It was while working for the SCLC in Chicago that O’Neal took a liking to research. There isn’t a library in Chicago that he has not stepped foot in. His travels also took him to Washington D.C. where he spent time at the Library of Congress.
On top of his research, he was making picket signs, answering phone calls, and working toward affirmative action. He said that they had held many large demonstrations in Chicago but one of the most notable was the one held in August of 1966 by the Chicago Freedom Movement. It was on that day that King led a crowd of approximately 700 people on a march from Gage Park to Marquette Park for fair housing.
As they were marching, the crowd was confronted by a mob of angry protesters.
“That was when Dr. King was hit in the head. And he said the hatred, the racism…was more vicious there than anywhere that he had ever gone,” says O’Neal. King had been struck in the head by a stone, falling to one knee.
“They were throwing bottles, bricks–whatever they could get their hands on.”
Of his experience that day, and generally during many other pickets and demonstrations, O’Neal states, “Sometimes you would be a little scared but a lot of the time you would be concerned because you didn’t know what would pop off.”
And they had good reason to be on alert, as O’Neal recounts, sometimes Nazis and the Klu Klux Klan were present at their demonstrations. “They weren’t allowed to be on the same side of the street as us…they were allowed to demonstrate just like we were.”
During the demonstrations he would do quite a bit of writing and documentation. He conducted interviews as well.
“I recorded everything that we were doing. I kept a polaroid recorded with me at all times and a notepad.”
However, in the early 80s, all of his work would be lost in an electrical fire in his house.
“All of my tapes and records were burned. As the fire got started, I pulled up in my driveway and I jumped out of my car and ran in the house.I got the fire extinguisher…but it was too late…..everything was destroyed [the firemen] couldn’t save anything. The only clothes I had left were the ones on my back.”
The fire had spread too fast, thousands of notes he had taken down over the course of his years involved in the civil rights movement, all of those memories gone.
“I would rather save that stuff and have everything else be destroyed,” he admits.
When some memories come back he is able to write them down, but an experience like his is irreplaceable.
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