The Whole World Was Watching
an oral history of 1968

Rev. Edmund Fetter

Interview and story by: Ashley Johnson
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

The Awakening

I was born on the campus of the University of Michigan, but grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. My father was a university pastor for an American Baptist church, and my mother was a school teacher before she was married. The funny thing is when I was young, I wanted to be anything but what my father was and, ironically, I became exactly what he was, a university pastor.

When I grew up, we didn't have much exposure to blacks. The only exposure I can remember was black women who helped take care of our house.

I attended an all-boys school through high school. I went to a small liberal arts college called Buffalo University and then did my graduate work at Colgate Rochester Divinity School. My junior year in college, I was drafted for the second World War. This happened so quickly. In June I was on a one-year waiting period, and then in December, the war broke out. I was gone for four years, four months, and four days. When I returned, my wife-to-be had been in the service, and we had decided, by mail, that we would get married when I returned. We got married on August 14, 1945 in Washington, D.C. and after the wedding, we went to the reception. On the radio, it was announced that the war was over. It was completely unbelievable! That fall, I returned to Buffalo University to finish up my senior year. After that, I went to graduate school and then I served for a few years as a minister at a small church in Newgate, New York. Then we moved to South Kingstown, Rhode Island in 1953.

I got a job at the University of Rhode Island (URI) as the university chaplain for Protestant students. My wife stayed home and raised our two children. During this time, women were not to work. I was responsible as the husband to make the salary and this was very clear. Then one day, after the kids were old enough to come home by themselves after school, my wife announced that she was going back to school to receive her teaching certificate.

Being the university chaplain, I was exposed to and very involved in what was going on during the sixties involving the Vietnam War, the Women's Movement, Black equality, and many other changes that occurred during that time period. The campus was a great place to be. We tried to get students to wake up and respond to all the issues that were going on around them.

When the Vietnam War broke out, I was surprised. I opposed the war right from the start. I joined those who were speaking against it; I thought it was a total waste of human lives. I remember hearing the body counts on the news; it was very frightening. I believed there was a conflict, but it just proves how we should do everything in our power to talk about it instead of fighting.

Around that time, kids were being drafted and had to leave school to go and fight while others were exempt. There was also the case of conscientious objection, which was a pretty tough road. If a student was a conscientious objector, he had to be verified by people in the community and go before the Draft Board and, in many instances, he was looked down upon. I believe it should be the individual's decision as to whether a person wants to fight or not. Over all, my outlook on Vietnam was that it was one horrible situation, especially for the soldiers.

During the 1960's, with the war and all the other movements going on, we had these things called sit-ins or teach-ins. What they did was talk with one another and teachers about issues. They argued, asked questions, and carried on. We also had rallies; they set up a soapbox (basically the same ideas as a teach-in). Everyone gathered around while people made speeches and argued it out.

Another big event was Woodstock, which took place in 1968 in upstate New York. This was a new adventure for everybody and the talk of everyone. It was an amazing event! Woodstock came at an time when students were beginning to open up new lifestyles.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was an important man in the 1960's and he did wonders in helping to achieve equal rights between blacks and whites. He was one of America's heroes in my eyes - a tremendous speaker and a very powerful man. Some of our students went to march in the South. The faculty on campus were asked numerous times not to encourage students to go, but this was a request I simply ignored. I'm sure it was very supportive seeing whites marching along with the blacks. I remember one time, we heard of a barbershop in town that refused to give blacks haircuts. So we got some black and white students together and went down to the barbershop together to see if they could get their hair cut. We got another student to write an article about it for the Journal-Bulletin and it became headline news. Then came the news that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated, and that was stunning. A terrible blow, something we didn't expect, but can reflect back upon and imaged how it happened. He was a wonderful man, and the campus was very saddened on this day. He did wonderful things in the Civil Rights Movement for this country. Just think about how much it has improved compared to the standards back then. There are so many blacks in professional positions today. We've come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.

The Women's Movement was another big deal that was going on during the sixties, and right on our campus. In college in those days, women had to be in dorm rooms at seven o'clock unless they had permission, and on weekends by eleven o'clock. It was very controlled on the campus. If you controlled the women, you controlled the students. I was very interested and involved in the Women's Movement. I attended women's rallies where I was the only man. In my office, I did a lot of counseling for women. They would walk in and see that I had a NOW magazine (National Organization for Women) and think, "Oh, this guy can't be too bad." I was concerned for liberating any person.

I don't know if people realized it or not, but another big deal with the advent of "the pill". Birth control brought new lifestyles, and it had its pros and cons, but with it came responsibility. The pill led to sexual freedom. The campus realized that all of a sudden women were getting pregnant. They had the pill, but they weren't using it. I worked on campus in the infirmary or health care office, and we established a group with the students to teach them about birth control and answer any questions about sexuality. We would teach courses on birth control or human sexuality because we felt many students were ignorant. This new freedom came without education, and that was a problem.

The 1960's were a big awakening. It was a very positive time period. The 1950s had finally awakened, sometimes in ways that people didn't like. People were being themselves, and that is a wonderful thing. It was a great time to be on campus. So many questions were asked, and people came alive with individualism.

Glossary Words On This Page
birth control
civil rights
conscientious objector
Draft Board
Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Pill

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