Barack Obama’s election as President of the United States was a thrilling moment for me, and I was electrified by his eloquent words to the tens of thousands of people in Grant Park who celebrated his victory Tuesday night and the millions of us watching on television.
As I listened to him, I thought back to the tumultuous week of the 1968 Democratic National Convention and that small army of young people, members of the Youth International Party—“Yippies,” they were called—who had come to Chicago from all over the country to have their concerns heard by the delegates. Their protest was aimed primarily at the prolonged war in Vietnam. But they also targeted the undemocratic way in which Democratic presidential candidates were chosen, a government that seemed to ignore its citizens, and the national shame of denying civil rights to black citizens. In sum, they wanted to call attention to the great gap they saw between what America was meant to be and what it was.
The Yippies gathered night after night to try to march on the International Amphitheatre, the convention hall, only to be met by police wielding nightsticks and spraying Mace. The police attacked them indiscriminately, beat them, and threw them into paddy wagons. The only retaliation by the media-savvy Yippies was the repeated chant, “The whole world is watching. The whole world is watching.”
I was working summer relief in the national broadcast news department of United Press International and wrote the convention story all week. After midnight on Thursday, the last night of the convention, I walked down Michigan Ave. to the Conrad Hilton Hotel, the main convention hotel. Yippies had struggled with police for control of streets around the hotel, and many were camped in Grant Park, across the street.
Only a few of the blue-helmeted Chicago police were around when I got there, and they stood in the doorways of the Hilton checking room keys and convention credentials and occasionally exchanging light banter with some of the youths who had been their antagonists for five nights.
I entered Grant Park through a line of National Guardsmen about the same age as the Yippies. The young men and women still left in the encampment were subdued and gathered around a campfire. With them were a few newsmen, some curious onlookers and a handful of delegates wearing buttons of the two unsuccessful peace candidates for the Democrats’ presidential nomination, Sen. Eugene McCarthy and Sen. George McGovern. The Yippies were singing around the campfire. I could hear the anti-war song “Where have all the young men gone?” as I neared their clearing. And then, over and over, they sang the anthem of the civil rights movement, “We shall overcome.”
It was the memory of those Yippies that held my imagination late Tuesday night as I watched and listened to Barack Obama speaking in that same park. Was his election not clear evidence that so much that they were protesting has been washed away over the past 40 years? Was it not a sign that the gap between the America that was meant to be and the America that is has narrowed greatly?
Of course, we have not fully become what we ought to be. But listen to those voices together, the Yippies singing in counterpoint to Obama’s repeated refrain of “Yes we can.”: “We shall overcome. Yes we can.” We know that now.
And listen for the echo of the Yippies’ chant: “The whole world is watching.”