Mayor Greg Fischer today announced that nationally renowned civil rights and social justice activist Mattie Jones is the 2020 recipient of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Award.
Jones, a native of Memphis, Tenn., moved with her family to Louisville as a child, after her father took a job at the Quartermaster Depot in Jeffersonville. Jones’ public activism began not long after her graduation from Central High School in 1951. She attended Indiana University but says she quickly decided it was not safe or welcoming for black students, so she transferred to the University of Louisville, which had recently desegregated its main campus. But after being denied a work study position and being told white co-eds would not accept working alongside her, Jones left college and joined the Black Workers Coalition to fight for equality in employment.
In over six decades of activism since, Jones has organized countless demonstrations, public conversations, and boycotts focused on women’s and worker’s rights, environmental justice, peace and police/community relations. She was a founding member of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression and has helped lead and staff numerous local and national justice operations during her long career.
“At the tender age of 86, Mattie Jones has outlived some of our community’s original civil rights stalwarts, and to this day, she outworks many others to remain an active advocate for justice, equality and equity,” said Mayor Fischer. “Mattie’s battles and victories over the years against racism and sexism only make her advocacy and inspiration more powerful. There is no quit in Mattie. She is most worthy of this significant recognition.”
Mayor Fischer will present the Freedom Award on Sunday, Jan. 19 during the “Keepers of the Dream” community arts celebration dedicated to Dr. King, in Whitney Hall at the Kentucky Center on Main Street. The event, which is free and open to the public, begins at 5 p.m., with lobby activities from 3:30 to 4:45 p.m.
Jones, who describes herself as “just another soldier in the army for peace, justice and equality,” said she is honored by the award.
“I appreciate Mayor Fischer making me this year’s honoree, and I appreciate too, that Mayor Fischer did not forget west Louisville after Election Day. When invited, he shows, and that’s important,” Jones said, adding that she’ll be accepting the award on behalf of her family and her community.
“If it wasn’t for God, my family and my community, I would never had made it. My husband caring for the children, my mother’s support, the people who maybe didn’t march or demonstrate but would walk by and wave and say, ‘Miss Mattie, we’re praying for you,’ I needed them all,” she said. “To experience and be a part of the changes in my lifetime, I am blessed to have been a soldier, a majorette for justice!”
Jones said receiving the Freedom Award is especially poignant for her, since she is a native of Memphis and was there helping prepare for an upcoming demonstration on April 4, 1968 when Dr. King was assassinated. “It’s hard to describe how awful that was,” Jones said. “Dr. King was not the only organizer, and not the only agitator of our time, but he was a beacon for justice, and his death brought such darkness.”
Mattie Jones and her husband Turner Harris Jones, a teacher and later a tax auditor, were married in 1955 and had nine children and raised 120 foster children. Working as a cook at local hotels, she said she focused her greatest energies raising her children and fighting for justice.
In the 60’s she marched against segregation in public schools and for open housing, and credits the late Sen. Georgia Davis Powers, then a neighbor in the Parkland neighborhood, for inspiring her to get involved. “She asked me to attend a meeting, and when I got there, there was Dr. King, Rev. Abernathy and so many other inspirational people. I left there on fire,” Jones said.
In addition to helping found the National Alliance against Racist and Political Repression in 1973, she worked on a local level with the Kentucky Alliance against Racist and Political Repression, alongside the late Rev. Louis Coleman, Anne Braden and countless others.
In the 1980s, Jones traveled the South as a staff member for the Southern Organizing Committee for Economic and Social Justice, and in 1991 accepted a position as Coordinator of Racial and Economic Justice at the Fellowship of Reconciliation in New York. With the support of her family, Jones worked in New York, with frequent trips back to Louisville. She said one of her most treasured accomplishments in that role was organizing a Women of Color in the Workplace Conference, which hosted women from around the country and the world.
After returning from New York in the late 1990s, Jones began working full time with Rev. Coleman at the Justice Resource Center.
On the environmental justice front, Jones fought against toxic emissions in Rubbertown and for greater oversight of the companies there, through the Strategic Toxic Air Reduction program. And through the Louisville Black Chamber of Commerce, she and Coleman worked to see a high percentage of minority-owned construction companies involved in the building of Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium and the YUM! Center.
In 2018, in honor of Mattie Jones’ 85th birthday, then-Councilwoman Cheri Bryant Hamilton announced that two blocks of River Park Drive would be honorarily designated as Mattie Jones Way. The route intersects Louis Coleman Jr. Drive, which Jones’ bio notes reflects “a meaningful reminder of all these two influential civil rights leaders accomplished together in Louisville and far beyond.”
The Mayor’s Freedom Award, sponsored by Republic Bank and first presented in 1988, recognizes residents who have dedicated their lives to promoting justice, peace, freedom, non-violence, racial equality and civic activism. Last year’s winner was Diane Porter, chairwoman of the Jefferson County Board of Education. (See list of other previous winners below.) Jones will be presented an award of blown glass created by Ché Rhodes, Associate Professor, Head of Glass, University of Louisville Hite Art Institute.
The 10th annual Keepers of the Dream Community Arts Celebration of Dr. King’s Vision is presented by Kentucky Performing Arts’ ArtsReach, in collaboration with the city and the River City Drum Corp. The Jan. 19 event, hosted by WKU student Jayla Ransom, will feature presentation of the Mayor’s Freedom Award, ArtsReach Living the Vision Awards, Keith McGill’s recitation of Dr. King’s speech, “Another America,” along with dance, music and spoken word.
The ArtsReach Living the Vision Award will be presented to educators Edna Graham, Johnetta Anderson, and those who have led Maryhurst’s programming team – Joyia Johnson, Stacie Vaughn, Demarco Harris, Jayme Thiem.
Performers include those from ArtsReach Dance, Percussion and Violin Studios at the Chestnut Street Family YMCA, Portland Promise, WESTEC and West End School. Other featured artists are Phoenixx Lee with the art of LaNia Roberts, poets Writeous Soul and Brea Brea, Every Known Mastermind, Made New Acapella, D.E.S.T.I.N.E.D. Dance, and the Percussion Ensemble and Drumline of River City Drum Corp.
In addition to the performance and awards ceremony, the lobby will be bursting with activity prior to the event, with pre-show entertainment by River City Drum Corp Pipe Drummers, a selfie station, Civil Rights button-making with Gwen Kelly, and exhibitors from local organizations.