The Whole World Was Watching
an oral history of 1968

John O'Malley

Interview and story by: Emily Caldarelli
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.
(Other interviews in this series include electronic transcripts and quicktime recordings).

A City Kid in the Sixties

Some people associate the sixties with "Everybody was crazy with drugs, and people were too promiscuous with sex" but I look at it from another perspective. It brought joy to life, people could be joyous. What had to happen was you had to come to terms with your own need to know where to draw the line -- with drugs, with alcohol, with your sexuality.

I grew up in a mainly Irish neighborhood in Providence that was very racially mixed. In the early 1950's, we moved from South Providence to public housing, which we'd call "projects" today. I came from a large family that was of Irish and Jewish background. My father was a staunch Democrat, and he'd never vote for a Republican at least when I was a child, and my mother never much talked about her political affiliation. My father was very much supportive of anything that supported the working man or any political legislation that supported the "common man". My father was a shoe salesman , and my mother stayed at home with the children. This was typical; 99% of the families in my neighborhood were set up that way.

Blacks were, in our minds, invading our neighborhood. They were coming up from the South, and many of my friends were moving away because Blacks were moving in on the street. I associated Blacks with a threat to our way of life. There was this racial tension, but at the same time, I was aware that it was not a moral right to deny people their civil rights. There were little mini riots in my neighborhood when Martin Luther King was assassinated. The Black kids would hang out at this one intersection and throw rocks at cars. There were a lot of us, about 30 or 40 teenagers hanging out at this corner, and we weren't really afraid of them, but there was always this tension. I would also hear racial slurs about Jews, and a lot of them were from my own friends. It was just built into people's way of thinking, and they weren't really being malicious, but I was real sensitive to it. I heard enough racial comments as a kid, and because of this I would almost try to hide being part Jewish.

I went to Holy Name School in Providence. It was a small, Catholic, all boys school run by sisters of Notre Dame, and it was a neighborhood school. I knew everyone who went to school there. It was a very safe environment. We walked to school everyday. We would walk home for lunch everyday, and I have fond memories of school, even though the nuns were intimidating at times. [I went to LaSalle Academy] where we went in and took notes and the teacher talked and you did your work because if you didn't, you'd get in trouble from your parents or from the Brothers. They'd hit you if you didn't do your work. I don't remember the curriculum ever having anything to do with my everyday life or understanding of the world. I just thought well, this is school; this is what we do in school, and this is what we learn.

There was a very strict dress code -- no long hair, no sideburns, no mustaches, no beards. A tie had to be worn everyday, and you had to wear a sports jacket everyday. You could not wear jeans; you had to wear khakis, or some kind of pressed pants, and no sneakers. The Christian Brothers would hit you if you had your hair too long, or if your sideburns were too long. If you continued not to dress according to code, they would hit you, suspend you, and throw you out of the school. On the weekends, I was very much influenced by the clothing styles of the time: bell bottoms, work shirts, just a very eclectic clothing style. You would wear whatever fit you. A lot of people bought used clothing, old leather jackets, anything that had to do with jeans. It was a period where you could really express yourself with clothing, so that was a big part of people's lives, the way they dressed.

My neighborhood was very much a center of experimentation with drugs because it was a neighborhood where a lot of different elements crossed. We were close to Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design, and yet, my neighborhood was the poorest part of the East Side. It was where all the blue collar Irish and blue collar blacks lived, and there was the whole Jewish population too. All of these cultures were intermixing, and there was a whole hippie segment that would come up to the East Side. There was lots of drug use near the drug store corner where I hung out. There was a certain crowd who were going off the deep end with drugs, shooting heroin, dropping acid, taking all kinds of pills, and there was a lot of experimentation with marijuana. I remember this group vividly because most of them are dead now from drug overdoses or alcoholism. They were also quite bright. Some of them were from fairly wealthy families in the neighborhood. There were all these little mini cultural things going on at that time and, of course, parents were appalled at all this, but they didn't really know what was going on. I was exposed to an awful lot of that in my neighborhood. People would come from other parts of the city to this area. It was known as a place where you could find drugs, and you would see it pretty openly.

A lot of my friends went to the war. From my neighborhood, the place I hung out, maybe half, or less than half the kids went to college, and the other half went to the Army or the Marines. I got into friends who supported Vietnam, and they basically were not the type who thought about what they were getting into. A lot of them came back very much opposed to the war, and traumatized by the war. Many of them became hippies; they became rebellious in the way they looked at the world. Some of them came back heavily into drugs. One guy who was a good friend of mine came back a heroin addict. Another guy had lots of mental problems. Others were fine and adapted quite well. I did not associate [these vets] with "the bad military" or with being bad. They were just people I grew up with. In fact, what I saw was that they were going through some really hard times, and had their own personal demons from the war, so I was real sympathetic to them.

By 1968, my musical tastes had changed because previous to that I really liked bands like The Beach Boys, and soft melodious, harmonious music. By the late sixties, I started to like more electric stuff like Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, The Doors. I also liked Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and Neil Young, and Buffalo Springfield. The whole British wave of rock came, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were really big then. I really liked Eric Clapton, and one of my favorite bands was called Blind Faith. I really liked what we called soul music. Any music that came out of Detroit, like Motown, was really popular in my neighborhood because we were very racially mixed. My neighborhood was very much influenced by pop music at the time, Aretha Franklin, The Four Tops, Sam & Dave, and James Brown were all really big. Even though there was racial tension between the blacks and the whites, we all liked the same music, so there were some contradictions there.

I remember the Newport Jazz Festival in Newport in 1968. It was the first time they had rock bands coming to the jazz festival. I went to that concert, and it was just wild! Everyone was dancing. There were lots of hippies, and it was the first time I had experienced being with thousands of people. I specifically remember Sly & the Family Stone playing, and they got everybody dancing and standing on the chairs. That was my first experience of being around a lot of older black people who were dancing. All the white people were there with them, so there was this almost unified racial experience of black and white. It did not matter who was who, everyone was dancing. I had good feelings from the music.

Woodstock happened a few weeks after I had gone to the concert at Newport. A lot of guys I went to high school with were saying "We're heading up to Woodstock." I thought Woodstock was so far away, because I'm a city kid in Providence, and it just seemed so far away. I just didn't think anything of it, and they were all going. Soon after, I thought how could I have missed that! I guess I was satisfied with my experience at Newport at the time, but I probably would have definitely gone to Woodstock. A couple years later, I went to the Watkins Glen concert, and there were five or six hundred people at that, and that was also wild. Whenever there were music concerts like that, my friends and I would usually go. I really loved that music. I was not much into traveling around. Some people moved all over the place; they really got into the whole hippie lifestyle and drifted away from their families. I just never involved myself on that level.

In 1969 I went to URI and I studied history. It was basically a liberal arts major. I didn't really know what I wanted to do when I went to college; I just wanted to get away from home. In college, I really let myself go with the sixties look. I never wore a tie! I had absolutely nothing to do with ties. I let my hair really grow, and I stopped trying to keep it straight. I just let it go wild and Afro-like. Back then, it was a real rebellious thing, as a guy, to just let your hair really grow. I grew a beard, and I just felt a total sense of freedom with my clothes and the way I looked at that point in my life. A lot of people around me were doing the same thing and there was a sense of anything goes. It was a period of just letting loose. There were no parents or Brothers telling me what I should look like.

I became much more politicized. I understood what was going on in Vietnam, and I definitely became anti-war. In the late sixties we would have mass demonstrations, and I took part in all of those against the war. I was very aware that there were police around, and that the police (or National Guard troops) would come in and break up a demonstration. I remember the Black students at URI took over the administration building in '69. They were demanding better treatment, and access to history courses about Africa. Most of the white students were pretty supportive of them. The state troopers went in and hauled them out, and it was not really violent. Maybe a few people got hurt.

Another major demonstration that I went to was a protest against the Vietnam War in Washington. Thousands of people protested there. I was arrested, and I was in jail for a couple of days. Most of the people, about 95% of the people, were illegally arrested. I got a first-hand experience of the government not abiding by the Bill of Rights and our Constitutional rights. We were illegally arrested just because we were protesting and using our First Amendment rights to speak out against a war we did not agree with. It radicalized me that police would just take me off the street when I was not doing anything. My experience of that was that the government, even though we have all these democratic rules and regulations and a Constitution, did not necessarily mean that we as citizens would be protected by that Constitution. The government was sometimes the bad guy. In this case, that was my experience at the demonstration.

I think the sixties had a real major effect on my life. The sixties also affected us as a nation in the sense that we are not a country who is easily just going to go to war. We are much more likely to question our government. The sixties radicalized my view of the world. When I was eighteen, I had a positive sense of the world. I was idealistic, and my ideals just got squashed by these greater powers. It was depressing and scary for me because we are supposed to be a democratic country where people can speak out against what they feel is unjust.

Personally, I feel like the sixties have definitely affected the way I look at the world. I have taken the good out of the sixties, and I still am involved with those things in my life. The sixties exposed me to music, and the music was so diverse in that period, it came from so many different places. There was this joyousness with the hippie generation that didn't have anything to do with drugs or escaping, but celebrating nature and the outdoors. I have never given up my love of the land. There are many ways to get high that don't involve escaping. The sixties tried to get people in touch with who they are -who they truly are- and not to be shaped by others, not to be shaped by what advertising says you should be or your peer group says you should be, or maybe your older generation says you should be.

Glossary Words On This Page
The Beatles
civil rights
The Doors
Martin Luther King, Jr.
LSD, "acid"

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