My mother was a member of the League of Women Voters. As a young child, I remember going with her house to house during election season, knocking on doors, leaving information. I didn’t like going from door to door, but understood it as necessary for the democratic process. I remember attending League meetings with her where well-dressed women with pearls and hats sat and listened politely to politicians (all male) who we unquestioningly accepted as power brokers who had our best interests in mind.
But what I liked best was going to the voting booth on Election Day. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, voting booths in suburban Chicago were massive things of mechanical beauty. They had a curtain that was closed to insure the privacy of the vote. The curtain was shut by means of a lever that pulled from left to right with a resounding “clunk”. Once in the booth with the curtain closed, the voter was proffered an array of printed names behind slots, each with a small, metal lever next to the names. You could push and pull those levers as if you were playing the slot machines (not that I knew what that was back in those days). It wasn’t until you once again pulled that big lever for the curtain to open that your vote was finalized. I had the privilege of pulling that lever for my mother during the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960.
Another early memory I have is being hoisted on my father’s shoulder to see Dwight D. Eisenhower as he made his way through our town. This must have been in 1956. He was running against Adlai Stevenson, a beloved former Governor of Illinois, and future ambassador to the U.N. My family was true blue Republican back then. We would never have considered voting for a Democrat.
That changed when John F. Kennedy ran for office in 1960. My maternal grandfather was Catholic. Although he had voted Republican all his voting life, he switched parties in 1960 and voted for a fellow-Catholic. The shift came because my grandfather had experienced the not-so-subtle prejudice of being a Catholic during his lifetime. During the 1960 campaign, being Catholic was considered a frightening threat to good Christian values (i.e., Protestants). The campaign was filled with dire predictions that if JFK won, the Pope would take over our government. The campaign was also famous for the first televised debate between Nixon and Kennedy. Nixon’s menacing face and perspiration-laden brow, so vividly captured by the camera, is credited with his losing that election.
From that election on, we were Democrats. Of course in Chicago, Democrats were famous for their “machine politics”. Richard J. Daly ran the city with an iron fist, and unions and precinct captains enforced the Democratic ticket in neighborhood politics. Complaints of corruption were a given, but for my entire childhood, Daly was at the helm. Right up until the 1968 Democratic convention.
All hell broke loose that year. The war in Vietnam was killing young men. The draft was a point of contention. JFK had been assassinated in 1963, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in 1968. We truly believed the country was in a revolution. Chicago was hosting the Democratic convention. Mayor Daly, after being told that the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) were planning to disrupt the gathering, responded by pounding his fist and promising that law and order would be maintained. He backed this up by asking the Governor for National Guard protection and putting Chicago cops on 12-hour shifts.
The Convention was being covered on both national and local TV, but print media dominated news back in the 1960s. Pictures of protesters facing National Guardsmen were published on the front pages of all the major newspapers – the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Daily News, the Sun Times, and national papers such as the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post (in its pre-Watergate days). Pundits shook their heads and talked about revolution and the end of democracy as we knew it.
Even though I was just a teen-ager, I took the “L” downtown on a hot, muggy Saturday night in August and joined with the protesters in Grant Park, across the street from the Conrad Hilton where delegates were housed. Police and Guardsmen stood shoulder to shoulder creating a perimeter between the protesters and the delegates.
Protesters gathered in clumps and on occasion would pick up a chant from a group or start one. “Hell no! We won’t go!” or “Ho ho. Hey hey. How many kids did you kill today?” An uneasy detente existed between the groups until sometime around 7:30 or 8:00 pm when tear gas was fired into the crowd. No longer was the protest peaceful. Now it was chaotic.
I don’t have a sense of how much time passed, but it seemed like hours. I was not near the tear gas, so did not suffer any negative effects from that, but I was swept up in the crowd that was trying to get away. This scared me, as I didn’t know where I was going to end up and I knew I couldn’t depend on the police to provide protection.
Once far enough away, groups of protesters began to re-group. With a sense of righteousness borne of having been attacked, we began to move back toward Michigan Avenue and the line of Guardsmen. As we massed before them, several protesters began to climb a statue of General John Logan. They had with them the American flag. As they climbed on the statue, the flag unfurled and someone started to sing the National Anthem.
The crowd quieted at first. Then together, in solidarity, our voices rose as one as we sang:
“O say does that Star Spangled Banner yet wave/
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”
Tears were running down my face, not from tear gas, but from a well-spring of patriotism. For the first time in my young life, I truly felt what it meant to be an American. I knew that I was taking part in something that could only happen in a democracy where people deeply and fervently cared about their country. We were willing to take a stand for what we believed.
I went home that night committed to continue my protests against the draft and the war. I also went home that night committed to the democratic process and to participating in that process. The Democratic Convention was chaotic. It resulted in Hubert Humphrey being nominated for President. He lost to Richard Nixon. Perhaps one of the most corrupt Presidents that has occupied 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue until recently.
Since I was eligible to vote, I have never missed an election. Turns out that voters with the most consistent voting record in both local and national elections are those who are 60 and older. I have to believe that the times we grew up in had some influence on that.
As our midterm elections approach this week, I invite you all to exercise the most important duty you have as an American. If you haven’t already voted, please find your way to your local voting booth and cast your ballot on November 6. You might not have one of those mechanical voting booths I recall with such fondness, but your vote counts the same.
God Bless America!