The Riots of 1964 — Chapter 6

Research Director’s Report
Manning Van Nostrand, Director of Research

Interviews of Participants in the 1964 Labor Day Riot

The following section was written by Dr. Kenney, Dr. Palmer and Dr. Van Nostrand.

Interviews were conducted with a group of young people who were directly involved with the Labor Day weekend riot of 1964, either as close observers or as legally apprehended participants. The interview was a sixty-two question instrument designed to seek out basic attitudes toward life, to delineate by as indirect means as possible the ‘anatomy of the riot, to determine what kinds of young people were associated with or close to the Labor Day disturbance of 1964. The community had suspected that the young people who came for that weekend were “kooks,” “hoods,” or other undesirable youngsters from every “tough” neighborhood in New England. It was important that we know what kind of youngster was drawn to such an event. It was important to know what kind of youngster came to Hampton Beach during the summer.

If we could describe some of the basic features of the riot, and if we could discover general background and personal characteristics of the young people involved in the riot, then we would stand a better chance of determining at least the broad domains of causes leading to this type of group violence. Even more important for the purposes of the Project, more informed approaches to prevention and control could be derived from these rudimentary data. While we do not pretend that the accounts which the young people gave of themselves and the riot represent a deeply penetrating picture, nevertheless we have reason to believe that the information obtained, even if we call it no more than the raw material of self-description, is significant. Many studies have shown that the language of self-evaluation helps to reveal the terms by which young people conceptualize themselves. It is through this language that it is possible to communicate with the young person and to make an approach toward a more intensive inquiry into the self, if such an inquiry is to be made. This point was made most ably by Arthus T. Jersild (In Search of Self), (Bureau of Publications, Teachers College, Columbia University, 1952) when he reported the results of a study which asked elementary, junior high, senior high groups and young college men and women what they liked and disliked about themselves.

The interview group included fifty-three young people, most of whom were between nineteen and twenty-one years of age. Forty-one were classified as close observers of the riot. Twelve had been arrested by the police during the course of the disturbance Eighty percent were males with the large majority coming from New Hampshire. Each individual was interviewed by a research staff member who had been through one brief training session in the use of the interview guide. The training consisted of two pilot interviews by the interviewers, from the results of which revisions of the preliminary form of the interview guide were made.

It was our experience that this kind of interview was a very lengthy affair – covering in excess of two hours. Very often the interviewer had to travel considerable distance to obtain one interview. While we had 120 names of people arrested in the Labor Day riot of 1964 (in total 155)*, it was particularly difficult to get at these people because of our inexperience, time and budget limitations, etc. While we cannot determine with any degree of certainty the biases which might be present in our study group, there does seem to be much evidence in our findings to suggest that we have an atypical group of young people in the arrested group compared to the others. Our major difficulty – and it is one of some importance – is that the arrested group does look somewhat different from the observer group. Any statements of difference that are made in the report must be taken to mean as being only suggestive of possible trends.

* Names and addresses of Juvenile arrestees were not available to us.

One other thing might be noted in passing. Immediately after the riot, those young people who had been involved in the riot were something like celebrities among their peers. By the time these interviews took place, some of this ardor had cooled. It might be that some of the opinions of the riot had changed in the minds of the young people involved in the riot.

Let us first look at the general findings of the instrument used in those Spring interviews. We shall make some observations regarding the sample as it breaks down along class lines. Finally, a comment or two regarding salient features of the arrested population would be in order.

A. General Background: As mentioned earlier 80% of the group were males with the large majority coming from New Hampshire. Most were between 19 and 21 years of age. Practically all were high school graduates and most of them had started college or were planning to go on with further education. The observer group had fathers who were professional, business, office workers, or skilled tradesmen by occupation. The arrested group were predominantly children of semi-skilled or unskilled workers.

B. Aspiration Level: The group as a whole has a high aspiration level for future occupation and they are generally optimistic about their chances for attaining occupational success.

C. Education: They rate education as being good or fair in general. The school does the best job for the most part in academic subjects. Yet 60% of them say that students do not get a fair break in school, attributing this to teacher favoritism and lack of personal attention. When they are asked about their own schooling, they do not show marked enthusiasm. In fact, only 25% of them stated a more than moderate satisfaction with their education. Lack of challenge was the most frequently cited source of dissatisfaction. Although they feel that the best job is being done generally in the academic areas, they feel that in their own case more academic training should have been included and that more pressure to achieve should have been applied. This position is held by 80% of them who say that they should have been worked harder in school.

D. Personal assets and liabilities: Several questions were concerned with their perceptions of their own strengths and weaknesses. About a third said sports were their strongest point; another third, getting along with people; the rest mentioned a variety of strengths. The fact that so many of them stated “getting along with people” was one of their strengths is somewhat surprising when compared with young people generally. About 60% think that what comes hardest to them is academic work; among the arrested group almost all of them said that academic studies was the one thing that was most difficult. Most of the remainder believed that getting along with other people presented the greatest difficulty.

E. Views on national and world affairs: While they view the political leaders as moderately forward looking, they believe that the business leaders are much more so. They tend to see America as a land of rich resources, expressed most tangibly in the economic and military spheres. There may be evidenced here a gentle trend toward conservatism. Indeed, noting the geographical distribution one would be surprised if there were not a conservative flavoring in their political-economic views. Yet, there is also a kind of resentment in some of what they say. These young people are probing, questioning, and not altogether accepting of what they see. To them the country’s greatest weaknesses are its declining personal and political morality. Almost 70% state these views. Although many of them believe that Russia has a superior educational system and is politically more efficient, two-thirds feel that in time the United States can equal them even in these respects.

F. Views on life: When asked how adults explain the actions of young people, they comment that adults find young people baffling and tend to belittle them. To them, adults may not have clear life goals but older people tend to be reasonably happy. They think that although money is the number one adult value, adults worry most about family problems. On the other hand, young people worry most about social recognition.

The picture that emerges from the responses to questions about how they feel about themselves and their present role in society runs briefly like this. They are attempting to embrace the values of both adolescent and adult worlds. For example, they accept the dress and general mores of adolescents, yet they take the adult view that one should not marry early. (Perhaps we could have probed more deeply here and asked about the phenomenon of changing sex mores.) A sense of social responsibility is strongly evident. They have altruistic aims about social and economic equality and are extremely concerned about the threat of Communism to world peace.

The responses exhibit a trend of down-grading the intellectual facet of our culture. This reflects the present general middle class attitude. These young people are still basically ego-centric at this age. They give lip-service to upper middle class values, but this lip service is coupled with considerable resentment. These are not the truly aggressive, depressed lower class young people.

Despite their feeling that society, particularly in the educational realm, has let them down, they express a need to assume social responsibility, but they are quite uncertain about their capacity to do this. They do not see adults as being directly helpful to them in coping with these feelings of uncertainty. The adult is seen as concerned mainly with himself and it is only with a few friends of their own age that these young people can talk things over.

G. 1964 Riot – Labor Day Weekend: Very few of the overall group knew ahead of time that there would be a riot. However, 8 out of the 12 who were arrested said they knew at least a month or more before that there was going to be a riot. Feelings during the riot were of fear and curiosity. Fear and an urge to flight were especially prominent in the arrested group. As the riot progressed, feelings of fear and disapproval mounted.

They thought they were able to perceive leaders of the riot whom they described as loud, wild, and unkempt. They saw the crowd surrounding them as young, mostly male, scared, and to a lesser degree, exhilarated. The person who stood out most in their memory was a big, tough guy who was acting like a kid.

They see police in general as reasonable people doing a necessary job. The state police are perceived as efficient and well-trained. The Hampton Beach police were viewed as relatively inefficient and unorganized with a tendency to be belligerent. The same adult on-lookers were seen as scared and anxious, but at the same time highly curious and almost enjoying the experience.


The first run through the interview data reveals an adolescent who looks and sounds very much like adolescents in general. While there were a few representatives of relatively high and very low socio-economic groups, the majority of those interviewed fell between these two extremes. They appear to be in the midst of or just emerging from a normal middle-class American adolescence. We feel that it is not going too far beyond the data to say that these young people have the usual preoccupations with wondering how their abilities compare with other people’s and what others think of them. They strongly express the late-adolescent need for a kind of fusion with other people in their repeated concerns with getting along with other people. Implicit in their remarks is the difficulty that they express, as do most other adolescents, in attempting to achieve independence.

They appear to be coming to terms with the reality of the adult society into which they are moving. They are distinguishing between what would be nice to have happen from what is actually possible or likely. At this point they seem to be the “idealist without illusions.” The frequently mentioned cynicism of youth is not apparent among those young people who may have some gripes about adults but who see these adults as trying to do a reasonably decent job. Of course, the adults could do even a better job, as they see it.

These young people enjoy physical activity; they very likely have a need for thrills and excitement (even a small dash of physical danger), and they want to have fun. It goes without saying that having fun will involve the opposite sex.

H. 1964 Labor Day Findings Related to Father’s Prestige: We have seen an overview of the findings of the interviews given to the young people involved in the 1964 Labor Day Weekend Riot. Let us now turn our attention to a more detailed examination of those findings as they relate to the occupational prestige of the father’s occupation. this particular variable gives us a good insight into the social classification of those persons. It was discovered that nine of the twelve young people interviewed were in the lower socio-economic classifications as described by the Hollinshead Index of Social Position.1 “Was there,” we asked, “a similar kind of breakdown along other variables covered by the interview?” We decided to select certain key variables included in this interview and do a cross-tabulation according to the father’s occupational prestige. Table One indicates age level as it relates to occupational prestige. As mentioned above, we readily see that nine of the twelve arrested were in the lower group, Prestige Level four through seven. It is difficult to know whether the age of the respondent is influenced by the actual social fact of the rioters being in the late teens, or whether the information we obtained from the police was given in such a way as protecting youngsters below the age of eighteen. this particular table becomes more significant as we move on into some of the other variables included in the interview.

It must be remembered that this particular interview was designed to test a different kind of situation than the situation confronting us during the summer of 1965. It was necessary to obtain some insight into the feelings and attitudes of the youngsters who come to this beach. It is important, then, in relation to this cross-tabulation to note that we are dealing with a group which is predominantly middle-class. there are twenty-nine youngsters of prestige group one, two and three; whereas there are twenty-one in groups four to seven.

I. The Index of Social Position designed by A. B. Hollinshead is designed to rank occupations according to their position in the socio-economic milieu. Examples of occupations in group one would include higher executives, proprietors of large concerns, and major professionals; examples of group two would be business managers in large concerns, proprietors of medium businesses (value $35,000 to $100,000), lesser professionals; examples of group three would be administrative personnel, small independent businesses, and minor professionals; examples of group four would be clerical and sales workers, technicians, and owners of little businesses valued under $6,000; group five, skilled manual employees; group six, machine operators and semi-skilled; group seven, unskilled employees.

Some sixty percent of the young people indicated that they felt “all kids” did not “get a fair break in school.” Table Two indicates a more refined breakdown of this general response related to father’s occupational prestige. As was indicated previously, teacher favoritism was the leading cause of this unfairness. Twenty-six percent of those answering this question gave this as a response. Of those giving specific responses, this is the leading cause of dissatisfaction. It is also interesting to note that over half of those arrested did not answer this question. We can assume that they are dissatisfied, and we might also assume that they are not able to articulate this dissatisfaction. It could be said that such inability to articulate might be more frustrating to an individual than if the individual were clear as to just what it was that bothered him about this important dimension of his life. If we say this about the arrested, it is more important to say this about this population as a whole. While teacher favoritism is an important source of difficulty, we might speculate that the real source of difficulty is that the young people know they are dissatisfied, but do not know why.

Table Three gives us another clue as to the attitudes of these youngsters about their education. There is a clear indication that the upper group is quite desirous of more adequate academic preparation for life. Some twenty-eight percent of those youngsters, as over against twelve percent of the youngsters in groups four through seven, feel that better academic courses would be desirable additions to the school program.

Tables Four and Five elicit a more easily obtainable response. A small minority ranks itself confidently in the realm of the academic. From the standpoint of prestige we can see that the upper group is more confident of itself in dealing with people. Interestingly, when the lower group talks about doing things well, they rank themselves high in sports. However, when it comes to doing things best (and thereby involving themselves in more competition), they are far less sure of themselves. In both tables the arrested youngsters have a preference for physical diversionary activity, sports. It is possible to assume that some kind of physical diversionary activity could supplant the physical activity of the riot situation.

We see in Table Six that most of the youngsters rank academic work as being the most difficult aspect of their lives. This is particularly interesting in light of the fact that the majority of the arrested are in this category. If we are looking for sources of stress and strain within the adolescent community, it would seem, according to our limited research, that we might concentrate more intensively on the classroom and its dynamica. It would appear that education, holding as it does such a high prestige value in our technological society, is productive of much anxiety and frustration among these young people.

One other note needs to be made. It is often reasoned that adolescents have great difficulties in their social relations. There is some evidence to support this claim in terms of the adolescent’s relations with the adult world. We might view the response to this question in those terms. However, it would seem that on the whole these youngsters are well-adjusted at least in superficial aspects of social life.

Table Seven is interesting more for what it does not say rather than what it does. There does not seem to be among this group of adolescents any value which is any higher than some other value might be. Particularly interesting is the fact that “Happiness,” per se, is not given any response. Other responses one might expect to be responded to in great numbers, such as money and social recognition, are likewise not ranked high. “Freedom” and “Family” are the top ranked items.

Attitudes toward the nation’s strengths and weaknesses are reflected in Tables Eight and Nine. The responses regarding the nation’s strength cluster around economic, military and political dimensions. It is somewhat surprising that the nation’s efforts in science and the extensive system of public education in the United States are not viewed as elements of surpassing strength. It may or may not be significant, but it is nevertheless interesting that the only consistently marked scoring for the arrested was under the category of the military. Table Eight takes on a bit of added significance when we compare it to Table Nine. In contrast, we see that these young people feel that the glaring weakness of the country is in the realm of morality. A content analysis of the individual response indicates that “morality” in this context refers to personal or individual morality. Correspondingly, economic and military spheres are not seen as weak areas of our country by this sample of youth. It would seem that neither the scientific or educational efforts of our country have captured the attention of the youth. Finally, with regard to difference in terms of prestige, Prestige Levels 4 – 7 seem to have a bit more confidence in the military than do those in Prestige Levels 1 – 3. The upper class group seems to have a bit more confidence in the political dimension. Conversely, twice as many of the lower group deems the political arena as one of our weaknesses than does the upper group.

The interview asks where do business and political leaders get their ideas – from the past, present, or future? As far as the political leaders, when you look at the grand totals, it would seem that the group is equally divided among the three responses. An interesting internal comparison can be made between the two prestige groups; more of the upper group tends to rank political as gaining perspective from an orientation directed toward the future. The opposite is true with the lower socio-economic groups. The trend in both prestige groups heads toward the future orientation when the question turns to business leaders. With the lower group the emphasis is a bit more pronounced in the future orientation. This information is contained in Tables Ten and Eleven.

One might well ask, “Why was such a question as this asked at all?” We should remember that the principle purpose of this interview was an exploratory one. We were trying to ferret out attitudes, frustrations, anxieties, stresses and strains. “Did these young people have conflicts in their feelings about their country: Is this what is producing their frustration?” we asked. It is fairly evident that such is not the case.

“Are people really happy?” This question would seem to indicate whether or not the young person perceives his world in relatively friendly terms, whether or not he senses that happiness is an available alternative. Perhaps the most interesting single comparison on this Table XII is that twelve of the respondents in the upper group answered “Most,” while only two in the lower answered “Most.” There seems to be a more optimistic outlook in the upper class than there is in the lower. Among the lower class arrested, there is a polarization of somewhat embittered young people among this group.

One of the most interesting results of the interview is to be found in Table XIII. There does seem to be a real class difference here. The upper group had relatively little prior knowledge concerning the riot. On the other hand, the lower group, particularly among the arrested, knew something about the riot a long time before the riot actually took place.

A significant insight into the reaction of the young people to the riot itself is gained when we see the results of the questions: What were your feelings at the beginning of the riot? What were your feelings during the riot? Generally, the strongest single feeling was one of fear. This was the dominant reaction of the upper class youngster, and was a marked tendency among those who were arrested. We might also say that there was a kind of alloy of feelings characteristic of each group. In the upper class group fear, excitement and disapproval seemed to dominate. In the lower group, the very fact that there seems to be such a scattering of feeling, even though confusion is not mentioned by name, suggests that confusion and bewilderment may have been uppermost in their minds. It is interesting to note in Table Fourteen that among the lower group there is only a trace of disapproval in comparison to the upper group, but this feeling grows as they describe their feelings during the riot, together with a more marked sense of fear. Underneath the fear, there also seems to be a strong sense of excitement. In the last analysis, however, perhaps the only one substantial conclusion that one can draw from this particular bit of information is that no one feeling seems to dominate the group as a whole. Even those reactions which seem to have a greater frequency of response than do the others do not have such a great response as to warrant the conclusion that we can characterize the feeling of the group.

Conclusions: Perhaps the most accurate conclusion of all is to say that there are no really surprising findings in all of this interviewing. If this interview is a fair sample of young people in general, we might almost say there are less class differences than we might have expected. It does seem fair to say that the lower class group is slightly more fearful and anxious about where they fit into society. Though we do not know just why, it is obvious that there are more youngsters in the lower socio-economic group who were arrested than were in the upper socio-economic group. This alone may point to the fact that there is more resentment among this group. Our interviews would tend to show that such resentments may well spring from a lower socio-economic individual attempting to adjust to a system of education which is geared to middle and upper-middle class expectations. This would be reflected in the general feeling regarding the perceived happiness of people. The upper group would tend to see its peers as those who had “made it”. On the other hand, the lower group youngster would see these and also those of this group whose lives seemed to have less physical reasons for happiness.

To me one of the most interesting aspects of this questionnaire was the response to the strengths and weaknesses of the country. The complete absence of comment on the scientific and educational communities is most intriguing. Another interesting aspect of this set of questions is to be found around the apparent need for, or lack of, moral fiber.

Generally, one might describe this group of young people as a reasonably average group of American youth whose innate sense of “being where the action is” attracted them to Hampton Beach. They came not really knowing what to expect – the majority at any rate, and were rather overwhelmed by what the riot produced. For all its excitement and danger, one senses from these youngsters that they do not harbor deep-seated resentments which they see being resolved by bringing attention to themselves through riotous means. I would suppose that if one were really to understand this phenomenon of the riot he would have to pursue every single one of those youngsters arrested and relentlessly probe to find some cause. When all that was done, it could well be that nothing substantial would be discovered. The riot, for all its intensity, still seems to be an unexplained phenomenon.

What is explainable, however, is more important. There does seem to be a group of youngsters on Hampton Beach whose potential for creative involvement in responsible participation in a summer program seems to be relatively high. One does not know for sure, but these same youngsters with their yet undiscovered stresses and strains can be worked with, can be shown other alternatives than what was seen on Labor Day Eve of 1964.