hilton hotel — sending them flying through the glass window and into the lobby. Then, the police followed the dazed protesters inside and beat them in front of horrified spectators.

The interior of the 1968 Democratic Convention was more civilized — but only just.

The New York delegation stood up and screamed about stopping the war. Reporters covering the event were manhandled by security, leading Cronkite to call them "thugs" from his anchor booth. And the eventual nomination of Hubert Humphrey led to groans in the conventional hall — Humphrey had not even run in the primaries.

The Legacy Of The 1968 Democratic National Convention

Richard Nixon 1968

Wikimedia CommonsThe Republican candidate, Richard Nixon, would squeak to victory in 1968.

The 1968 Democratic Convention had immediate — and lingering — effects on the country. The whole bloody affair was broadcast on TV, to the shock of nations around the world. It seemed to embody the uncertainty, fear, and fury that pulsed through the United States in the 1960s.

In the end, Hubert Humphrey would narrowly lose to the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon. The Vietnam War would drag on for several more bloody years. And the images of the police beating protesters in Chicago would continue to sear the national memory — demonstrating the fragility of the American experiment.


After reading about the events at the 1968 Democratic Convention, learn about the Chicago Seven, who were arrested for inciting a riot there. Or, meet Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to run for vice president on a major party ticket.

Kaleena Fraga
A longtime contributor and current staff writer for All That’s Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a double degree in American History and French.