Wednesday, August 27, 2008

1968 - a historical moment

Today, August 27, was a date within the history of Church of the Three Crosses that has been remembered as one of the defining moments in the life and witness of this congregation. Forty years ago, during this week in August, the 1968 Democratic National Convention was held in Chicago. 1968 had already been a painful and turbulent year with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April and Senator Bobby Kennedy in June. The Vietnam War continued to drag on with mounting U.S. casualties. Many anti-war and anti-establishment groups came to Chicago to protest the country’s political situation in general and the War in particular. The city government took a hardline approach and would not issue any march/rally permits or allow the thousands of demonstrators permission to camp in the lakefront parks.

Although many north side churches (including Church of the Three Crosses) had become alarmed at the potential for conflict and had made preparations to provide emergency housing, food, and first aid as needed, many church folks were still shocked at the mounting violence and disregard of civil rights as the Convention week proceeded. The police were ordered to clear the parks every night at 11:00 pm leading to daily confrontations. There were many rumors of violence being planned by demonstrators against the city and police, and the police were on edge against every possible provocation. Some demonstrators were intent on disruption, but most only wanted to peacefully express their dissent against the war and the political establishment.

Northside clergy began circulating among the young people in Lincoln Park and nearby streets and attempted to prevent confrontations with the police or to help people who were injured. In Grant Park, demonstrators faced lines of police and National Guard and Army troops, and chanted: “the whole world is watching.” And indeed, the media carried the news across the nation, overshadowing the convention itself.

The situation became so dire that a meeting was called for northside clergy to meet on Tuesday evening, August 27 at Church of the Three Crosses. About 100 clergy and some lay people decided to march to the park to act as a reconciling force and prevent further violence between police and demonstrators. The clergy wore clerical collars, put on white armbands and carried the huge cross from the church’s sanctuary (then located in the old Second EUB building). The group entered the western edge of the park south of Fullerton around 10 pm. By 11 pm, almost 200 clergy were present, along with several thousand demonstrators. Hymns were sung. Studs Terkel spoke and an almost deceivingly peaceful, coffeehouse atmosphere prevailed. However, as the crowd began to sing “America, the Beautiful,” about 200 police on horseback charged the crowd, firing tear gas and swinging clubs. The crowd was pushed into the Old Town area; many people were chased down and beaten; the cross was lost in the ensuing melee, possibly thrown into the park lagoon.

Two days later the convention was over and the delegates and demonstrators went home, but the actions of the mayor and police were publicly debated for some time. The official Walker Commission Report on the convention violence termed the events a “police riot.” Many of the clergy and lay people who intervened and assisted during that tumultuous week in Lincoln Park 40 years ago felt they had made a difference in preventing a worse outcome.

As we watch the Democratic National Convention again, some 40 years later, let us give pause and thanksgiving for this congregation’s faithful witness to justice, advocacy and reconciliation.

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