This essay originally appeared in Beatdom #15: the WAR issue.
By Pat Thomas
“Black Power: Find out what they want and give it to them. All the signs that mean anything indicate that the blacks were the original inhabitants of this planet. So who has a better right to it?” William S. Burroughs
August 26 -29, 1968 – Turmoil is brewing throughout the Democratic National Convention, in Chicago. Tired of defending a war he couldn’t win, but one that pride wouldn’t let him withdraw from; incumbent President Lyndon Johnson announced on March 31, 1968 that he would not seek re-election. Senator Eugene McCarthy had thrown his hat into the ring the previous November as the antiwar candidate, with the support of many college kids. With Johnson out, Vice President Hubert Humphrey became the de facto choice of old-school Democrats, and could secure delegates without campaigning in the primaries.
When Robert Kennedy announced his candidacy on March 16, he became a spoiler for McCarthy, who had been unchallenged as the youth’s candidate of choice. After winning Indiana and Nebraska (although he lost the Oregon primary), Kennedy won California and looked like a sure bet to beat Humphrey when an assassin took him down. With Kennedy dead, Johnson refused to attend the Democratic Convention in Chicago. The Democratic Party was unclear on how to tackle the Vietnam issue, and was disintegrating from the inside out. Democrats would not put another President in the White House until Jimmy Carter prevailed in January 1977.
Meanwhile, the real shit storm was happening outside the Convention. Several miles away in Lincoln Park, mass demonstrations had been organized by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin’s Yippies, the Students For A Democratic Society (the SDS were an activist group comprised mainly of white college students in support of Civil Rights and against the Vietnam War), and MOBE (National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam), a short-lived coalition.
In the months leading up to the 1968 Democratic Convention, the Yippies, SDS, and MOBE had invited thousands of leftwing college students, hippies and outspoken radicals like poet Allen Ginsberg and novelist Norman Mailer. Politically savvy musicians such as the Jefferson Airplane and Country Joe & the Fish were slated to play, but dropped out as rumors of impending violence began to spread. In the end, the only musicians brave enough to weather the storm were those madmen from Michigan, the MC5 (managed by John Sinclair of the White Panther Party) and folksinger Phil Ochs, who was more committed to the revolution than he was to his music career.
John Sinclair & Wayne Kramer of the MC5 still enjoy a friendship with Black Panther David Hilliard to this day. The White Panther Party, despite its naïve hippie drug-infused antics, was truly in awe of the Black Panther’s skills and philosophy. Musically, this was reflected in an eighteen-minute discourse entitled “I’m Mad Like Eldridge Cleaver” – which the MC5 performed at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom during 1968. The opening lines are, “I’m mad out on the street; I’m frothing at the mouth, pissed.” As the song builds, Tyner screams “I’m mad, I’m mad, like Eldridge Cleaver is mad!” It’s the sound of white hippies channeling the urban black man’s angst against the authoritarian system. While whites can never know the black man’s burden, the MC5 tried to empathize.
Since many books have documented the daily drama of the (mostly white middle class) protesters and their nightly skull bashing by the Chicago Police. I’ll focus instead on the handful of notable, overlooked blacks who participated in the proceedings.
Julian Bond was a co-founder of SNCC, (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and became their communications director, overseeing the editing of its newsletter as well as working on voter registration drives throughout the rural Southeast. In 1965, Bond was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives. Other House members voted not to seat him because of his stance against the Vietnam War. In 1966, the Supreme Court declared the Georgia House had violated Bond’s rights by refusing him a seat and he was allowed to join the legislature.
Bond was a co-chairman of the Georgia Loyal National Delegation to the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention. The Loyalists were an insurgent group that successfully unseated the regular handpicked delegates. During the Democratic Convention, Bond was nominated for Vice President (as an alternative to Maine Senator Edmund Muskie, chosen by Hubert Humphrey), becoming the first African American to be chosen by a major political party for that office. However, he had to withdraw, because at age 28, he was too young to serve under the constitutional minimum, 35 years of age.
Bond also made his presence known outside the Convention, when on Tuesday August 27, he spoke in Grant Park (near the Hilton Hotel where most of the delegates were staying) to 4,000 peaceful demonstrators who’d gathered to listen to him, along with MOBE’s Rennie Davis and SDS founding member Tom Hayden.
Comedian Dick Gregory paved the way for Richard Pryor and Chris Rock. And like Pryor and Rock, being a black comic brings the role of social commentator with monologues about race relations, use of the word “nigger” and the plight of Black America. Gregory’s 1964 autobiography Nigger sold one million copies.
Gregory (born in 1932) was a strong-minded activist, and throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s he not only used topical events and politicians for satire, but also for social commentary disguised as comedy. Gregory spent the early ‘60’s marching for civil rights and spent as much time in jail cells as he did onstage. As Black Power made its ascension, Gregory joined in with his routines, delivering anti-establishment messages as poignant as those being made by the radical political leaders. Besides attacking Richard Nixon, Gregory also did bits praising Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale and the Black Panthers, ghetto life, and the movement. Two of Gregory’s more sublime moments can be found on the album Frankenstein recorded live at Bronx Community College on March 20, 1970. During the piece called “Black Power,” Gregory says:
White folks in this country dirtied up the word black, not us…white folks in America corrupted power, not us…then one day we come through with two innocent words, “Black Power,” and everybody go crazy…but if we had said “Brown Strength”…everybody would have accepted that…hell, we wouldn’t be able to walk down the street without white folks greeting us, “Brown Strength, my brother, Brown Strength”…black folks took two innocent words “Black Power” and everybody went crazy…we did not dirty up the world “Black”…angels food cake is white, devils food cake is dark…understand it good now, a little bitty lie, is a white lie…
Gregory and Chicago have enjoyed a mutual admiration since 1961, when Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club gave Gregory one of his first major breaks by booking him into their primarily white establishment. According to the account given in Tom Brokaw’s book Boom! Voices Of The Sixties, the evening proceeded as follows:
The manager was nervous because the club had been reserved for a private party that included a lot of white Southern men. Gregory insisted on going onstage, and almost immediately, one of the white patrons stood up and called him a “nigger.” Gregory smiled and responded, “Hey I get fifty dollars here every time someone says that, so would you all stand up and call me ‘nigger?’
During the 1968 Democratic Convention, Dick Gregory was living in Chicago. He was on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket as their Presidential Candidate, and fronting marches by young white liberals who were attempting to take over Chicago’s streets and parks. On August 27th Gregory joined noted writers; Terry Southern, Jean Genet, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg in giving speeches to 2,000 protesters at the Chicago Coliseum. The following day, Gregory spoke to 10,000 people gathered in Grant Park for an antiwar rally organized by MOBE. Writer and liberal icon Norman Mailer joined the fray, as did Jerry Rubin and Tom Hayden. Also on the 27th, Bobby Seale, who’d flown into Chicago as a guest speaker, addressed a crowd in Lincoln Park. He suggested people defend themselves by any means necessary if attacked by the police. Seale left Chicago soon after his speech, but his brief visit would become more relevant later on.
Gregory’s finest moment that week is captured in Howard Alk’s 1969 documentary American Revolution 2. On the evening of August 29th, Senator Eugene McCarthy and Gregory addressed 5,000 people in Grant Park, including some of the delegates who’d strayed from the Convention hall to view the happenings in the outside world. The film crew followed Gregory, some 2,000 protesters, and the stray delegates, as they attempted to make their way back to the Convention being held at the International Amphitheater. When the National Guard stopped them, Gregory announced that he was merely leading everyone to his own home (which happened to be in the direction of the Amphitheater) and that he had invited all these people to his house for a private gathering. The National Guard didn’t buy it, arrested Gregory, and kept the marchers from reaching the convention site.
While Gregory’s actions had been captured on film for later viewing, the events of the previous evening, August 28th, had been captured by television cameras for the entire country to witness firsthand as it occurred. It remains not only the most tragic moment of that explosive week in Chicago, but also a monumental image of America’s turmoil during the 1960’s in general.
After the rally that Gregory and Norman Mailer had spoken at on the 28th, thousands moved towards the Hilton Hotel which the Democrats were using as its headquarters. Many delegates were staying there, and most importantly, several of the television crews were using it as home base.
The ultimate destination of the protesters was the Convention itself, and as the crowd began moving towards the Amphitheater, they encountered and began to follow the mule train of Ralph Abernathy’s Poor People’s Campaign, which had a permit to go the Convention. Ralph Abernathy had been MLK’s right hand as part of King’s SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) organization, and he had been in Memphis at the moment of King’s death, and in the week following, Abernathy assumed the leadership of SCLC.
As the mule train headed towards the Amphitheater, the marchers were halted from proceeding and gathered around the Hilton Hotel. For seventeen minutes, captured live on TV and rebroadcast many times since, the Chicago Police brutally beat, clubbed, maced and forcibly arrested hundreds of demonstrators (most of them white middle class college kids) and handfuls of bystanders.
As the demonstrators begin to fight back, the police violence escalated, with billy clubs cracking open the skulls of young students. Across America, their families and friends watched the bloodshed on TV as it was happening. In the midst of the chaos, the demonstrators being aware of the television crews broadcasting their beatings begin chanting, “The whole world is watching, the whole world is watching.” Finally, white Americans were witnessing what black Americans had experienced firsthand for years, police brutality in their own homes.
The demonstrations that week led to an infamous trial that began on September 24, 1969, and continued for the next five months. Originally it was called “The Chicago 8 Trial” after the eight defendants that were charged for conspiracy to start riots: Rennie Davis, Dave Dellinger, John Froines, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Lee Weiner, and Bobby Seale. The U.S government had hand-picked these defendants as a cross-representation of the subversive counterculture; the Yippies, SDS and MOBE leaders, antiwar activists, and a token representative of the Black Power movement.
Having Bobby Seale called as a defendant was beyond bullshit, as he was the one person out of the eight who didn’t personally know the others (Seale had met Tom Hayden earlier, but not in relation to the Chicago Convention), nor had he or any other Black Panthers been involved in any of the meetings planning the activist assault on Chicago. Not to mention that Seale’s time in Chicago had been brief. He’d arrived on Tuesday August 27th, given one speech in Lincoln Park around 7 pm, and left town later that evening. Hence, the Black Panthers weren’t part of any conspiracy. It’s been suggested that Seale wasn’t originally invited to speak, that Eldridge Cleaver had been asked first, but Eldridge had fled the country by August because of an April shootout with the Oakland Police.
It was apparent that Seale had only been brought up on charges because he was a prominent member of the Black Panthers, which the Nixon administration had declared Public Enemy #1. During the first week of the trial, Seale had asked the Chicago court that the trial be postponed, as Seale wanted to use for his defense San Francisco based Charles Garry, the Panthers’ lawyer of choice for all their high profile cases.
Charles Garry had represented Huey Newton during the “Free Huey” trial. As the Chicago trial began, Garry was in a hospital recovering from surgery. When Judge Julius Hoffman (no relation to Abbie) denied the postponement, Seale declared his constitutional right to act as his own defense. This request was also denied, and Judge Hoffman insisted that Seale use the other seven defendants’ lawyers Leonard Weinglass and William Kunstler as his own. Seale refused.
Ultimately, Seale was accused of a conspiracy of which he was unaware, deprived of the counsel of his choice, deprived of the right to represent himself, deprived of the right to speak for himself, which led to his being publically humiliated in the courtroom; bound, gagged and chained to his chair as witnessed and reported by the national media.
As Dick Gregory perceptively pointed out on his Frankenstein album as part of a monologue titled “Chicago Trial”:
Bobby Seale walked into that courtroom in Chicago as meek and humble as a man can walk and said “Judge, your honor, my lawyer is out in San Francisco being operated on, would you postpone my trial?”…And the whole world knew his lawyer was being operated on. Everybody in the world had read that Attorney [Charles] Garry had been operated on. Judge said, “no boy, you go to trial today.” “Ok, your honor would it be ok if I acted as my own lawyer?” The Judge said, “no, you use their lawyer.” The trick behind that was Bobby Seale was indicted with seven other folks, five of whom he never met and didn’t know. Why would he use the lawyers of strangers? That’s why he was raising so much hell. You dig it?…Bobby Seale trying to defend himself, ended up shackled to the chair, hands cuffed, mouth taped. In a courtroom where the worldwide press is watching. You dig?…If a man trying to defend himself in a courtroom where the world wide press is watching ends up getting shackled to the chair, hands cuffed, mouth taped, what do you think is happening in these courtrooms in America where there ain’t nobody looking?
But on November 5th, a mistrial was declared for just Seale, and a new trial was proposed. The Chicago 8 became the Chicago 7. Seale was then sentenced to four years for contempt of court, a sentence that was eventually overturned, and he was never convicted of any conspiracy charges.
In terms of media coverage and notoriety, the Chicago 8 Trial had the profile and controversy of the 1992 trial of Rodney King. King’s trial charged four Los Angeles police officers of using excessive force in the beating of an African American man, who they had pulled over for a traffic violation. All four were acquitted, despite clear video footage of the white officers beating the shit out of an unarmed black man. While the two trials were different in purpose and scope, the comparison rests in the national media coverage and mockery of justice in both cases.
The Chicago 8 Trial hasn’t been forgotten, as witnessed by the 2008 docudrama, Chicago 10. The name “Chicago 10” refers to the eight defendants plus their two defense attorneys, Weinglass and Kunstler, who were also unlawfully charged with contempt of court and later acquitted along with their clients. Hollywood gossip suggests that Steven Spielberg wants to direct his own docudrama about the trial, drafting in box office star Will Smith, playing the part of Bobby Seale.
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