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 currently 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 2 of an interview with Jones that first appeared in the September 21, 1994 issue of the now-defunct Lower East Side alternative newspaper, Downtown.
How was SNCC different from the other civil rights organizations? Why were the Freedom Singers involved with SNCC, as opposed to the other civil rights organizations? Jones: SNCC was a student organization. When we decided to do something, we did it! Each state had at least one field secretary and several local SNCC workers. These local SNCC workers organized the community. Each area was autonomous and allowed to develop independently.
And we were very, very similar in the way we operated and, in a lot of ways, we were different. Some of us were a lot more demonstration-oriented. A “mass meeting” would be a way for you to connect yourself to the ministers and the people in the community.
We in the Freedom Singers always considered ourselves to be organizers first and singers second. All of SNCC was very action-oriented. We did a lot of demonstrating. We continuously went to jail. We confronted the Establishment in each town that we went to. That was the nature of SNCC.
Now, once we got into these areas, CORE would then come in. CORE had a lot of youthful civil rights workers, also. But not as many as SNCC had. SNCC did not operate only in Mississippi. We worked throughout the South. We in the Freedom Singers were responsible for raising money for Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas and Mississippi, and certain parts of Virginia. So we had a large area that we had to raise funds for and a large area that we had to talk to people about. We had to let people know that we had projects in all these different areas.
And we were just different from other groups. We just operated on the spur of the moment, very action-oriented. We’d move in an uncompromising kind of way. We didn’t have any national office, like the NAACP had, that would get upset because [Mississippi NAACP leader] Aaron Henry would make a move or [slain civil rights leader] Medgar Evers would make a move. We didn’t have to get a go-ahead from anybody.
So people in their different areas would make their own moves. If they got in trouble, the people from other areas of SNCC would come in and help them. So in Mississippi, [SNCC leader] Stokely Carmichael [a/k/a Kwame Ture] might have come over from Lowndes County [Alabama]. You might even have people who would come in from other areas. They’d come into Mississippi, and they might leave Mississippi and go into Virginia. Or go into Tennessee. Or go into Georgia. So that’s why SNCC could move in a moment’s notice. And it could immediately transfer its workers from one state project to another, just by a lady named Ruby Doris Robinson making a call, and people would just saturate themselves from one area to another.
The Freedom Singers was started by Jim Forman [SNCC executive secretary] with the help of Pete Seeger and song leader and field secretary Cordele Reagon. We already had good song leaders in the South. So we took the best singers to go around and sing freedom songs and talk about the Movement. We felt that music was the best way to reach people. So those of us in the Freedom Singers became ambassadors and fund-raisers, as opposed to field workers. Occasionally, we would go back into the field to work. But then we would return to the North and talk and sing about what was happening in the South and raise funds to send back.
I was one of those people who would send back pretty close to $5,000 [in 1960s money]. And that was just the first amount of money we would make. After we would leave a town, people would send more money and more SNCC volunteers would be organized.
There were a lot of groups in music in the 1950s and 1960s. In terms of the music and the songs that the Freedom Singers sang, how would you characterize it? Jones: Well, I would have to say you need to realize that the Freedom Singers were organizers first, and musicians second. It’s true that we could sing very well. But we, by and large, were organizers.
One or two of the Freedom Singers might have been primarily singers. But, by and large, you were talking about a bunch of organizers who talked about the Movement in terms of song. And documented the Movement in songs and sang the songs to people across the nation. And tried to explain what SNCC was about and tried to get them interested enough to give funds and get involved. And give some kind of resource: either their personal selves or money or supplies or whatever. And that made us sing with a kind of intensity.
I was listening to one of our old records and it sort of frightened me when I heard it. I said to myself “Is this really singing?” I heard an intensity and a purpose in my voice that I’ve tried to duplicate unsuccessfully. Because we all had a purpose and when we sang you could hear that purpose in our voices. It’s almost like I was listening to somebody else, and not listening to myself.
We were very dedicated people, and the words that we sang, and the songs that we sang—we believed in. We believed in the words of the songs. Because each song approached the Movement in a certain way.
For example, I wrote a song “Oginga Odinga,” which brought the African Struggle into the Civil Rights Movement, and was also a favorite song of Malcolm X. Other songs, such as “In The Mississippi River,” written by my brother, Marshall Jones, had more meaning after Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner (www.jecf.org/History.htm) were killed.
These songs would make us feel better and through these songs we could explain to people what happened. They could understand exactly what state-of-mind we were in.
So the Freedom Singers was a group that explained to the world-at-large what was going on in the South. People were always very receptive to us and our message. We could communicate thoughts and ideas that would be very difficult for somebody to speak about. Or to preach about. Through our music we inspired people to help and/or join the Movement.
Who were some of the other members of the Freedom Singers? Jones: In the early days of December 1962, there was Bernice Reagon, Cordele Reagon, Charles “Chico” Neblett, Bertha Gober and Ruthie Harris. And in the Fall of 1963 I came on along with my brother Marshall Jones, James Peacock and Emory Harris. And Emory Harris was Ruthie’s brother. And we had a Venezuelan that came on later named Raphael Bentham. And very later in our career, we had a Jewish guitarist named Bill Pearlman. So we had sort of a cocktail of individuals who finally made up the Freedom Singers. And as we got new people in the Freedom Singers, it really changed our sound, and it made us incorporate more music as we traveled.
So the Freedom Singers had within it probably some of the most militant people in SNCC and also some of the most nonviolent people in SNCC. Because they were organizers, that gave the group a certain intensity. We weren’t just singers.
In December of 1964, we went into New York and sang with Malcolm X. And Malcolm X liked us very much. He was sitting down reading his notes and, when we started singing the song “Oginga Odinga,” he looked up. And he spoke to us and told us how important it was that we were singing about a Kenyan diplomat named Oginga Odinga, who was a freedom fighter. And he said that “Two or three years ago, you probably wouldn’t have been singing that song.”
But the reason we were singing the song is because I knew that the South was segregated and I loved the fact that we heard an African man had come to Atlanta on a State Department tour. We knew he was an important man and an international man. We wanted to let him know that Atlanta was not an integrated town. So I wrote this song. Malcolm X thought it was very significant.
At that time I wasn’t as political as I would later become. I gradually grew more political and wrote or arranged all of the Freedom Signers’ music. These songs were about different people who were in the Movement. For example, “Demonstrating G.I.,” is about a soldier who was thrown in jail for demonstrating in his uniform. In “The Prophecy Of A SNCC Field Secretary,” I talk about the lies that a grandfather would tell his grandson in the 1990s about work that he did in the Movement in the 1960s.
Some of the other important songs that we sang were: “We’ll Never Turn Back,” by Bertha Gober, which talks about the death of Herbert Lee, who was killed in Mississippi before Freedom Summer; and “Hartman Turnbow,” by Mike Killen. Turnbow was part of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and a native Mississippian. After the death of Medgar Evers and the three girls killed in Birmingham, I wrote the “Ballad of Medgar Evers.” Thank god that Byron De la Beckwith was finally convicted after all these years. So the songs performed by the Freedom Singers always were about people and conditions that were in the SNCC projects in one form or another.
Did the Freedom Singers perform at the Newport Folk Festival? Jones: Yeah. In the early days when Bernice and Chuck were in the Freedom Singers, when they first started in December 1962, Toschi Seeger booked them. It was in the Summer of 1963 they went to Newport. And later on in my life, we sang there a time or two with [U.S. folksinger] Rev. Kirkpatrick [a/k/a Brother Kirk]. But we had sung there and sung at a number of other folk festivals in the country. (end of part 2)
Next: SNCC Freedom Singer Matt Jones: A 1994 Downtown Interview—Part 3