Minutes before he was assassinated in a Los Angeles hotel kitchen, Robert Kennedy’s last speech included the words: “now it’s on to Chicago.”

And Chicago is precisely where Edina attorney Edward Schwartzbauer was heading 50 years ago this week — to the billy clubs, the tear gas and a violent clash between young Vietnam War demonstrators and more than 24,000 Chicago police and soldiers at the Democratic National Convention.

The second of a flour miller’s three sons, Schwartzbauer grew up on St. Paul’s Rice Street and became the first in his family to go to college. He became a lawyer in the 1950s and grew fed up with what he determined was an “illegal and ignorant” war in the 1960s.

Schwartzbauer was 37 when elected as one of 62 convention delegates from Minnesota in 1968. They checked into the Conrad Hilton Hotel on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue — which quickly morphed into the epicenter of mayhem.

“The lobby had a grand staircase with two curves and I was up watching from one of the curves as young people were brought in on stretchers when they were beaten by the cops,” said Schwartzbauer, now 87 and living in Edina. “I wasn’t angry. I was just really sad for the country that it had come to this.”

Schwartzbauer will share his memories Tuesday night at a Vietnam War roundtable discussion at St. Paul’s Concordia University.

Schwartzbauer was by no means the only Chicago-bound Minnesotan in late August 1968. With President Lyndon Johnson announcing on March 31 that he wouldn’t seek re-election and Kennedy dying June 6, the convention pitted two Minnesota peers to challenge Republican Richard Nixon for the presidency.

Eugene McCarthy was born in Watkins, about 35 miles northwest of Hubert Humphrey’s home in Waverly. They had joined Congress together in 1948, serving for 16 years, with Humphrey in the U.S. Senate and McCarthy in the House until Humphrey became LBJ’s vice president.

Schwartzbauer was among a slate of antiwar, pro-McCarthy delegates elected March 24, 1968 — a week before LBJ canned his re-election bid. McCarthy, he said, lent credibility to the antiwar campaign, proving they weren’t just longhair draft dodgers. Kennedy expressed their position with “clarity and intelligence,” Schwartzbauer said. “McCarthy was more of a poet who happened to oppose the war.”

A photo of Schwartzbauer on the Chicago convention floor shows him with a close-cropped haircut, wearing a tie and jacket.

“ ‘Clean for Gene’ became a slogan because I remember so many young people volunteering to chauffeur our McCarthy forces to tea parties and events,” he said. “We all had clean shirts and no beards. We weren’t some bunch of hoodlum draft dodgers.”

Early in the convention, word spread about trouble north of downtown in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. More than 10,000 young people showed up to demonstrate against the war, and combative Mayor Richard Daley said he’d enforce a city ordinance that closed the park at 11 p.m.

“Where did he expect [them] to sleep?” Schwartzbauer said. “They were asking for trouble, getting rid of students by force.”

Early on, Schwartzbauer walked through Grant Park — where Daley had granted the only permit to demonstrators. “That might seem foolish and dangerous,” he said, looking back. “But I was wearing a 6-inch McCarthy button.”

Things turned nasty on Aug. 28, when police surrounded 15,000 protesters in Grant Park. When a teenage boy climbed a flagpole and lowered the flag, police moved in to arrest him and his supporters came to his aid, throwing rocks at officers. The police pummeled demonstrators with clubs and fists.

By nightfall, the violence shifted to the Hilton, where a protester was beaten in the revolving door, Humphrey could smell the tear gas 25 floors up, and Schwartzbauer stared in disbelief from the lobby staircase. “It was just mayhem,” he said.

Schwartzbauer recalls the discord inside the convention hall when Minnesota delegates joined those from California, singing “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” while convention organizers had the band drown them out with a version of “Happy Days Are Here Again.”

He’s proud to have cast his vote for McCarthy on the first and only ballot, one of 11½ McCarthy votes from Minnesota. Humphrey picked up 37½ of the state’s 52 votes and went on to win the nomination by more than 1,000 votes before narrowly losing to Nixon in the fall.

Schwartzbauer tried to help, urging fellow McCarthy backers to support Humphrey in a letter to the editor. That drew a quick response from the vice president, dated Oct. 11, 1968.

“I am quite frankly honored to have the confidence of a man of your character,” Humphrey wrote him.

That letter now sits in a scrapbook on Schwartzbauer’s closet shelf.

 

Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com. His new book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: tinyurl.com/MN1918. Podcasts atonminnesotahistory.com.