Thursday, July 26, 2007

SNCC Freedom Singer Matt Jones: A 1994 `Downtown' Interview--Part 1

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 ( in Manhattan, a celebration of his 70th birthday took place in 2006. Following is part 1 of an interview with Jones, which first appeared in the September 21, 1994 issue of the now-defunct Lower East Side alternative newspaper, Downtown.

Now it’s 30 years [in 1994] after the Mississippi Summer Project. What activities were you involved in that led to the Freedom Summer? What are your most enduring and vivid memories of that Summer?
Matt Jones
: In January 1964, I went on tour with the SNCC Freedom Singers. Our job was to organize Friends of SNCC chapters in the northern part of the United States and to talk about the Movement to interested students, who would in turn give their bodies, their minds and their finances to the struggle. They knew, by the accounts of life and death that we would give them in our concerts, that to work for SNCC was as dangerous as any war.

In early 1964, we did a concert at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. The KKK burned a cross on the lawn. Dick Gregory, who was touring with us, made fun of the incident. We wrote a song called “The Klansman:” (recites)

“Out of the night
When the full moon is bright
Rides a devil known as a Klansman.
Devil, who makes the sign of a K.
Devil, you’re bound to see your day.”

From the incident many students from Oxford got involved in SNCC. Their networking with the SNCC office in Atlanta set the stage for using Oxford as the meeting place for the Summer Orientation. Similar networking was done in other states, but none was as complex as The Mississippi Summer Project.

Seeing many students that we had organized with speeches and songs was an affirmation that we had done a good job. But that reality scared me. I suddenly felt an enormous responsibility. The people we had sung to and who we had organized were the students who were going South.

We heard that three students were missing in Meridian [Mississippi]. I became very nervous. I sat under the tree where we had taught many students nonviolent techniques, and hoped that they would decide to go home, because I did not want the responsibility of their deaths. I knew [SNCC Field Secretary] Bob Moses was talking to the students in the hall, and felt confident of Bob’s ability to explain things. Bob was a genius at making points with a few words. He had an eloquent silence. Bob was the leader of the Council of Federated Organizations [COFO] in Mississippi during Freedom Summer.

I knew I had a lot of responsibility for the students being there. I’m one of the cheerleaders, one of the people who talked them into coming down. Or talked them into thinking that was the place to be. But I had no way of knowing, when I was talking to them, that they would come down and somebody would actually get killed. A student would actually get killed. And we would have to deal with that.

So when we heard that three [civil rights] workers were missing, I looked at these students wishing they would go home.

Why was a decision made to utilize the student volunteers?
: I had been arrested 29 times in the Movement.

Jones: Across the South.

What kinds of arrests?
Jones: Well, you would go to register people to vote and they would throw you in jail. You would go to integrate a lunch counter and they would throw you in jail. You would go to integrate a movie theater and get thrown in jail. And it just wound up, in the final analysis, being 29 times.

We had found out, as early as the March on Washington [in 1963], that with white student involvement the country would pay more attention to the struggle. We knew from past experience that this country would not react to Black people being killed. So in bringing the student volunteers to the South, their parents, their home towns, their colleges and their congressmen would be interested in their welfare.

We were right. However, we were as shocked as the rest of the nation when Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were killed. In 1963, we had previously used white students in other places throughout the South. However, the majority of these students were from the South.

So we took a calculated risk. We thought that something would happen. That people would get involved. And they did get involved. We didn’t want it to happen the way it happened…

Now when I was sitting under that tree, I knew that they were going. But I also knew I was going with them. So right after some of them left, I wound up going to Meridian. And being there with [Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC)] leader] Jim Bevel and a CORE [Congress of Racial Equality] worker named “Flukie” Suarez.

But I knew that some of the veteran workers had to go into Meridian at that time. And I was one of them that went into Meridian. I was frightened, but I also knew a little bit more about how to survive in that area than Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman had known. (end of part 1)

Next: SNCC Freedom Singer Matt Jones: A 1994 Downtown Interview—Part 2

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