Matt Jones, Inspiring Students with an Invited Speaker
(alternative high school)
by Jane Califf
(The main purpose of this story is to show how much can be gained by teachers inviting adults from the local community to their school who can provide role models for their students. )
I went to visit Matt Jones in the hospice section of Beth Israel Hospital in New York City on March 29, 2011. I had to say goodbye to my dear friend even though I could not he sure he knew I was there.
Matthew “Matt” Jones is one of my heroes from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s who was an organizer with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, a composer and a member of the Freedom Singers. In the spring of 1998, he gave four presentations to my alternative high school class and that of my colleague, Myrtle Liburd.
On the window sill in his hospice room, his wife, Shelley Jones, had placed a framed tribute that my class had given to him. All 24 students had decided together to let him know why they appreciated his visits by listing their reasons next to each initial of his name:
M – is for the man who fights for life.
A – is for the attention you gave to us.
T – is for the time you spent in the demonstrations.
T – is for tenacity you’re trying to pass on to us.
J – is for the way you survived in jail, the joy you brought to others, and justice you fought for.
O – is for the outstanding work you are doing.
N – is for the nice and wonderful man you are.
E – is for your excellent presentation given to us.
S – is for your successful fight to end segregation and your call for self-determination.
This was composed by a class of students who were the push-outs and drop-outs of Brooklyn high schools or immigrants from the Caribbean, all of whom entered my class seven months before reading at the 4th or 5th grade level. Myrtle’s students were tested as reading one or two grades lower. Most had come from very negative experiences in educational settings, but our school was dedicated to giving them hope that they could improve their academic achievement. For our students, meeting Matt Jones profoundly affected their lives.
How did this happen? Here is the story.
The Frederick Douglass Center (FDC) was a school in the heart of Bedford Stuyvesant, an historically African American community and was one of two alternative high schools located in Old Boys H.S. and funded by the New York City Board of Education. 1
Our school accepted 17 – 21 year olds who were total non-readers up to those who tested at the 5th grade level. We had about 200 students, and each teacher was given one mission – to raise reading and math scores by any means necessary so students could move on to the other alternative high school in our building that would prepare them to pass tests which would qualify them for a the General Equivalency Diploma (GED). Therefore, we had a lot of freedom to develop curricula that we thought would interest our students.
I realized at some point during the school year that they were woefully uninformed about the Civil Rights Movement led by people like Dr. Martin Luther King. In fact, his name was the only one many associated with this historical period, and a few even thought that he might have helped free the slaves.
I was incredibly disappointed and decided that this state of affairs could not continue. I consulted with my colleague, Myrtle Liburd (who is a Caribbean American from Nevis). We searched around and got a grant of $400 to pay Matt Jones for four visits (even though he would have come for free). We resolved to carefully prepare our students for these presentations so they would get the most out of them.
(Matt had told us that in speaking to students in other schools, he had found them to be unprepared, and as a result, many did not really understand the context and content of his stories and songs.)
Preparing Our Students
We decided on using the book Freedom’s Children, Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Own Stories by Ellen Levine. We thought that reading about the thoughts and actions of people their age would help build their interest. I bought enough copies for my class and only one copy for Myrtle. Since the book was too difficult for her students, her plan was to read excerpts to them followed by discussion and writing assignments. I gave my students the following instructions on how we would begin using the book:
“We will read together as a class p. xi – xii and page 1 and 2 to set the stage for the stories in this book. Then you will form yourselves into groups and read pages 3 – 17. You will take turns reading out loud. After reading the story of a particular person, you will answer one or more questions. Each person in your group will take turns writing down the answers. Everyone must agree on the final answer. Each group member will get an “A” if they cooperate and an “A” if all of your answers make sense. (Don’t copy from the book. Put your answers in your own words.)”
I felt it was important to begin reading the book aloud together, with my jumping in off and on to read to keep the pace up. In this way, I could stop and define important words, ask and answer questions and help create interest. Although I was not big on giving out grades as an incentive, I felt in this case it made sense. They had had a lot of failures in their school career. Getting A’s was a symbol that they were able to think and to learn. Since they did not always cooperate well in groups, I had the idea of giving two grades – one for cooperation and one for the work accomplished. This proved to be a good idea, since getting an “A” for cooperation was easy to achieve, and they eagerly took up the challenge for this goal. It helped them to keep each other in check in case someone slipped up and did not do his or her part.
I also stressed the need to help each other when someone got stuck on a word or took time in giving their opinions on what to write. Throughout the year I had been stressing the need to be patient, not to butt in too quickly and give the reader/speaker time to think. They knew by my constant reminders that the first answer is not always the best and that giving time to think and to listen to one another was a key to exemplary group work.
The plan on using the book was successful. They were fascinated, shocked and angered by the cruel system of segregation. They looked forward to reading and discussing the book together. They read carefully the chapter on the Montgomery Bus Boycott to understand the following: that Rosa Parks was not the first to defy bus segregation; that she was not simply a tired lady that day she refused to move to the back of the bus, but a trained activist and leader in the NAACP; that thousands of Black people participated, which was a key to their success; that 26 year old Martin Luther King did not start off as a leader of the boycott but was asked by E.D. Nixon, local head of the NAACP, to play that role since elders of the community including ministers would not step up for fear of persecution.
In addition to this information, our students began to learn about the life of Matt Jones. We used the book Everybody Says Freedom, A History of the Civil Rights Movement in Songs and Pictures by Pete Seeger and Bob Reiser.
Four pages feature Matt Jones, detailing his family life and how he became involved in the fight to end segregation. Another page has the words and music to one of the many songs he composed, “Demonstrating G.I.” which we listened to on a recording. In ballad form, it tells the story of a Black soldier who wore his uniform to a civil rights demonstration and was arrested. A verse that stood out was:
“I got arrested on a Sunday eve.
The policeman said, ‘You’ve been overseas,
But don’t you forget one simple fact,
That your skin is still black.’”
It ends with:
“Come on army, air force and navy
Come on you soldiers, don’t be lazy.
If you want to integrate,
Come on down here and demonstrate.”
We listened to another of his songs “Medgar Evers” who was a civil rights leader in Mississippi, assassinated by a white man, Byron de la Beckwith, in 1963. The music helped bring the suffering, sacrifice as well as the hope that the movement embodied. These songs helped to develop their critical thinking skills as they asked and answered such questions as:
1. Should a Black man have joined the military to defend the U.S. when he could face jail and death for challenging segregation?
2. What could cause a white person to have such hate that he would kill a man like Medgar Evers for his organizing efforts against racial discrimination, including registering Black people to vote in Mississippi?
As a white teacher of Black and Latino students, I was not nervous that this curriculum would cause my students to hate white people. Although I made it clear through the choice of materials that the Civil Rights Movement was organized and led by African Americans, I gave them examples of white people who defied the system and supported the movement.
For example, my students read a 2-page account in “Everybody Says Freedom,” of how Matt Jones was caught in the middle of a Ku Klux Klan rally in Atlanta, Georgia and was almost killed by angry whites in attendance. He was rescued by a white policeman who was also injured and patched up along with Matt by a white doctor who confided to Matt, “By God, son, I am with you.”
Matt Jones is quoted as saying, “I was amazed. You can’t make assumptions. You never know what is inside of people. I saw the policeman being bandaged, and I said to him, ‘I don’t know why you did it – but thank you for saving me.’”
I did not detect any hatred for white people as our studies unfolded, and I continued to be glad that Myrtle and I had agreed on our Matt Jones curriculum.
The day of Matt Jones’ first hour-long presentation arrived and students entered the auditorium in great anticipation. There he was with his guitar, ready to begin.
His stories and songs were vivid:
His father was principal of an elementary school in North Carolina and in the early 1940s, when Matt was 5- or 6-years old, he wrote an article for the Raleigh News and Observer about the bad conditions in the schools for Black children. Matt is quoted in “Everybody Says Freedom” about this period:
“A white man who was a real segregationist came to my father and warned him to leave town. He said the Klan was out to get him. Sure enough, that night the Klan surrounded the house, shining their lights at us, and they asked for him. But he had already gone. We were scared to death that they would take it out on us, but they left the family alone. We left the next day. Later on my father told us it was a white man who warned the Klan to stay away from the family. Dad always kept the man’s picture on our mantel place.”
Matt was arrested 29 times trying to end segregation. The idea of being arrested for a political, economic and social cause was a new one for most of my students.
He sang with the Freedom Singers at rallies and fund-raising events to support the movement. Music helped build unity among those fighting against segregation and also the knowledge that thousands of Black people were fighting for their rights across the south and in solidarity in the north.
Sharal, a student in Myrtle’s class, was so moved by what she had learned from her studies and from Matt’s first talk, that at the beginning of his second visit, she asked if she could read aloud a poem she had written. Here is an excerpt:
“…Who are you to judge me?
Is it because I am of the South?
And why are you calling me
Nigger or colored?
Is this a free country?...
Look at my black brothers and sisters
In Mississippi and Alabama!
The people in the South are fighting for their rights.”
In between Matt Jones’ weekly visits, our classes continued to learn about life in the south in the 1950s and 60s:
reading a conversation that took place when Dr. King and 17 others staged a stand-in at an exclusive restaurant in St. Augustine, Florida, a segregated community. They were told, “We can’t serve you. We are not integrated.” All 18 were arrested for violating Florida’s “unwanted guest law.”
reading and discussing Dr. King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” speech and then watching a video of Dr. King delivering it.
reading about the power of freedom songs in an excerpt from a booklet “I’m Gonna Let It Shine – A Gathering of Voices for Freedom” by Bill Harley. Then we listened to some of them on a tape that accompanied the booklet.
When Matt Jones’ visits came to an end, we asked our classes what we could do to honor and to thank him. They decided to invite him to a special program they would create. School administrators, guidance counselors and two other classes were invited to attend.
The program included:
reading aloud a few of the many thank you letters students wrote to him.
Riquermy read hers from the booklet students put together of all their letters:: “…I will like to tell you that if I were in your shoes, I will do the same thing you did because you can never, never show others that you are afraid. Something that we will never forget is that you stood up for your rights… I would also like you to know that we will keep you in our hearts for the rest of our life because a man like you deserves to be in everybody’s life as a good example…”
Everton read: “…Matt, you helped fight for justice and it is a pleasure to see you alive today.”
Orlando read, “Your visit has made a big difference in my life. Your visit made me look at my life in a different way. After hearing the things that you had to go through for us, it made me realize that my race is just entering the gate of freedom and I must fight hard to help…”
The special program included a rap written and recited by students in Myrtle’s class:
Matt Jones, Matt Jones
You are such a caring man
You are such a pleasant man
You are such a wise man
You are such a giving man
1 Matt Jones, Matt Jones
He is so kind
lost his job but he didn’t mind
with his family and friends
kept fighting till the bitter end
Fighting for Blacks and for all
helped show us how to stand tall
2 If you notice carefully you will see
That he sings songs about unity
and teaches us about civil rights history
Violence is not needed to obtain your goals
Keep your head up high on the rocky roads
Thank you, Matt Jones, freedom singer always
For telling our Civil Rights History throughout these days.
Also included in the program was:
A skit about Matt being caught in a KKK rally created by Paulie, a budding playwright, whose esteem rose in the eyes of his fellow students who admired his ability to put together the skit.
“This Little Light of Mine” sung by all the students. It was highly unusual for our students to want to sing together, but listening to Matt’s many songs and singing with him had made this possible.
Telling Matt Jones of an action each class took to take a stand for human rights.
Myrtle and I had asked our classes what we could do to show him that his message to solve problems constructively and non-violently for a more just society was taken seriously. Myrtle’s class decided to write a complaint letter to the security guards in our building protesting the disparaging remarks they made to students in our school, i.e., “You go to the school for illiterates.” It was signed by many students and a copy was given to the principal. The letter had its effect; the insults ceased.
My class learned that there were going to be Congressional hearings on police brutality in Brooklyn. We collected written testimony of students in our class and other classes who had had bad experiences with the police. We made a booklet of these statements to present to the Congressmen and women. When the day of the hearing came, our whole school traveled by subway to Medgar Evers College to hear Frederick Douglass students read their statements (and to cheer them on) as well as to hear the statements of others.]
Myrtle Liburd and I could not have been prouder of what we and our students accomplished. It was not usual for everyone to be so interested in reading and writing about a topic or to listen raptly to a speaker or pay such close attention to their teachers and one another. It was not usual for our students to be willing to apply what they had learned about the past to inform speaking out against an injustice in the present. This experience had brought our students together with more respect for each other and more interest in learning than anything else we had done during the entire year.
A few weeks later, we got letters from Matt replying in writing to each student’s letter. They were overwhelmed that he had read their letters so carefully and responded specifically to each one:
Below are excerpts:
“It is true. The KKK experience is an experience I will never forget. I found out that there was evil in the world and that I had to understand and fight. I had to fight in such a way that I would not have evil in my heart. Evil in your heart brings on disease, but to fight evil cleanses the heart and mind.
“I hope that in your life’s journey you learn to keep a clean heart. The Freedom Songs you mention in your letter have kept my heart clean. Sometimes not as clean as I would like, but I am trying.
“I enjoyed coming to your school. Being able to talk about the movement gives me strength. For you to really learn, makes me happy. For you to apply what you have learned lets me know that I have done a good job…”
“…Understand all cultures, whether Black, White, Hispanic, Asian or others, and these cultures will understand you.”
“…If you prepare to climb mountains, the hills will be easy.”
“You are right. If it wasn’t for the Civil Rights Movement, there would not be understanding between Blacks and Whites. When you stand up for your rights, you become a role model for all races…”
“…You say that I had to have a strong heart to do what I did. I say to you that it takes a strong heart to recognize a strong heart. Strong hearts are developed, like anything else, over time…”
As our study of the Civil Rights Movement came to an end, one day a student raised her hand and asked if I was Black. The rest of the class perked up to hear my reply:
“As far as I know, and I have researched my ancestry, I’m white. Actually, my ancestors come from England and Austria.” (I pointed out these countries on a world map.)
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“Well, some of us were wondering about this.”
“Because you have spent a lot of time teaching us Black history.”
“ I decided to do this because I realized that many of you did not know enough about this history. I didn’t know much myself until I took a course and began to realize how important it is for all Americans to know African-American and African history.
“As a result, I began reading books, attending more lectures, taking more courses, and I am so glad I did. Racism is bad not just for Black people, but for whites too. I do not want to feel superior to any race and my reading and studying have helped me to realize this. It also has opened me to friendships with Black people and other people of color, so my world has been broadened, I have become a better person and my life is richer for it.”
My class seemed pretty satisfied with my answer.
This unit of study reminded Myrtle and me of the importance of teachers taking responsibility for creating, searching for and choosing curricula that are interesting, relevant and inspiring to our students – curricula that includes examples of people joining organizations which take collective action to improve their lives. In times such as ours when many people feel helpless to effect positive change in the world around them, it was important to my colleague and me to have our students take action on issues of concern to them in order to experience what good citizenship can be in a democracy. 2
A Matt Jones Lesson at the University Level
When I became coordinator of the Student Teacher Program in the Department of Urban Education at Rutgers University in Newark, NJ, I also ran the Student Teacher Seminar. One semester I discussed with the student teachers the value of inviting outside speakers to their classes. I explained the wonderful impact Matt Jones had at the Frederick Douglass Center, and they were interested in meeting him. I sent him an invitation and also invited two adult education teachers from the Newark School District and their students to join us.
His presentation was about to begin when a police officer appeared at the door. She said there were other police officers with some people on the first floor and asked if I had invited anyone from outside Rutgers to my class. I said yes. Soon after four African-Americans – a male teacher and his three students- entered. The teacher complained about the way the police had treated them – eyeing them suspiciously and checking their ID’s. One officer had even put her hand on her gun. He felt that since they did not “look like” a typical Rutgers employee or student – he wore his hair in braids and his students appeared slightly mal-nourished – that they were racially-profiled. He was particularly offended that his ID, which showed he was a teacher in Newark’s adult literacy program, did not impress the officers.
(It is important to note here that this building did not have permanent security guards at the door. The police walked around the campus from one building and outdoor space to another. I had never seen a police officer in this building check anyone’s ID.)
In the course of Matt Jones’ presentation, he pointed out that the lesson of the Civil Rights Movement was the need to challenge discrimination and injustice wherever it appears. In this case, it was clear that these police officers needed sensitivity training.
We discussed what could be done, and it was decided that I would draft a letter to the campus police chief and the head of public relations explaining what had happened. I would show it to the student teachers at the next Seminar for any suggestions for changes. This was accomplished, we all signed it, and it was sent off.
The head of public relations asked for a meeting with me and the police chief. After I answered all of their questions, the public relations official wondered if the teacher who was racially-profiled would serve as the sensitivity trainer for the entire campus police force! The teacher agreed, and I later heard that the trainings had gone well.
The student teachers were satisfied with the results of this protest. Actually, we all agreed that it was the perfect solution. Matt Jones’ visit, his music and inspirational stories had given us an opportunity to take a stand for civil rights on our own campus.
1The Frederick Douglass Center no longer exists. It was absorbed into another program run by the N.Y. City Board of Education.
2There are standards set by state departments of education and school districts that can justify teachers going beyond the expected curriculum, i.e., “to develop critical thinking,” and “respect for others,” “to learn and apply lessons from history,” under which a curriculum like ours could qualify. We need not be tied to dull books, workbooks and irrelevant units of study just because they are available in our schools.
If criticized by an administrator for deviating from a standard curriculum, teachers don’t have to give up. They can garner support from their colleagues, especially through their union, for the right to achieve curriculum goals by creatively designing lessons using alternate resources.