The Whole World Was Watching
an oral history of 1968

Rhett Jones

Interview and story by: Becky Dangelo
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 .

Racism is Still a Problem

"I thought the whole world was wrong. So, I thought that this was awful. It was terrible to ask people to go over there and fight in a war which was essentially unwinnable. And people had two kinds of emotions. One was you were sorry for people who had to go through it and also the other kind of human emotion, glad it didn't happen to you!"

The Chicago neighborhood I grew up in was a solid working class neighborhood, an all black neighborhood. My father was a machinist, my mother was a postal clerk. Most neighborhoods in Chicago were, are, one race or another. According to the demographers, it's the most segregated city in the United States.

I went to an all black grammar school, but when it came time for high school, there weren't enough of us in the neighborhood to have our own high school, so we had to go to the white high schools. In fact, what they did so they wouldn't have too many black kids at either high school was they split our neighborhood right in half. Half of the kids went to Singer and half went to Calumet. Calumet was a school of about fifteen hundred with maybe fifty black kids. There wasn't formal discrimination, but we knew which teachers were bigots and which weren't. Unfortunately, most of them were; it was a horrible experience. Both my brother and I took German in high school. I took German because it looked interesting. Everybody else took Spanish, so it was something different. My brother took German because he was two years behind me and said, "Hey, I can always get help with my assignment." So, it was sensible.

I was once in a used book store and ran across this German text that we had used in high school. I sent it to my brother who lives in Los Angeles with a letter about high school. He called me up and said, "Listen, let me tell you something. Don't you ever send me anything or mention anything about Calumet High School. When I started thinking about that place my stomach knotted up, and I got sick. But, you know, I liked the book," he said, "that brought back a lot of memories." The German teacher was one of the few teachers who wasn't a bigot. Most of the teachers weren't fair, and she was. We got roughly what we deserved in German, and we didn't always get that in other classes. Getting through Calumet was such a horrible experience. It really, really, was terrible. I can understand how my brother's stomach would turn. I now understand the meaning of the term "push-out." There were black kids who didn't drop out, but were treated so horribly that they couldn't stand it, and they left.

I went to the University of Illinois as an undergraduate. I thought about being a psychologist, but I actually majored in sociology. During this time, I read a lot of science fiction books. I read a lot of work by Samuel R. Delany, who I later found out was black. I didn't know that growing up. I read The New Republic, regularly. I pretty much liked their editorial stance. Finding some of my money to even get a subscription was difficult because, usually, I read material in the library. Nearing the end of schooling at Illinois, Norvel Glenn, a leading expert in race relations who is now at the University of Texas, thought I should stay at Illinois for graduate school. Another four years of Champagne-Urbana did not strike me as a good idea. I wanted to see more of the world.

In college, I remember a course taught by a man by the J.E. Hewitt, Jr. He taught a course called Role Theory in the sociology department. The thing about Professor Hewitt's class is that this was a required course for graduation. When I went to the course, I sat down, and Professor Hewitt began to talk. He had a very thick Mississippi accent. I said to myself, "Oh, god!" I'm not going to take this, I don't need this. So I dropped the course and I figured, well I'll pick it up when somebody else teaches it. Well, the whole year went by and nobody else taught it, and it was still required. So I decided, well, I'm just going to have to take this course with this man even though he's probably a super racist. It turned out that not only was he not a super racist, but he was the most interesting professor I had as an undergraduate. And, that was despite the fact that he was not a performer. He would come in, sit down at his desk, and take out his notes which he had type written on yellow paper, and read them. BORING! You would think. It was a boring delivery and a boring presentation, but the ideas were so fantastic that every class was an adventure.

In 1964, I was in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, which was sometimes called "Berkeley East", and we called Berkeley, "Madison West". It was a very radical campus. Something very interesting was happening to the Civil Rights Movement in Madison. It was being splintered along racial lines. Madison did not have a very large black population; Wisconsin did not have a very large black population. So, a lot of the issues were real race issues. What a lot of people who were interested in civil rights activities did was to support people who were in the movement in the South. But then funny things started to happen. I know they had a chapter of friends of SNCC (Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee) at Madison. Friends of SNCC was organized to support SNCC's activities in the South. I know enough history now to understand that SNCC was undergoing this transformation from a biracial organization to an all black organization. Eventually, SNCC became all black and a lot of white people who had been active in friends of SNCC and civil rights organizations like it had the need to go over to the anti-war movements.

At Madison, I mostly participated in demonstrations, going to meetings, and signing petitions In 1964, it would've been in the winter, because I went to my first anti-war demonstration. It was the dead of winter at the Madison State House, and it was really cold. In 1965, we had a massive demonstration of about 10,000 people. The government of Wisconsin called out the National Guard. A lot of people were gassed. As a graduate student, a lot of the people I hung out with were in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) which is the US branch of the Trotskyites. I never joined, but I used to go to a lot of their meetings. I subscribed to The Militant, which was their weekly newspaper. I suppose in terms of political line, I would have been closest involved with the SWP. In fact, some of my friends at work who were Trotskyites, used to accuse me of being a Trotskyite. I never was one. A lot of people liked the Black Panthers because of their kind of confrontational tactics. At the time, the Black Panthers had this kind of Marxism and nationalism in their ideology that was very appealing to people like myself. In fact, I even thought about joining, and they actually had a chapter in southern Wisconsin. However, if I was going to join anything it would have been the SWP.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, I was in Madison for graduate school. I remember it clearly because everybody talked about it. It was mostly in the form of jokes. You know, "See you tomorrow...maybe!" That kind of thing. I think we were just stunned when we heard about the Democratic Convention [1968]. I mean, having grown up in Chicago. Chicago's policemen are operating a big city. So they sometimes did ugly things, but the scale of ugliness was so overwhelming, it was stunning. We couldn't believe it was happening. During this time, I also read a lot of newspapers and newsmagazines for information. I read the Young Communist, Progressive Labor, I still read the New Republic; I read Time for basic information. However, most of the information I got was from the leftist press.

I got married in 1968; my wife was about the same age. She was raised in a traditional kind of way, but she wanted to do non-traditional things. We got up one morning and were very surprised to learn that Lyndon Johnson actually said he wouldn't run for the presidency a second time. In fact, my wife and I actually turned off the TV because we thought he was going to give a kind of standard speech. "Lyndon Johnson again, click!"

The assassination of Martin Luther King had a real impact on me. King did a fantastic job. The interesting thing about the man is that he understood black people as well as white people. He knew which buttons to push on both sides of the racial line. I think his assassination made us rethink nonviolence; whether it could be made to work. It had a real impact on triggering of the riots. People like us living in areas overwhelmingly white were upset. The same thing went for the assassination of Robert Kennedy. They came so close together, I grew up with people having political differences and political disagreements but this is not the way it was settled. So there was a real question about what was going on, and what was happening to this country, and if this is the way people were doing things.

I had a sense of the Vietnam War. Certainly it was a big issue. I was always opposed to the war; I thought it was wrong. As soon as I figured out what was going on, it was pretty clear that it was not a winnable war. Most of the people there were not committed to our side; that was so obvious. I didn't know anyone who was killed, but I must have known half a dozen men about my age, that I went to school with who served in Vietnam. I talked to some of my friends who were in Vietnam and their consensus was that this business of the hostility that the vets faced coming back had been exaggerated. They didn't think they were as nastily treated as had been suggested here. Now, all these people are black, and since black people are treated nasty anyway, I'm just separating the vet stuff from it. I was always against the war, and I am against it now.

The only election that I didn't vote in was when Richard Nixon ran for the presidency. I've never forgotten that because many of us in the anti-war movement were very angry at Hubert Humphrey at the time. So, I can remember very well when my wife got ready to vote, and she said to me, "You mean you're not going to vote?" And I said no. I thought about voting for one of the minority candidates, one of the unassociated candidates, but I said "No, I'm not going to vote, I'm certainly not going to vote for Nixon, or Alan Reed." As you know the election was very close. So, a lot of us who didn't vote got what we deserved for not voting. We got Richard Nixon.

A lot of things have changed as a result of the 60's. I think the most positive thing, obviously for me as a black person, was the end of the legal segregation. The fact that a black person can go anywhere he wants to eat or use the bathroom, or anything like that. I'm old enough to know that was not the case then. Thirty years ago, I would've said, "That's crazy!" I think however that free speech has gotten out of hand. It seems to me that if Americans were creative enough to run around talking about the land of the free and home of the brave, and still have slaves, they ought to be creative enough to support free speech without having all this garbage that young people have to deal with. I think young people today have to deal with matters which were handled differently when I was young.

I think racism is still a problem. What's happened now is that some people have been able to make it, but the majority of the black population is still pretty much where it was at before the Civil Rights Movement. If fifteen percent of the black population is middle class, that's going to be high. So that leaves eighty five percent of the people still pretty much where they were before the movement. What happens when people look at success is they look at the fifteen percent but they don't look at the other eighty-five.

Young people, you've got to stay on your toes all the time. You've got to be watchful, I mean, this is what I used to tell my daughters and it's paid off. They're both questioning women. They question everything. I've encouraged them to be strong, and I think it's paid off. Be alert, stay on top of issues, and stand up for yourself!

Glossary Words On This Page
Black Panthers
civil rights
Cuban Missile Crisis
Friends of SNCC
Hubert Humphrey
Lyndon B. Johnson
Martin Luther King, Jr.
New Republic
Richard M. Nixon
Young Communist

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