In the next few weeks at their respective party’s conventions, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will formally receive their nominations for president.
But sometimes the Democratic and Republican National Conventions are anything but conventional. In preparation for the inevitable, we take a look at some of the most unconventional convention moments.
1948 – The South Secedes (well, sort of)
The Democratic Party embraced a civil rights platform by the time the convention occurred. Harry S. Truman was made the presidential nominee.
Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey delivered an emotional speech in which he said, “The time is now arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”
Southern delegates preferred to stay in this so-called shadow as they left in protest and formed the aptly named States’ Rights, or Dixiecrat, party. Governor Strom Thurmond of South Carolina was nominated for president.
The convention helped define the ideas of the modern Democratic Party.
1964 – Moving Toward Equal Rights
There were notable occurrences at both major party conventions that showed the country was heading in a positive social direction.
Arizona’s Barry Goldwater ran away with the Republican nomination, but Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith’s name appeared on the ballot. It was the first time a woman had been entered for nomination at a major party convention. She garnered just 27 votes for the nomination, but was it was a milestone for women in politics.
Meanwhile, the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party claimed the seats for the delegates from Mississippi were selected illegally because blacks were systematically barred from voting in the primaries Humphrey helped orchestrate a compromise in which two of the 68 MFDP delegates would be made at-large delegates. The remainder would be non-voting guests. The regular Mississippi delegation was expected to pledge support for the party. Delegates chosen from a discriminatory poll were barred from future Democratic conventions.
My father always tells me he thought the world was going to end in 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April. Just two months later, presidential hopeful Robert Kennedy was murdered. And because of the Tet Offensive, 1968 was the bloodiest year of the Vietnam War. My father has a point.
Humphrey secured the nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, but the party was under scrutiny. Thousands of antiwar activists demonstrated as the police beat journalists and protesters alike. The Walker Report, an investigation of the riots, termed the chaotic demonstrations a “police riot.”
CBS News correspondent Dan Rather was supposedly grabbed by security guards and roughed up while trying to talk to a Georgia delegate who was being escorted from the convention.
1984 – Turning up the Heat
The only red flag at the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas was a burning red, white, and blue one.
Gregory Lee Johnson, a member of the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade, participated in demonstrations during the convention. He doused an American flag in kerosene and ignited it as the crowd chanted, “Red, white, and blue, we spit on you.” No one was hurt, but Johnson had violated a Texas law prohibiting desecration of a venerated object and was jailed.
Johnson appealed his conviction and in 1989, the Supreme Court heard Texas v. Johnson. The case presented a major First Amendment question. The Court sided with Johnson in a 5-4 decision, determining Johnson’s actions to be “expressive conduct,” thus entitling him to invoke the First Amendment.
1992 – On the Road Again
Ready for takeoff? Because of the 1992 Republican National Convention in the Astrodome, the Houston Astros were forced to take a staggering 26-game road trip.
The road trip was not the longest in Major League Baseball history: the miserable 20-win 1899 Cleveland Spiders had an unheard of 50 game road trip.
The Astros visited Atlanta, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Chicago, took an off day in Houston, went on to St. Louis, and finally Philadelphia. The Astros went 12-14 (.461 percentage), a respectable showing considering the team sported a sub-.400 road record before the trip.
The 1992 Astros finished with an 81-81 record, but Texan George Bush lost to Bill Clinton in November. The Bushes are Texas Rangers fans anyway.
1996 – Hey, that was my idea!
Doc Brown and Marty McFly would be proud; candidate Bob Dole tried to take the U.S. back to the future. Dole hoped to return to the years of prosperity and optimism America experienced shortly after WWII. “Let me be the bridge to an America that only the unknowing call myth. Let me be the bridge to a time of tranquility, faith, and confidence in action,” said Dole at the Republican National Convention.
Like his opponent, incumbent Bill Clinton could dole out the imagery. “We do not need to build a bridge to the past, we need to build a bridge to the future,” countered Clinton at his own nominating convention.
Clinton would not let Dole live down his blunder as he cruised to victory in the fall.
Benjamin Brown is a student of history and American studies at Lafayette College and the assistant sports editor of the school newspaper. He is also in the Public Programs department of the National Constitution Center.
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