By ROGER MOONEY
JACKSONVILLE, FL – Leaning his 92-year-old body on a wooden cane as he walked, the Rev. H.K. Matthews slowly made his way to the lectern Tuesday afternoon inside the assembly room at the Duval Charter School at Westside.
The stick is not a concession to his age, he said. It’s a crutch for the left knee injury suffered nearly 55 years ago on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
“I come as one of those who really came through the fire,” he told the students attending the Black History Month program.
Matthews was a civil rights activist who led sit-ins at whites-only lunch counters in Pensacola, Florida to protest inequality and marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Now, he is an activist for education choice, which he sees as an extension of the civil rights movement.
“I am in this for the long haul,” he said.
A longtime supporter of Step Up For Students’ work, Matthews was invited to speak by Terry Fields, the former state representative who was the first Democrat to support what would become the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up. Fields is a teacher at the K-8 Duval Charter School at Westside.
The students received copies of Matthews’ autobiography, “Victory After the Fall.”
Matthews said he was honored to meet the students and “share some of his horror stories” so they could have a better understanding of why their parents now have the choice over their education.
“Your parents chose to send you to this school because they have been given an opportunity to put their best foot forward and not let anybody stop your progress,” he said.
That, Matthews said, was all King wanted.
“That was his focus,” Matthews said. “Black, white, whatever, everybody have equal access to whatever they needed. He was an ordinary man who did extraordinary things.”
For his efforts in the civil rights movement, Matthews was arrested 35 times. The windows of his home were broken with rocks and bullets. He endured death threats and was blackballed from getting jobs.
He learned there were a total of eight hits placed on his life.
“I’m truly blessed,” he told the students, “because I am not supposed to be here.”
Born in Brewton, Alabama, Matthews was living in Pensacola in the early 1960s when the civil rights movement was gaining steam.
He helped organize the sit-ins and watched as some of the black protesters were burned with cigarettes. He saw some police offers take items off the stores’ shelves, shove them in the pockets of protesters then arrest the protesters for shoplifting.
While he shakes his head over those memories, nothing compares to what happened on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965 – a Sunday that became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
“A haunting memory,” he called it.
Hundreds of blacks tried to cross the Alabama River that day on their march to the state Capitol in Montgomery.
It was on that bridge where Matthews and the other marchers encountered police and state troopers, some on horseback. There were tear gas and billy clubs. Many of the unarmed marchers, including Matthews, were beaten.
“We had no idea we were going to encounter what we did,” Matthews said. “Can you imagine one group of human beings beating another group of human beings because they didn’t matter?
“I was in the middle. I got a few blows.”
He held up his cane to the school assembly.
“That’s something that not many people go through, but for him to survive that and try to get our freedom, that’s very good,” said Ashton Long, a sixth grader, spoke at a luncheon held prior to the assembly.
There, Ashton thanked King and Matthews for their sacrifices.
“I am intelligent,” he added.
That made Matthews smile.
“You are on the road to being somebody,” Matthews told those at the luncheon, members of the school’s Gentlemen of DCWS, a group of student leaders picked by Fields.
Matthews told students about his school. It was located 13 miles from his home, and the only way to get there was by foot. Matthews said he walked past three schools for white children. He was all too familiar with the laws of the segregated South, yet Matthews said he never fully understood why he was forced to attend school at a dilapidated building with hand-me-down books and “raggedy desks.”
Lucky for him, the teachers didn’t care what the school looked like from the outside. They only cared about the education inside.
“I wouldn’t change anything from my experiences in there, because had I not had those experiences, I couldn’t appreciate the fact that kids now are able to attend schools of their choice, like this one, where they have people who are interested in their learning.”
Earlier during his visit to the school, Matthews came across a photo of himself taken when he was in his late-30s.
“I was young and angry,” he said while pointing to the photo.
He is older now and slowed by age and an injury, but sharp. Matthews said he tries to be as pleasant as possible but conceded he can still get angry if it’s for a worthy cause.
Education choice is his choice of causes.
He wants the students of the Duval Charter School Westside and all the students he talks to – and the parents he meets – to know he is still fighting for their rights.
“I want them to know why I’m so, I guess, dogmatic about school choice,” he said. “We got too many kids who fall through the cracks. They’re stuck in a school and they can’t do anything about it, because they are made to go there based on their ZIP code. The message is that you ought to have the right, the parents ought to have the right to send their children where they want to.”
After his talk to the students, Matthews opened the floor to questions.
The first came from a sixth-grade boy sitting near the back.
“Can I take a picture with you?”
“You certainly may,” he said.
The student raced to the front of the room and took a selfie with the Rev. H.K. Matthews, one of the many who conquered the fire.
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.