The Whole World Was Watching
an oral history of 1968

1968: Frederick Williamson

Interview and story by: Sheila Nippo
This story is based on one of a series of interviews conducted by South Kingstown (RI) High School students in the Spring of 1998. All of the interviews were focused on recollections of the year 1968. In addition to the student's edited story below, you can find on this site the electronic transcript of the interview and a quicktime recording of the encounter , as well as a table of cues and contents .

"We have won and are winning many battles, but we have not yet won the war. We have come a long way since the Sixties and much of our thinking today can be attributed to that period in time."

Things went along quite well when I was growing up. Lowell, Massachusetts was a thriving mill town during the Twenties. My family consisted of myself, my mother, my father, my two brothers, and my sister. When I was growing up, everything had to do with cowboys. All youngsters were interested in cowboys. I spent most of my time at the library. I read everything I could get my hands on. As a result of my reading, I always wanted to write. I wanted to be an author and write stories and books.

I remember my father as being a dyed-in-the-wool Republican. The rest of his family were Republicans as well. At that time, most African Americans were Republican. When Franklin D. Roosevelt came along during the Depression, many African Americans focused on his activities and joined in with the Democratic Party. I lived in Lowell until my mother and father separated in 1929, when I was fourteen years old. I moved to East Providence and lived with my uncle and then later I moved to Providence. The rest of my family stayed in Lowell for two more years before moving to East Providence.

Throughout my life, I have had many experiences with racism and discrimination because of the color of my skin. Many times, I have been out searching for apartments and been turned down. I have approached doors with "FOR RENT" signs on them and had someone take one look at me and say, "We don't rent to niggers here". I remember sitting in restaurants in Providence waiting for service. I would sit at the corner of the counter and wait to be served. After a long wait, someone would finally come over to me and say, "We don't serve colored people here sir". I could have sat there forever and would have never been served.

When I worked at the Naval Air Station, I was a manager in a pining branch, in a supply department and I had to learn all sorts of plans and procedures. When I did get to write, it was mostly plans and procedures, information for aircraft squadrons on the base and other activities. Due to my parent's separation, I had no choice but to go straight out into the work force. In 1963, I helped to form the Providence Human Relations Committee. I was Vice Chairman and then was later Chairman of the committee for ten years. I was very active in attempting to see to it that all citizens received equal treatment. In 1963, when the very famous march in Washington took place, most of the public, including myself and others, were waiting to see what would happen. A lot of my involvement with the Civil Rights issues has been with fair housing. Much of the reasoning was that people felt that blacks living in their neighborhood was a bad thing. They all thought that having a person of color living on their street would bring down the value of their property. They thought that if black folks lived in their neighborhood they would be associating with their sons and daughters and that would motivate them to get marry each other. That would be the worst possible thing that anyone could think of.

I was very happy when the schools were desegregated. To take young people and separate them into separate little islands is morally and ethically wrong. It provided a disservice to the nation. I feel that you can get to know those who are good and those who aren't so good and understand that there are good and bad people in every race that exists in the world.

During Malcolm X's rise to power, he and I did not agree on many things. I am more conservative than he. Despite my not agreeing with him, I have to appreciate the fact that somewhere along the line there has to be someone to stand up for balance and power. I appreciated him for what he did and what he represented. Then, there were the Black Panthers. I was not in favor of the Black Panthers. They adopted an aggressive attitude and role that woke the people up to the dangers of this kind of segregation. I said to the public, "This is the kind of confrontation that will eventually happen unless you, America, wake up to the fact that everyone is to be treated equally." The more passive and laid back America was, the longer discrimination and segregation would exist, fueling the Black Panthers'fire.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s death was one of sorrow and distress. The assassination of King was one of the most terrible incidents that can be looked back on in American history. He was the kind of person who only comes around once in a lifetime or once in several lifetimes. His thoughts and the way he served, his ability to lead in a nonviolent way was one that was very much appreiciated. It was a loss not just for America but a loss for the world. It wasn't just a loss for minorities such as African-Americans, it was a loss for whites too. We needed a voice of reason who was able to appeal to people's sense of what was right, to say things publicly. It was a very sad thing. When the news came of his assassination, I received a call from the pastor of the Grace Episcopal Church in Providence. They were holding a service the day following the assassination. The next day, I participated in the service. I gave a homily stating what he had meant to us and how, at that particular time, his assassination was an important point in my life.

John F. Kennedy was an interesting, personable man who had an interesting war record, serving in a PT boat squadron. He excited the imaginations of most of the people in the United States. When he was elected president, he spoke those words, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." It was such a remarkable phrase. People were just waiting for something like this. It was one of the great phrases that touched our imaginations. It was a very sad day when he was assassinated. John Kennedy brought to America and to the government a totally new look that made people feel good about being an American.

The Vietnam War first became an item of great interest to me when my youngest son joined the Air Force. He volunteered to go over to Vietnam and he went. He served his tour and then returned home, before returning back again for a shorter period of time. My wife and I would be sitting at home and all of the sudden the phone would ring and the voice at the other end would say, "Hi dad. Hi mom." And I'd say, "Kenny, where are you?" He would tell us that he had just landed in Singapore or some other place over there. If he had a mission where he could call we, would be on the phone until he had to go. Throughout the time my son was over in Vietnam and beyond that time period, I deplored our involvment. I was certainly not in favor because I thought that our involvement in that country could have or should have been done differently.

As vets were coming home from Vietnam in wheelchairs and on crutches, I was overcome with sadness. Continuing sadness that we were even involved in the first place. At the time they were coming back, I had a son who was over there. I thought that he could have been any one of those men. It was a horrible situation and sometimes you wonder whether being in a body bag or a wheelchair or in 'Nam for life was worth it. I can't say that it was. Vets were not treated with respect, either. The country had no understanding of the War because of this misunderstanding and the inability of the government to properly provide answers, so people took it out on the veterans who had participated in it.

The Olympics has a particular purpose. It is to symbolize all nations coming together at an athletic standpoint. The great symbolism that it represents is something that gets tarnished when such things occur as the Black Power salute. They were people who did not like something so they took action. I was not in favor of what they did. It was not the place to make a protest. Everyone in the world knew America's racial stance and the salute was not morally correct. I am sure that they could have expressed their disenchantment with racial attitudes in a different way than they did while standing on the podium at the Olympic Games.

What the Sixties accomplished was getting people's attention. It was a time when people were allowed to get up and voice their thoughts. People were allowed to have the voice and the decision making that now have allowed them to have a better feeling. They had done something to make a difference. These days, you can go down South and find many cities and towns with black mayors. There is a lot of political power that has been taken over by minorities. That is how it should be. There are a lot of boarding rights now accepted throughout the south.

As far as minorities are concerned, the sixties helped to place tension on the fact that it was a man's world. Women were treated as second class citizens like the minorities were. We now have a better sense and feeling of community, but many of the goals of the sixties still have not been achieved. Will the goals ever be reached? Human nature is a very dynamic thing. In the sixties there were regulations passed. Fair housing and women achieving balance and recognition in matters of employment and other areas of interest. A number of things came out of the sixties that gave Americans a good hard look at themselves. It is something that we still have to work at. Today it is understood, getting a few pieces of legislation passed is not the end. We have won and are winning many battles, but we have not yet won the war. We have come a long way since the Sixties and much of our thinking today can be attributed to that period in time.

Glossary Words On This Page
Black Panthers
black power
black power salute
civil rights
John F. Kennedy
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Malcolm X

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