Sunday, December 17, 2017

SNCC Freedom Singer Matt Jones: A 1994 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 2017 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 (1936-2011) about the Freedom Summer, the Freedom Singers, SNCC and the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Jones lived in Manhattan and for many years  generously donated his time to sing at many human rights and peace benefits. At The People’s Voice CafĂ© 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)

Saturday, December 16, 2017

FBI Spied On Topical Protest Folk Singer-Songwriter Phil Ochs In 1960s and 1970s

(Phil Ochs--by Kenneth Tash - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
In his book Death Of A Rebel: A Biography of Phil Ochs, Marc Eliot described what happened at the Chicago 8 trial when 1960s Topical Protest Folk Singer-Songwriter Phil Ochs arrived to testify in Dec. 1969:

“…After a brief series of questions to establish that Phil was a singer by profession, Kunstler began to weave Phil into the pattern of the defense:

KUNSTLER: Now Mr. Ochs, can you indicate what kind of songs you sing?

OCHS: I write all my own songs and they are just simple melodies with a lot of lyrics. They usually have to do with current events and what is going on in the news, which goes back to journalism, and you can call them topical songs, songs about the news and then developing into more philosophical songs later…

KUNSTLER: Now did there come a time when there was any discussion of Yippie plans with reference to the convention, the Democratic National Convention?

OCHS: Yes, there were. I don’t remember the exact date because there were several meetings, probably, Jan. or Feb. of 1968…

KUNSTLER: Where did these discussions take place?

OCHS: The Lower East Side, different apartments, sometimes Jerry’s apartment and sometimes Abbie’s apartment…

KUNSTLER: Can you indicate in general to the court and jury what the plans were for Yippies in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention?...

OCHS…What Jerry Rubin said to me was that he planned to have a Festival of Life in Chicago during the Democratic Convention, basically representing an alternative culture on the assumption that they felt the Democratic Party did not represent them or a whole large mass of the American public. They wanted to have, therefore, an alternate convention. They would theatrically sort of spoof the Convention and show the public, the media, that the Convention was not to be taken seriously because it wasn’t fair, and wasn’t going to be honest, and wasn’t going to be a Democratic Convention, and so they would have essentially events they hoped to do in Lincoln Park. They hoped to get permits. They discussed flying to Chicago to talk with Mayor Daley or people working with Mayor Daley. They several times mentioned they wanted to avoid any violence…”
(Downtown/Aquarian Weekly 4/10/96)

Coincidentally, until his suicide on April 9, 1976, the FBI showed a special interest in investigating Phil Ochs. As The Politics of Rock Music by John Orman recalled in 1984:

“The quintessential ‘60s person not only had a cult following of politicos, folk junkies, protest fans, and movement freaks but also had a `following’ in the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, it is clear that the FBI kept a domestic file on Ochs from 1963 until his suicide. As Ochs always said, `They [the government] have files on me this thick,’ and then he would laugh. He was absolutely correct. The FBI has released over 400 pages from the Phil Ochs file, and it is clear from the documents that the FBI spent an extraordinary amount of time following, checking up on, and detailing the activities of Phil Ochs…

“Agents checked Selective Service, insurance companies, the American Federation of Musicians Local 802 in New York, neighbors at 139 Thompson Street in New York City, the Credit Bureau of Greater New York, Bureau of Motor Vehicles, Bureau of Special Services (Red Squad), Board of Elections—Manhattan, and other sources…The FBI then checked with an acquaintance of Ochs who resided in Greenwich Village who was a folksinger and guitarist. This person was also the subject of an FBI New York file…

“The Los Angeles FBI office investigated Ochs from Aug. 31 to Dec. 12, 1968, and forwarded data to the New York office…

“…Ochs…refused to be interrogated by FBI agents on Oct. 1, 1968…

“…He was busted for possession of marijuana on Oct. 5, 1968 by the Los Angeles police department’…

“In 1973 the Agency added Ochs’ phone number to their computerized telephone file…”

(Downtown 4/13/94)