ANOTHER LIFETIME—CHICAGO, 1968
by Eleanor Jaffe
At my neighbor’s recent socially-distanced cocktail hour, there was talk of the upcoming conventions, and I heard myself say, “I was a delegate to the 1968 Democratic Convention.” a show-stopper statement. Impressed and surprised, the others look at me. I, too, am surprised. Me? In another lifetime. Picture this:
I’m 31 years old; I have lived in Gallup, New Mexico for the past one and one-half years. I have given birth, in January of that year, to our second child, a son, at the Gallup Indian Hospital. It is now March. My older child celebrates her third birthday. Each year for the past 6 years my husband and I have moved cross-country, pursuing his career goals. This year, when my husband’s two years in the Public Health Service are complete, we will move once again–this time to Michigan. Now we are a family of four poised to make another cross-country move. At heart, I am a liberal New Yorker, radicalized like so many of my generation by the Vietnam War and the race riots roiling the U.S. I have sent a $5.00 donation to the “Eugene McCarthy for President” campaign. Turns out, I am the only person in all of McKinley County, New Mexico to have sent any donation to this campaign.
At the urging of a cadre (an advertising guy and a few nuns) of out-of-state organizers for the McCarthy campaign, I become “coordinator” for the “Eugene McCarthy for President” campaign in McKinley County. Turns out I have a flair for this sort of thing. (Six years as an English teacher in NYC must have helped.)
My “handlers” suggest organizing strategies with public health service people and with Navajos on the vast reservation, some of which is in New Mexico. They recommend publicity-grabbing actions—accusing the local Dems of picking delegates to the State Democratic convention in Santa Fe on an unsanctioned date, etc. I am surprised to discover that I am good at this! We hold “legal” precinct meetings on and off the reservation on the prescribed date, the first time that a few precincts have met and voted on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico, and I end up leading a delegation of 36 from McKinley County to the State Democratic convention in mid-June.
Here is the “road not taken.” At the convention, I am asked to run for New Mexico’s State Committeewoman. I ask if it will matter that I am going to be living in Michigan in a few weeks? It does matter. I am not eligible. But I am rewarded for my good work and become an alternate delegate to the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago that August.
My husband and I leave our two babies with friends in Ann Arbor. Armed with my delegate badge, we roam the increasingly dangerous streets, and I attend convention caucuses, meet Hubert Humphrey, enter the huge, raucous, smoke and noise filled convention hall. (It doesn’t help that I have a killer of an ear infection, complete with swelling, pain, and pain killers. )
On the night when the presidential candidate is chosen, my husband and I are outside on the streets. The rioting begins. To our eyes, the armed riot police are the instigators. When the demonstrators are unable to get a permit to march, Mayor Daly orders his police force to attack and disperse them. They attack with wooden clubs, in formation, roaring as they race into the crowd of unarmed young demonstrators. We stand in the Conrad Hilton Hotel’s lobby, our faces pressed against the plate glass walls. It’s hot, noisy, and alarming. I want to stay and see the action. I think my delegate’s badge will protect me. It won’t. My husband grabs my hand, and we run back to our hotel where we watch the mayhem on our t.v. screen, listening to the far-off police sirens, and Hubert Humphrey is chosen as the 1968 Democratic candidate .
In the morning, we examine the carnage left behind. The plate glass windows of the Conrad Hilton Hotel have been smashed. Upstairs, at McCarthy headquarters, young people, bleeding and bandaged, lay on the floor, beaten by the police. We leave Chicago and return to our babies, chastened. I never pursue a political career. That period of my life is over.
More than 50 years have passed. I now marvel at the gutsy young woman I was, and I am grateful for that experience. It has helped to form me and my opinions and some actions. Part of me wishes I had stayed in New Mexico and become that State Democratic Committeewoman, an adventure I did not think at the time that I could pursue. Instead, I followed a more conventional path: mother, housewife, teacher, social worker, counselor. Sometimes, I have a flash of activism. With Elaine Dohan, I initiated the “Make a Difference” special interest group at Bolli a few years ago. I’d still like to “make a difference.” Wouldn’t you?
Choosing a president this year will likely cause more widespread violence than what we witnessed in Chicago, 1968. Now, as then, the fate of our democracy is at stake. All of us must bear witness. What actions will be effective in our strife-torn, pandemic ridden, democracy? Now that we are so much older, are we any wiser or more effective? Can we make a difference?
“As I grow older,” Eleanor says, “I am more interested in the conditions, changes, services, culture, and even politics affecting me, my husband of over 50 years, and my friends.” To that end, she has led BOLLI study groups focused on aging, immigration, and more. In addition, along with Elaine Dohan, she chairs BOLLI’s political action “Make a Difference” special interest group.