Notes from the underground
The full transcript from our "Freedom Fighters" roundtable.
TOC: What, in retrospect, do you feel was accomplished?
James: I think what Marilyn said, that I would agree to (and maybe all of us), is that really set the tone for the politics that followed. And what it accomplished was bringing people together. I mean, you have to take the whole city; you have to look at [antisegregationist] Al Raby and the demonstrations around the schools, and the Willis Wagons [portable classrooms reportedly used to perpetuate segregation], the emergence of the Black Panther Party and on to the election of Harold Washington. I think we set the groundwork for what, in a real sense, was a kind of a Rainbow Coalition. There were progressive people in the Latino communities, among some whites, and in the black communities. And the most immediate thing that I remember was the election of Harold Washington a number of years later.
Peck: But that would have been a consolation prize in 1968. You weren’t looking to elect anybody.
James: We wanted to elect [Chicago activist] Peggy Terry and Eldridge Cleaver. What I did in the fall was to run Peggy Terry’s campaign on the Peace and Freedom ticket when Eldridge was running for President. So we went around the country, trying to use that as a way to reach white working-class people around radical politics.
Schultz: The dissenters of the Democratic Party actually identified very much with what happened on Wednesday night; the whole day Wednesday. And they identified with the protests. The Amphitheatre was just in chaos. They were all pushing out of the aisles to go to the television sets and out in the hallways in order to watch what was happening. They were seeing scenes like this guy in a jacket and tie fighting, flailing with his fists, without any care for his life, and the cops going at him with a club, and they’d go back and forth and back and forth on every side. And that sort of thing threw the whole nomination proceedings into, well, more than chaos. You had the media making decisions to shift from standard fare of what was going on at the podium and the voting at the Amphitheatre to what was going on in the streets. Back and forth. Almost every nomination speech was interrupted by footage of the attack at the flagpole in Grant Park, of the people performing behind the Poor People’s Campaign wagons; going to the confrontation at Michigan and Balbo or what happened for the rest of the night. [Hubert] Humphrey was hounded throughout September. Every time he tried to make a speech, he was being heckled, heckled, heckled about police brutality in Chicago. For a while, whenever he’d make a speech, he couldn’t even finish.
Rose: And he changed his line.
Schultz: He changed his line.
Rose: Not soon enough. (Laughs)
Schultz: Not soon enough, exactly. But there was a big split in the Humphrey campaign.
Katz: But I do think there was—
Schultz: Well, there was just one. The September 30 speech, which Larry O’Brien, his campaign chair, saw that he moved just barely one or two inches away from Johnson. They had accused the antiwar movement of not being able to read political signals, but after that, Humphrey wasn’t bothered. And the signs went up, “Did you mean it?” (Laughs)
Kurshan: I think that ’68, and actually, the events that followed, did establish the Vietnam Syndrome and did make it more difficult for the U.S. to militarily move wherever it wanted in the world. And unfortunately—I just finished reading Naomi Klein’s book, Shock Doctrine; did anyone read that book? Well anyway, it’s pretty amazing. Our goal was really to make sure that there wouldn’t be another Vietnam, and that we have not succeeded in doing, clearly.
I remember saying back then that we didn’t just want a new candidate because we knew that there would be future wars if the country didn’t change. So on the one hand, I feel like we were able to put a brake on; on the other hand, we’re still dealing with the same nefariousness.
Rose: Twenty-four years after 1968, I think it was, we got another war. And it was very short and most Democrats voted against it. Ten years after that, we got one where most Democrats voted for it, but it was a good split.
Peck: We had more progress.
Rose: They got scared. More voted for the second Iraq War than voted for the Gulf War because they felt that they had been discredited because the first Gulf War was so easy.
Katz: I think there’s two or three different levels. For one, we did accomplish a lot locally—not only did we get Harold Washington, but we have a congressional delegation—to a person—that was forged out of ’68. Danny Davis, anti-war stuff, civil rights. Luis Gutierrez, Young Lords, Jan Schakowsky, consumer and anti-war advocate. So this was a convention that really forged the alliance between Latinos, blacks and whites that elected Harold Washington.
Rose: Gus Savage. [controversial former congressman]
Katz: (laughs) Gus Savage. I think the alliance that was forged then—not just the convention, but also King’s speech that made the tie between domestic policy and foreign policy that has carried through. I think it’s Barack Obama. I think it’s the fact that my daughter, who’s 22, grows up with a critique of U.S. foreign policy. It was the ending, for better or for worse, of an illusion which all of us (children of the ’50s) grew up with—that the U.S. was a total democracy and that all of our foreign policy was benign. It was a loss of innocence for the entire country, which was very painful, but in fact offers a new way of existing in the world. So that, to me, is the lasting—yes, Nixon won, Johnson lost. We also, in the interim, ended the war by ’72 or ’73. It changed the way power was shared and policy was forged in this country.
Peck: I kind of agree with what both Marilyn and Nancy said. But I think the beat goes on. Clearly, racial politics are significantly different than they were 40 years ago. The whole idea of gender politics—I remember when the first gay person at The Seed came out—it was a shocker, you know? The whole idea of any kind of planetary consciousness, whether it was Stewart Brand [creator of “The Whole Earth Catalog”] and “how can we see the whole earth,” or even before that, the first underground press convention was about that. Internationalism—that we have this international perspective. Some of it’s a little more mixed. We’re in Iraq and you know, there we are. We understand, we punched through, we understand that kind of loss of innocence and we understand that journalism—that objectivity—is not a religious experience. But what’s replacing that? And we’re still being born and I think that some of the people in this room are still trying to help—to be midwives, if you will. To try to bring on something else that would be more conscious or more germane.
Kurshan: I don’t mean to be pessimistic, but…racial politics have changed, but there are two-and-a-half-million black people under control of the criminal justice system, most of them black. And I think that although Barack is probably the best candidate (if he becomes a candidate) that will ever have existed in this country, I have concerns that unless there is a militant movement in the streets, that once he gets in office—
Katz: Well, that’s about us; that’s not about him.
Kurshan: I’m not saying it’s a concern about him. It’s a concern about us, exactly. That’s what I’m saying.
Katz: The interesting thing about this war—and Don was involved with me and Michael in pulling together the first demonstrations against Iraq.
James: Actually, you had me speak on the same podium as Obama.
Peck: And the U.S. left immediately.
Katz: But we had more people out in the streets against the war in Iraq in six months than in the first ten years of demonstrations against Vietnam. What has changed is two things: one is the fragmentation of the media, but two is that you have an insular presidency, that unlike the guys in ’65 who actually responded, or—
Kurshan: I agree.
Rose: I want to make a lateral point here. This is Time Out Chicago. I want to talk about how interesting it is that Chicago, in the middle of the country, is a crucible of so many things during this period. This was the place that Martin Luther King decided to make his Northern stand. This was the place where the ’68 convention took place. This was the place where we sent the first black Democratic senator since Reconstruction to the U.S. Senate. This is where we elected the first black mayor of a major [city]. This is the place where we had some of the largest anti-Iraq movements. Now we have the first black Presidential candidate come up. We have a long period of history—we can go back to the fact that the May Day movement started in Chicago. This has been a crucible of social action. The May Day movement began when they were striking for the 40-hour week—big, radical stuff like that. And on and on and on. And I think there’s something in the air here.
James: The SDS office was here. A lot of people left to come organize in Chicago. I always talked about Chicago as the center of the universe. I used to say that we had larger concentrations of more diverse racial, religious and ethnic groups than anywhere in the world. More Poles than there were outside of Warsaw, more Greeks than there were outside of Athens—you could go down that list.
Schultz: But also more segregation.
James: While they pushed the segregation—how we were the most segregated city—there was also a lot of crossover, like the Polish-black—
Rose: We have the largest mix of Latinos.
James: I just want to affirm that this is the key place to be on the planet.
James: Every truck came through here, every railroad train, every plane. The other thing was, I think it’s somewhere important to note that “The people,” to quote Mao, “can be advanced and they can be backward.” And while everybody was opposed to the war in Vietnam—by the end of the war, we had 70, 80, 90 percent of the people opposed to the war.
Peck: Be careful with that.
James: Let me say that then, a few years later, everyone wanted to bomb [Iran] when we had the hostages. It went from being opposed to the war—the climate in the country—back to “Let’s get ’em!” People will sway; it depends. It can happen in a year, it can happen in six months. Look at the Obama thing.
Rose: We’re the first big city whose City Council came out against the war and against the Patriot Act.
Schultz: It had an immense impact on the Democratic Party. I talked to some Democrats who were there who shifted to the Republican side; Democrats who were there who stayed, more or less, progressives, liberals. They were all saying, “This is it.” John Connally [then governor] of Texas, who was—
James: A traitor!
Schultz: who was there—
Kurshan: A Democrat!
Schultz: But he cited the Michigan-Balbos. His chief aide, Larry Temple, told me that when he left Chicago, he was on his way out of the Democratic Party. And then he led the Democrats for Nixon in ’72. And he made real trouble for the McGovern Commission [a committee formed by a congressional motion passed during the ’68 convention to reduce the influence of party officials and insiders on the nomination of a candidate and base the nomination on primary results] all throughout its time. The very primary fight we’re having now is finally made possible by the changes that started in ’68—that whole idea of a popular election of a presidential nominee. And the superdelegates were brought in—it was in ’80, I think—to correct what they thought was an imbalance.
Rose: Tiananmen Square.
Schultz: If you want to get Tiananmen in here, this is a long reach.
Rose: The Communist Party was formed in a split off of the Chicago convention and the Socialist Party.
Katz: That’s right!
Schultz: Tiananmen came out as this kind of improvised protest that occurred, supposedly, here in Chicago, and opposition across divisions that appeared irreconcilable. But one of the signs held up at Tiananmen in the last few days was “The world is watching.”
Rose: Imagine that. (Laughs)
Schultz: This cry, “The world is watching; the whole world is watching,” was used in the Balkans, used in the West Bank, used obviously at Tiananmen, and used—so far as I’ve been able to determine—in protests all over the world. Don is particularly flattered by this, I think, because—you want to tell that story?
Rose: I wasn’t trying to phrase-make. We used to have a press conference every morning just to talk about what happened the night before, what we were going to do. And after the beatings in Lincoln Park on Monday—Tuesday morning, Rennie Davis was supposed to take a press conference, and I was in charge of the press and we were going to display people who’d been beat up in the park the night before. And they were just really battered—eyes, ears, just a really horrible sight to see. And it shook Rennie, who thought he was a pretty tough guy. And he said, “Jeez, what are we going to say?” And I said, “Well, tell them they can’t get away with it again, because the whole world is watching.” People thought that was a pretty good thing to say, but it really didn’t make much difference.