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John O'Neal interview, Part 2
John O'Neal describes his upbringing in Mound City, Illinois, as the eldest of three born to two schoolchildren. He explains that Mound City was also a segregated town, and that it wasn't until he was in high school that he "had social relations with White people." O'Neal continues to detail the social aspects of segregation, including the "danger associated with getting out of place." He talks about terms of address for interracial associations and how to handle condescending language, and notes that the same terms of address would be used more reverently to older African Americans. He explains that African Americans are always dealing with issues of race, even when issues of race are not explicitly foregrounded. He describes one incident with his father giving a Negro History Week address on the local radio station as among his influential moments of his childhood. He also discusses cross burnings that occurred in his childhood around nearby Cairo, Illinois. O'Neal explains how he wrote a letter to the state superintendent describing how his own local schools were still segregated several years after Brown v. Board. O'Neal begins to explain how he started as a writer. He describes the influence of his grandfather, a minister who was more interested in the moral and philosophical aspects of being a priest rather than the "entertainment" Side 1nd as a result "never had a church." O'Neal mentions that he faced some moderate family pressure to become a minister himself, though he adds that he was mostly interested in the "issues" and was put off by hypocrisy of many of his fellow churchgoers: "I concluded that maybe this was a shortcoming of the people in the church." He describes reading widely about different beliefs at a young age and how this led him to think more critically about the Christian concept of original sin as the "failure to live up to your values," "the junction between asserted value and lived value" which, starting in high school, caused him to think about civil disobedience. He notes the work of Socrates as being particularly influential. He again mentions the influence of his grandfather, but adds that the Montgomery Bus Boycott also started to change his thinking in dramatic ways. He briefly details his life as a student at Southern Illinois University and he helped found a SNCC analogue, the Nonviolent Freedom Committee on campus. He also adds that housing for African American students in Carbondale, Illinois, was particularly difficult to obtain off-campus. O'Neal explains how his early activism in Illinois led him to realize that his more useful work in theater would be in the South and not in New York, where he offers that folks there are more concerned with the "business of theater." He describes moving to Albany, Georgia, around the time of the Bay of Pigs invasion after graduating college. He explains a pervasive fear of communism, even noting that his history of philosophy courses in college stopped well short of discussing Marx and other similar thinkers. He adds that without wide public discourse on communistic thought people develop a "bunch of covert notions that you try to develop without talking to anybody about."
Amistad Research Center
Box 7, Item 9, Side 1, Kim Lacy Rogers collection, Amistad Research Center at Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana
Physical rights are retained by the Amistad Research Center. Copyright is retained in accordance with U. S. Copyright laws.