The Summer of 1994 marked the 30th Anniversary of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee [SNCC]’s Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964, in which over 1,000 student volunteers from around the U.S. participated, after attending training sessions in Oxford, Ohio. But in 2007, a former chairman of SNCC, H. Rap Brown (n/k/a Jamil al-Amin) is still imprisoned for life in a Georgia prison.
In 1994, Downtown spoke with former SNCC organizer and Freedom Singers Director, Matt Jones, about the Freedom Summer, the Freedom Singers, SNCC and the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Jones lives in Manhattan and for many years has generously donated his time to sing at many human rights and peace benefits. At The People’s Voice Café (http://www.peoplesvoicecafe.org/) in Manhattan, a celebration of his 70th birthday took place in 2006. Following is part 3 of an interview with Jones that first appeared in the September 21, 1994 issue of the now-defunct Lower East Side alternative newspaper, Downtown.
What was daily life like in Mississippi? You mentioned how, when you were in Ohio, right before the Freedom Summer was to start, you had certain concerns. Now, when you got down there—in terms of what you recall—what was life like? I mean, people talk about a “Freedom High” that people experienced there. And some people say they were never the same. What happened down there? Jones: They were never the same because their lives were in danger. It was so odd. Because it was really, really like being a race car driver and you were in a car and you didn’t know where the curves were. You had no idea what was going to happen to you from one day to the next. The fellows had already been killed. People like Lawrence Guyot had been caught in Ku Klux Klan rallies in Mississippi. And Medgar Evers had already been killed. And a couple of people had died in other sections of the South.
So you were talking about people being in an area where they were totally frightened. But I think that after the three fellows got killed, people were more apt to listen to some of the SNCC veterans. If they were going to drive in a car, they would listen to a fellow named George Green, who was our best driver. He was sort of like Roy Rogers on a horse. I mean, he knew how to get away from the Klan.
So after people got killed, we put radios and walkie-talkies in all our cars, so people could get in touch with each other. And people were taught that, if they were in a car, they would never let the Klan pass them. And if they were in jail, they would never let the jailer put them out of jail at night. They would always wait till the following morning and be sure that some people were coming to pick them up. And they would never let any jailer tell them “O.K., it’s 11:30 at night. You can go home now.” That was the last time that was done. People were very careful from then on out. And that’s why we didn’t have any of the rest of the kids get killed. Because they knew that the Mississippi racists were sincere about killing people and it changed even the way I dealt with law enforcement.
I remember when I was leaving Meridian—going to Jackson [Mississippi]—and I had to go through one of the counties. And our car broke down. And this fellow named “Flukie” Suarez from CORE went into Jackson with the tire, and I was left in the car till he came back. And we had SNCC and CORE literature in the car.
And when I saw the sheriff come down to check on me, with this big shotgun, I immediately hid all of the CORE and SNCC literature under the seat. And when he came in and asked me why I was there, I told him I was just there waiting on a friend of mine to come and bring a tire. And I didn’t say I was in SNCC or anything. I mean I knew to be cool. I knew that I couldn’t decide to discuss the Movement with that sheriff. And it was very clear in my mind that my job was to try to get that car back into Jackson and wait for the man to come to pick me up.
So it put a little fear in us. But we continued to work. We didn’t let that stop us from working. In 1963, we had a mock election and Aaron Henry had run for governor. Since the people in Mississippi couldn’t vote, we had our own election. The mock election in 1963 set the stage for the Mississippi Summer.
So we were, I think, “high” because for the first time in our lives we were moving to free people and, by trying to free people, we were freeing ourselves. We would always stay in the homes of some of the local people, and we would learn from the people. And the people grew. And we grew. I mean you had whites who had never been around blacks, and blacks who had never been around whites. So both groups grew.
Some of the blacks had never known whites. If a white person would come up and say “Will you come to register to vote?”, they would say “yes, sir” because the person was white and they had never said “no, sir” to a white person. So some of the students would come back and say “I got so-and-so to register to vote and the people never came.” They didn’t realize the reason they didn’t come is that the people, just said “yes” to them because they were white.
There were a lot of things that the people had to learn. And everyday somebody was getting beaten or something was happening. Emmett Till had already died. So we had a lot of death already in Mississippi and across the South.
Not only in Mississippi was there a lot of activity. There was activity across the South at the same time. People don’t know that, because people are so tied into Mississippi because the white civil rights workers got killed there. Therefore, there’s a lot of writing going on about Mississippi. But that’s because people still move in racist lines and they don’t realize. They don’t realize that they are really not interested in other sections of the South, even though they’re interested in Mississippi because three civil rights workers got killed, two of them white, and a lot of whites worked there. But a lot of whites worked in other sections of the South. But we don’t have a history of those sections.
But some of the white students from the South had more extensive training because they had gone to schools in the South and they also had worked. And they understood the people. So they could move better. People like Bob Zellner and Sam Shirah. And these people could move a lot better than the Northern whites. They knew the area. They knew the blacks and the whites. So they could just move. They couldn’t work in the white community, but they could work in the Black community. They understood the people and the conditions they were working with.
And you find that those of us who worked in Mississippi will never be the same. It changed our lives. Working with SNCC changed my life. It’s changed everybody’s life. Everybody I’ve met that ever worked there, it changed their life. Some people try to forget it, but they can’t ever really forget it. You know it always stays upon them because they were living on the edge of death. It’s like when you’re almost in a car accident and you can see your whole life before you. They could see their whole life before them. They didn’t know whether they were going to die or not, but they knew what they were doing meant something.
And that’s why I, at this age, at 57-years-old [in summer 1994] still move in a freedom kind of way, because of what happened to me during those formative years in my life when I was in SNCC, in the Freedom Singers and also a Field Secretary for SNCC in Tennessee, Virginia, Mississippi and Georgia. So I can remember those different areas.
What have you been involved with since Freedom Summer and in recent years [prior to 1994]? Jones: Well, after Freedom Summer I was going to go back on the road with the Freedom Singers. But I got caught in a Ku Klux Klan rally July 4, 1964, which caused me to be laid-up for a month or two, until I got better. [Segregationist Alabama Democratic Governor] George Wallace had a political rally. And we went there because we didn’t want the whites in the rally to think that they could meet like that and we not be there.
But when we got there, we found out it was a meeting of all the heads of the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens’ Councils in the South. And so when we got in there, we found out that we were in a lynch mob. When a policeman turned his back on me, I was saved by a Japanese photographer that took a picture of the policeman with his back turned. And that action itself caused the policeman to jump across me and save my life.
But that experience made me realize how sick racism was in the South. I had a direct personal confrontation within a lynch mob situation. Somehow I lived to talk about it.
So after then, we continued to work in the Freedom Singers, and go around the country and sing, and raise money for SNCC. After I left SNCC, I came to New York City and got involved—during the Poor People’s Campaign—in the “Hey Brother! Coffeehouse” movement with F.D. Kirkpatrick. And we began to sing freedom songs and get involved here in the late 1960s and the very early 1970s. And I continued to do that. I also helped to free the Birmingham Six in England. And also did some work with an African nation called Sierra Leone. Then finally, I set up the Open House Coffeehouse in the Fall of 1986. And I’ve been going with that since then.
Where does that coffeehouse meet? And how can readers check it out? Jones: That Open House Coffeehouse meets at 93rd and Broadway at Advent Lutheran Church on Monday nights. From 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Now we try to encourage people to write songs with a message. Some people have been able to write freedom songs. Other people don’t. But we make it open, so that people will do whatever they want to do. But, hopefully, they will write songs with a message.
Now you had a record, Matt Jones: Then And Now? Is it still possible to get that record? In which you sing some of your freedom songs? Jones: Yes. My record is called Matt Jones: Then And Now. People may contact me and I’ll be able to get it to them. Also, some of my music can be found in Peter Seeger and Rob Reiser’s book Everybody Says Freedom, and in the prize-winning documentaries: Eyes On The Prize, BBC’s Murder In Mississippi and a prize-winning student video: Road To Mississippi. And in the recent film: Freedom On My Mind. Also two of my songs can be found on a new [in 1994] CD, Freedom Is A Constant Struggle, along with some of the greatest singers of the 1960s such as Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Judy Collins, Peter, Paul and Mary, Tom Paxton, the Freedom Singers.
But the main thing that people need to know about the Freedom Summer is that it was a time when young people all over the United States got together and there was a way for them to express themselves in a Movement. And a lot of them took advantage of it. (end of interview) (Downtown 9/21/94)
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