Lessons from the 1968 Democratic Convention: Under the Shadow of Protests

There are important lessons to be learned from the Democrats’ 1968 Chicago convention.

The turbulent 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago holds important lessons. Anti-war sentiment and political unrest darkened the national mood and fueled violent protests.

This series was produced by Matt Spolar, in partnership with Politico.

Related: What Aaron Sorkin Left Out of His Newest Film by Alex Remnick

For teachers
  • Producer: Matthew Spolar
  • Associate Producer: Victor Couto
  • Reporter: Amy Lee Hochman

For Educators


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.

Background reading

The 1968 Democratic National 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. 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.

Lesson Plan 1: 1968 Democratic National Convention – The Mess in Chicago

Students will learn how internal tensions over Vietnam and the cultural changes of the 1960s led to violence and chaos at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.


Students will:

  • Examine the ideological disunity and political divisions of the Democratic Party in 1968.
  • Summarize, compare and contrast, and draw logical inferences from primary source documents regarding the presidential election of 1968.
  • Collaborate with peers in pairs and/or small groups to discuss, analyze, and assess text and visual primary source documents.
  • Develop a position and present a viewpoint based on historical evidence.
Essential questions
  • How was the 1968 Democratic National Convention a representation of the political, social and cultural divisions of the country in the 1960s?
  • To what extent were the counterculture demonstrations and political protests during the 1968 Democratic National Convention fueled by racial issues, economic inequities, anti-Vietnam war dissent, and rebellion against traditional authority?
Additional resources
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.9:Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.2:Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.7: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
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D1.4.9-12.Explain how supporting questions contribute to an inquiry and how, through engaging source work, new compelling and supporting questions emerge.
    • D2.His.1.9-12.Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.
    • D2.His.5.9-12.Analyze how historical contexts shaped and continue to shape people’s perspectives.
    • D3.1.6-8.Gather relevant information from multiple sources while using the origin, authority, structure, context, and corroborative value of the sources to guide the selection.
    • D4.1.6-8.Construct arguments using claims and evidence from multiple sources, while acknowledging the strengths and limitations of the arguments.
  • AP U.S. History
    • Period 8: 1945-1980
    • Topic 8.8: Vietnam War

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

      Theme: America in the World (WOR)

  • AP Government and Politics
    • Unit 5: Political ParticipationTopic 5.3: Political Parties
      Topic 5.8: Electing a President
      Topic 5.9: Congressional Elections
      Topic 5.10: Modern Campaigns