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1968: A U of C student spends a long hot summer away from home

Memoirs & Miscellany Add comments

By Martin Northway

“The whole world is watching, ” they chanted: but you didn’t have to be a protester stuck in the “police riot” in Grant Park during the 1968 Democratic National Convention to know that Chicago was in the hot crucible of history. You might have been an inquisitive observer like me, a (remarkably perhaps) non-radical University of Chicago undergraduate remaining in Chicago through the summer. By fall, it seemed as if the whole world was exploding—or at least America, as we had known her.

Arriving as a freshman in 1966 with the draft nipping at my heels, I had reported for the upstart, vaguely counterrevolutionary Other. We thoroughly covered a campus appearance by Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who was challenging the Vietnam War leadership of President Lyndon Johnson. Once I breathlessly phoned in a radical student leader’s impassioned challenge to the U of C’s cooperation with the Selective Service. She pleaded for “peace, justice … and the democratization of the University” (hints of Superman: you can’t say the Left totally lacked humor).

An integrated island in the “ghetto” including then-teeming Woodlawn and Englewood, Hyde Park seemed a perfect storm of intellectual ferment, cultural change, and antiwar and civil-rights activism. Trying to hold together the fraying threads of segregated Chicago was Bridgeport’s original Mayor Daley, Richard J., whose Machine kept “the city that works” “working.” Its most prominent visage on the South Side was the beleaguered, take-all-prisoners police, white Chicago’s blue curtain.

Chicago’s long, hot summer actually began in January of ’68 with the Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army’s (NVA) desperate Tet Offensive against American troops in South Vietnam igniting across our television screens. On March 31, Johnson withdrew his name from nomination for another term as president; in our fraternity, a wastebasket was emptied over the television before his surprise announcement.

But on April 4, Dr. King was gunned down in Memphis, and in black Chicago the whole world was up for grabs. The death of King heralded the demise of hope, and on the West Side white-owned businesses were looted. We stood on the roof of our residence and watched twenty blocks blazing as Mayor Daley ordered police to “shoot to kill” arsonists.

On the South Side, snipers were targeting fire trucks. Shaken refugees, students living in Woodlawn retreated to the rooms of Hyde Park friends. One day, black youths in small groups boldly passed through our neighborhood, gathering by thousands on the Midway to hear Blackstone Ranger gang leader Jeff Fort implore them to keep the peace on the South Side. Cynical realists said the intent was to preserve the businesses that were the street gangs’ extortion base. Bivouacking in Washington Park, Illinois National Guardsmen prowled Hyde Park in jeeps and troop trucks.

In June, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, disheartening most Americans and further fueling antiwar activism. The Democratic Convention was to open in Chicago’s Amphitheatre in August, and the city seemed primed for another perfect storm, antiwar elements gravitating toward Senator Eugene McCarthy and rank-and-filers to Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey. It would fall to Daley and his “troops” to secure order while antiwar extremists sought to exploit the media to dramatic effect. (Humphrey also visited campus; exiting his sleek limousine at Hutchinson Commons, he seemed oblivious to the curses of demonstrators shouted over helmeted riot police, the rosy chubby-cheeked “happy warrior” waving and flashing a smile into television floodlights.)

Many delegates were quartered in the Conrad Hilton Hotel. Antiwar leaders established a speakers’ platform across Michigan Avenue in Grant Park. Young demonstrators tried to camp out in Grant and Lincoln Parks, which police attempted to clear at night.

One witness was future award-winning author Larry Heinemann (“Paco’s Story”), recently returned from his Vietnam tour as a combat infantryman, signing on as a CTA bus driver like his dad before him. Wheeling up Clark Street toward Lincoln Park, he got a whiff of tear gas and parked the bus. “I could see the cops and the kids,” he told Studs Terkel for “The Great Divide.” Passengers and even a supervisor exhorted him to continue, but he knew the effects of tear gas and refused: “I fully expected people were going to get killed.”

He was in the Loop before the “police riot” in Grant Park and saw the staged busloads of helmeted police in riot gear. I cannot say I regret missing that event, but I did not want to skip the history boiling up in my backyard either. With buddies I went to Grant Park, rubbing shoulders with demonstrators. One night I was with my friend Paul, a native Chicagoan on leave from the Navy. Intolerant of ineptitude, he helped some kids coax a fire from tinder just yards from the speakers’ stand.

I lolled alone on a bridge over the Illinois Central as National Guardsmen marched in cadence toward the lake, when after they passed protesters hurled empty bottles at them, landing with explosions of glass, one hitting the back of a Guardsman who wheeled about with his M-14. I was the only civilian in sight, but gratefully he showed restraint.

As the convention wound down toward Humphrey’s nomination, Paul and I arrived at the statue knoll southeast of the Hilton just after protesters marched toward the Amphitheatre. Across deserted Michigan Avenue, a shoulder-to-shoulder file of Guardsmen backed up by police lined the hotel sidewalk. It was dark and hushed. Intending to put his mother’s mind at ease, Paul ran across the street to commandeer a pay phone behind the ranks of soldiers.

Meanwhile the demonstrators were noisily returning, trying to push north up Michigan Avenue. The soldiers swung like a gate, pressing the demonstrators into the park. Then someone screamed, and the youngsters were running pell-mell ahead of the soldiers and police bearing down on them. Puffs of tear gas emerged over their heads in the panorama spread out below me. Finding Paul in this rampancy was impossible, but I stayed put until he arrived panting at the last possible moment.

We quickstepped north through the park among hundreds of others. Paul coached me on tear gas: “Don’t panic. Don’t rub your eyes. The burning will pass.” It did. Paul said some kid had fallen off a curb into a Guardsman and a cop had sprayed the kid with mace; that was the source of the scream. As we approached the Art Institute, dozens of tear-gassed protesters were dunking their heads in the pools of water, as if bobbing for apples.

Fearful America was like a deer caught in the headlights of history. In November, Richard Nixon beat Humphrey by a whisker. But only days after the convention, I had met the hazel-eyed brunette beauty who saved me from volunteering for Vietnam. Near our wedding at the end of 1969 my vulnerability to the draft ended when I drew a 319 in the national lottery.

Still there was the War, always the War. Then I was a bouncer at Chances R pub in Hyde Park, and one night we hosted the Conspiracy Seven defendants during the theatrical trial on riot charges stemming from their activism at the convention. They were led by their flamboyant attorney William Kunstler, glasses propped on his thatch of graying hair, overcoat thrown across his shoulders.

Years later, I found myself again in Grant Park near the Hilton, this time in June 1986, for the parade welcoming 200,000 Vietnam veterans for a long-delayed homecoming and healing. Only months after my wife’s death, I was making my own peace with men I felt I had somehow failed, falling in with troops of the 101st Airborne, thanking them and listening to their stories.

I was with them behind the Grant Park band shell as retired General William C. Westmoreland—U.S. commander in Vietnam—descended the stairway to make a speech. The four silver stars on his shoulders glinted in the sun as he shook hands with the troopers. He paused before reaching the decorated vet next to me, whose friend inquired, “Aren’t you going to shake hands with the general?”

The paratrooper looked Westmoreland squarely in the eye and declared, “I have nothing to say to the son of a bitch.” The ramrod general did not flinch, but I thought I caught some slight hesitation in his steely gaze.

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