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Lesson Plan

1968 Democratic National Convention: The Mess in Chicago

About this Video
This six-minute video explores the violence and disorder that played out before a national television audience at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. At the height of the Vietnam War, and in a context of escalating racial and cultural tensions, the failure of the Democratic Party to unify around the pro-war candidacy of Hubert Humphrey resulted in physical violence on the floor of the convention hall, as well as on the streets surrounding it. The video is useful for lessons covering the 1968 election, or for lessons demonstrating the cultural and political tensions dividing America in the late 1960s.
  • How divisions over the Vietnam War led to physical and political conflict at the Democratic National Convention in 1968.
  • How the cultural and political context of the late 1960s contributed to the divisions and conflict at the convention.
  • How the Democratic Party responded to the violence and disorder at its convention with internal reforms of its rules and procedures.
  • Social Studies
  • Civics & Government
  • U.S. History
  • 1968 Election
  • Campaigns and Elections
  • Lyndon Johnson
  • Political Parties
  • 1960s America
For Teachers
Introducing the Lesson

The 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago has been defined by the street battle between city police and anti-war protesters, but an equally important fight took place behind the cameras.

The party that year was bitterly divided over the Vietnam War. And the divisions were exaggerated by the party primaries, which pitted anti-war candidates Senator Eugene McCarthy against Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

That battle was nullified when Kennedy was assassinated just after narrowly winning the California primary in June.

But when the Chicago convention started in August, the favored candidate was not the anti-war McCarthy, but Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, a liberal who supported the war.

That split the party even further. Humphrey had not even entered a primary but he was able to secure the inside track, and eventually the nomination, thanks to the support of party bosses like Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. They controlled blocks of delegates who were not subject to primary elections.

Humphrey’s loss to Richard M. Nixon that fall led to dramatic reforms within the Democratic Party that shifted the selection of delegates to primaries and caucuses.

That decision significantly increased voter participation, but decisive presidential defeats in 1972 and in 1980 eventually led to more party reforms, which returned a percentage of so-called super delegates to members of Congress and state chairs by 1984.

But the debate over super delegates continues.

Essential Questions
  • What were the sources of tension and disagreement in the Democratic Party during the 1968 Democratic National Convention? What recent events and cultural developments contributed to this tension?
  • What was the primary political objective of the protesters at the 1968 Democratic convention?
  • How did Mayor Daley and his police force in Chicago respond to the protests?
  • What new rules emerged within the Democratic Party following the chaos and violence of the 1968 convention?
Lesson Procedure
  • Other than its technical function as the process for nominating a presidential candidate, what rhetorical function does a convention play in a campaign? In what sense do national conventions function almost like a TV show staged by the political parties? What are the parties trying to communicate when they stage their conventions?
  • As they watched the 1968 Democratic National Convention on TV, what conclusions do you think undecided voters may have drawn about the Democratic Party’s ability to lead the country for another four years?
  • What was the cultural divide between the Chicago police force and the youthful protesters? How do you think the two groups viewed each other? In what sense was this division a microcosm of the larger cultural changes and divisions of the 1960s?
  • Do you think the modern Democratic Party’s ideology and cultural values are more similar to the establishment forces who presided over the convention, or the protesters outside the convention hall?
Additional Resources
Transcript for "Lessons from the 1968 Democratic Convention: Under the Shadow of Protests" Retro Report

Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.

Evaluate citizens’ and institutions’ effectiveness in addressing social and political problems at the local, state, tribal, national, and/or international level.

Skill 1.B: Explain a historical concept, development, or process.

Theme: America in the World (WOR)

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