|The Whole World Was Watching
an oral history of 1968
Dr. Sharon Hartman Strom
I arrived to teach U.S. history at the University of Rhode Island in the Fall of 1969. I had spent the previous six years earning my Ph.D. and riding the roller coaster of the 1960s at Cornell University in upstate New York. Like many idealistic young American university students, I participated in the civil rights and antiwar movements with the conviction that protesting racism and the War in Vietnam were moral obligations, necessities of citizenship in a country we expected to live up to its own ideals.
Like several of those interviewed in this project, including Rhett Jones, I grew up in a segregated neighborhood in a big city but attended a racially diverse school. Although the setting was in the East Bay Area of northern California, many of my experiences were similar to those who lived in Chicago or Providence. Like Debbie Brayton, I argued with my parents about the meaning of Brown v. Board of Education, believing that racial equality was long overdue, partly because, I'm sure, I was listening to Black music and even forging friendships across the boundaries of race. I was shocked to find when I student-taught in 1962 that the same segregationist and discriminatory practices I had witnessed in my school in the mid-1950s were still very much in evidence; friends of mine at Cornell University were engaged in a voter registration project in southern Tennessee two years later where their lives were in real danger, as we discovered to our horror when three young civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi.
Many whites interviewed here were unaware that racial discrimination was a problem in their communities, but every person of color testifies to the breadth and depth of racism and segregation as the nation entered the 1960s, and to the personal pain such social policies caused them. Racial epithets were hurled, houses were suddenly and mysteriously rented or sold, trips through the midwest and south were humiliating, treatment at school was discriminatory, and jobs were hard to come by. Compounding the situation was the uneven way in which the draft for the Vietnam War affected New Englanders according to class and race; college students might receive deferments, and college students were likely to be white and middle class. Vietnam servicemen, especially Army infantrymen and Marines, were disproportionately working class and African American. Naomi Craig understood this clearly, and although she opposed the War in Vietnam, stayed away from demonstrations out of respect for her friends and neighbors whose childern were serving in Southeast Asia. Ironically, once the civil rights movement had accomplished many of its goals in the South, her children found that region to be more hospitable than New England. Both Craig and Isadore Ramos struggled in their Providence communities to address racism and create more egalitarian conditions for school children; they were also deeply aware of the rage that swept through the African American community in Providence when Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life was taken in Memphis, Tennessee in early 1968.
The death of Martin Luther King, who spoke the night before he died of reaching the mountain top and of seeing "the promised land," and who was only thirty-nine years old, rocked the nation's cities and our souls. We are now used to having our post-WWII political leaders mocked and maligned, but despite the best efforts of J. Edgar Hoover, most of us, like Naomi Craig, are still able to believe that King is as quintessential an American hero as we have ever had. King's death - and that of Robert Kennedy a few months later - robbed us of the talents of two flawed but thoughtful leaders who were in the midst of personal transformations that might, we still think with deep regret, have made a difference in how historical events unfolded into the 1970s, and particularly in the resolution of the conflict in Vietnam.
Few of us contemplated the possibility that things would not improve once Lyndon Johnson announced he would not seek reelection, a feeling shared by many of those interviewed here. The War in Vietnam always seemed to be Johnson's War, connected to his megalomania and stubbornness, but we quickly learned that Humphrey and Nixon were as likely to be committed to this U.S. venture as Johnson. Few of us really expected Eugene McCarthy to be nominated even though we worked hard on his campaign. When I arrived on the URI campus in 1969, many young people were engaged in steady protest against the War, and the bombing of Cambodia halted classes and produced teach-ins and intense discussions. Students went to Washington repeatedly; sometimes they were arrested and beaten. Many of the most principled students I knew were already expert public speakers and organizers by the time they graduated. A small minority of these were in ROTC and tried to defend the War, and it was not always the case that they were treated with civility; feelings ran high, particularly since most male students would face the draft at some point or other. And all students, whatever their political views, were losing high school friends in Vietnam. As John O'Malley emphasizes, one of the enduring legacies of the 1960s and 1970s has been a deep suspicion of foreign entanglements and the necessity of questioning the placement of U.S. soldiers abroad.
Another long-lasting change of the 1960s involved women and their relationships with men. Some of this change was embedded in what we now refer to as "the counter culture:" the loosening of sexual proprieties, the wearing of long hair and Afros, the use of mind-altering drugs, the adoption of clothing styles that mocked the tidiness and business ethos of the 1950s, and listening to music that was often both loud and politically pointed. Long after many young people in the 1960s grew up and abandoned much of the counter culture (although most of us still have our Rolling Stone records), they found that changes in the dynamics of gender were more long-lasting. Although few of us understood it at the time, the way had been paved for us by women pioneers such as Nancy Potter, Marsha Aaronson's aunt by marriage and countless strong-minded and competent mothers. Marsha, at least, knew there were other alternatives for women to the teaching career she chose, and also found the nerve, like the heroine of The Graduate, to flee from an ill-advised marriage - to the 1968 convention in Chicago! Without any dark cloud of AIDS hovering over them, many young women took charge of their own sexuality and used it as they saw fit, although Reverend Fetter speaks eloquently here about some of the consequences of the "sexual revolution" that worried us all and would eventually have to be moderated. Many a woman was discovering, often through force of circumstance, she could do things she had never imagined; when she learned her husband was a P.O.W., Marty Halyburton became an effective lobbyist and public speaker for a national organization and mobilized other women to speak out on their own behalf.
We forget how recent any semblance of sexual equality is. Marty Halyburton, who went from being a young housewife and mother to widowhood, or so she thought, could not obtain a mortgage. I was also a single mother in the late 1960s and had trouble getting credit, even though I was a head of household and had a good job, simply because I was a woman. Women students at URI complained about sexist treatment in class from male professors; it was made clear that women should not try to study accounting, engineering, or the hard sciences. I was the only woman in the History department, and like Professor Doody, was made painfully aware of the ways in which I was not very welcome at the University. Many of us were taking what we had learned about second-class citizenship in the civil rights movement and contemplating the oppression of women, and in the long run, as these interviews make clear, both men and women thought the changes made around sexual equality were beneficial to them and to their families.
There were darker aspects of the 1960s, many of which haunt us as a society today. Drugs - especially the more destructive and addictive ones - turned out to be dreadful scourges and no less harmful to society than the alcohol of previous generations. Many women came to believe that sexual liberation was more complicated than they had believed, and that men, in the long run, benefited more than they did from extensive premarital sex. The War, as Governor Lincoln Almond observes, left a terrible divide between veterans and protesters, with many GIs and nurses feeling civilians would never understand their trauma or appreciate their sacrifice. The physical and psychological wounds endured by veterans in Vietnam will always haunt our generation, and there are few of us who are not reduced to tears when we visit the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, despite - or perhaps because of - its healing powers. As we lost our faith in our leaders and their ability to make wise decisions, we were, in a way, losing faith in ourselves; the idealism that brought many young people into the 1960s has largely disappeared, often replaced by cynicism, consumerism, and political despair. And as Debbie Brayton concludes, anti-authoritarianism for its own sake or breaking rules and not replacing them with a new moral code are never conducive to the public good in the long run. As the decade came to an end it seemed as though nihilism, not idealism, would be its hallmark.
Nonetheless, historians are often wont to point to recurring cycles in our nation's past, and we can hope that the best of the 1960s will be repeated at some point by a new generation of young people. Real - and progressive - change occurred as the result of social and political turmoil of the 1960s. What would have happened if the American people had not finally demanded and secured an end to the War in Vietnam? if the civil rights movement had never taken place? if women had not begun to question tradition? if young people could not turn for inspiration to the Kennedys, the Kings, and Malcom X? As the young people involved in this project have also learned, they have access to the thoughts of less well known men and women in their own community who have struggled to make sense of the sixties and are still profiting by the lessons they learned in that critical decade.