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John O'Neal interview, Part 1
John O'Neal explains that there was substantially less anti-communist sentiment in SNCC compared to other contemporary Civil rights organizations, something he attributes to Jim Forman's own philosophies and pragmatism, as well as efforts "not to engage people at the level of ideological debate but to engage people at the level of work." He describes a violent attack of demonstrators at one event, where men wielding a pipe and a chain attacked protestors. John Lewis happened to be at that demonstration, though O'Neal explains how none of the Civil rights leaders knew how to respond. He adds that he eventually left Albany to work in Mississippi, largely due to the lack of college-educated workers in Mississippi. He overviews work in Greenwood and Jackson, Mississippi. He describes the "dreadful commonness of the work" and adds that while there were certainly dramatic moments, he suggests that the daily work of a political organizer was fairly routine and perhaps even mundane. O'Neal then talks more about his current writing projects, including plays, essays, and poetry, including a collaboration with the San Francisco Mime Troupe. He then discusses the Free Southern Theater (FST) in more detail. He describes how his work with FST allowed him to synthesize social and political values with his professional ambitions of being a playwright. He summarizes the early years of FST with fellow co-founders Doris Derby and Gilbert Moses. He explains how FST was just "one of those instruments" to function as a "mirror of the entire resources of society" "to dramatize the problem that had to be solved," and was an artistic corollary to the Freedom Summer and other activist work in Mississippi. By creating relevant and applicable works for FST audiences, the audiences "come alive to the concerns" of the Movement. He then briefly describes his trial as a conscientious objector, though the court dropped the charges against him before the case progressed. He mentions the personalities he came across through his work, including playing basketball with Andrew Young, Martin Luther King Jr., and James Forman, among the "remarkable confluence of circumstances that have influenced his work." He connects how these experiences help him create relevant work for underserved theater audiences, adding that "content is the center of the artistic enterprise and form is the instrument."
Amistad Research Center
Box 7, Item 9, Side 2, Kim Lacy Rogers collection, Amistad Research Center at Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana
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