Interview with Rev. H. K. Matthews
By Rick Outzen
Rev. H.K. Matthews walked into the Independent News to set the record straight. Dressed in black slacks, a grey dress shirt with a white collar and a purple tie, one of the most celebrated civil rights leaders in Escambia County history carried a battered folder of clippings of newspaper and magazine articles.
He was on a mission to protect his legacy.
In its coverage of the MLK parade, the daily newspaper had misreported another as the founder of the Pensacola chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). When he tried to get the newspaper to correct the error, he was sent away to settle the matter with those who gave the publication the incorrect information.
When an African-American can’t get justice, where does he go? The Independent News.
“I wanted to set the record straight as to what my role has been,” Rev. Matthews, 85, said as he handed over article after article, several from SCLC publications, that showed the former pastor of St. Paul Zion AME Church in Cantonment as the founder and president of the Escambia County SCLC chapter.
“There never was a Pensacola chapter,” he said. “I wanted it to be an Escambia County chapter so that we could cover a broad spectrum of people.”
Shaking his head, he added, “I can’t see why anybody would let himself take credit for bringing SCLC here. [The newspaper] would rather perpetrate a lie than correct it and tell the truth.”
Rev. Matthews’ legacy is well known. He was arrested after a 1975 demonstration protesting the killing of a young black male by an Escambia County deputy.
On the night of Dec. 20, 1974, Sheriff’s Deputy Doug Raines pulled over 23-year-old Wendel Sylvester Blackwell after a high-speed chase. Blackwell didn’t comply when first ordered by Raines. However, after Raines bumped his car, Blackwell was forced onto the grass on Highway 29.
Raines ordered Blackwell out of the car, and while Blackwell’s hands were on his head, Raines claimed he saw something shiny in the young man’s hand. In an act that Deputy Raines insisted was self-defense, he shot Blackwell in the head with his .357 magnum, killing him.
The day after the shooting, Deborah Jones spoke with Rev. Matthews and Rev. B. J. Brooks of the NAACP. She claimed that she was in the car with Blackwell and the shooting was because of an affair she had had with Raines. Jones said that Blackwell was not armed.
Before the ministers could get her to the authorities, Jones was found strangled to death under an overpass.
A grand jury cleared Deputy Raines and stated that the officer acted in “a reasonably prudent manner; he reasonably believed himself in imminent danger of death or bodily harm created by the said Wendel Sylvester Blackwell who was armed.”
For three weeks protests were held outside the Escambia County Sheriff’s headquarters asking for the firing of Deputy Raines. Their chant was “Two, four, six, eight, who shall we incarcerate? Untreiner, Raines, the whole damn bunch!”
On Feb. 24, 1975, Sheriff Royal Untreiner ordered the group of several hundred protesters to disperse. When they refused, he sent approximately 70 deputies armed with clubs into the crowd. The total number of arrests was confirmed with 34 adults and 13 juveniles who were ultimately charged with unlawful assembly and malicious trespass.
Three days later, Rev. Matthews and Rev. Brooks were also charged with felony extortion. The extortion charges were drawn from the same misconception that the leaders had encouraged “assassination” instead of “incarceration.”
The ministers were convicted and sentenced to five years hard labor in state prison. In 1978, the national SCLC, declared Rev. Matthews the number one political prisoner in the country. After serving 63 days, he was granted clemency, but had to move out of the Pensacola area when local employers blacklisted him. Gov. Reuben Askew granted Rev. Matthews a full pardon in 1979.
In February 2007, Gov. Charlie Crist joined hundreds of civil rights activists and community leaders at Pensacola Junior College to celebrate the work of Rev. Matthews at the Reverend H.K. Matthews Commemorative Event.
“I shouldn’t have to tell you or anyone what I’ve done,” Rev. Matthews told the Independent News. “It’s documented.”
One scrapbook that he couldn’t provide to prove his point was the one that had photos of him with Dr. Martin L. King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Rev. Fred Suttles and other civil rights leaders.
“When I went into the state penitentiary, the correctional officers ripped it into shreds right in front of my face,” he said.
Rev. Matthews made it clear that publicity was never his goal.
“I did it because I was genuinely interested in humanity,” he said. “I didn’t want to get arrested 35 times for demonstrations and get sent to the state penitentiary twice just so I could get my name into print.”
He went on, “I wasn’t raring for my house to be shot into. I could have easily done without that [pausing to make his point]… but I felt a passion for people.”
He was raised in South Alabama during the ‘30s and ‘40s. He often rode the Greyhound bus from Snow Hill, Ala. to Camden. He wasn’t allowed to sit, even though there were empty seats. Instead he stood, stretching to hold a strap so that he wouldn’t fall.
“All that, I guess, embedded itself in my mind and in my heart, “ he said. “And I knew somewhere down the line that’s not the way we were supposed to live. “
He credits Rev. W.C. Dobbins for opening his eyes when he came to Pensacola. Dobbins led the effort to integrate lunch counters in downtown Pensacola and later founded the Pensacola Council of Ministers.
“He helped lead me out of the wilderness of non-thinking,” said Rev. Matthews. “Following his leadership, all that built-up stuff started to surface.”
Rev. Matthews said that he asked the SCLC to allow him to form a local chapter because of the limitations placed on him by the NAACP, under which he had earlier formed the Pensacola NAACP Youth Council.
“There were certain words we couldn’t use, like boycott,” he said. “We couldn’t use that because the NAACP had its membership rolls subpoenaed some years back. They were very, very cautious.”
Rev. Matthews believed that non-violent protests were needed to change Escambia County. He participated in the March Without Fear from Memphis, Tenn. to Jackson, Miss. after organizer James Meredith had been shot by a sniper.
He had marched with John Lewis and others in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March protesting against the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson and the denial of voting rights.
“I was beaten in that one. [Smiles] Poor me,” Rev. Matthews shared. “If I had known when I left here where I was working over on Jordan Street as a janitor what I was going to run into when I got to Selma, I think [laughing], I might have stayed home.”
Though he and his members risked being beaten and the loss of jobs, Rev. Matthews saw the need for more direct action in the Pensacola area to bring about change.
“Even though it was founded to be a non-violent organization and drilled into us that we had to be non-violent, the SCLC was a very assertive, aggressive organization,” he said. “We had more leeway to do direct action, such as boycotts, marches and demonstrations. Those things that got us to where we are today.”
Joining Matthews were other Pensacola civic rights icons. F. L. Henderson chaired the Labor and Industry Committee that pushed for fair hiring. Rev. Otha Leverette, headed the Education Committee that dealt with public education. Dr. Nathaniel Woods spearheaded membership drives.
“They all saw what I saw—the need for an organization that would be more direct in dealing with problems of discrimination in the schools, in the workplace and public facilities head on,” Rev. Matthews said. “That’s how the SCLC came to Northwest Florida.”
With that Rev. H. K. Matthews placed his news clippings back in his weathered folder and stood up, “And that’s the story that I ask you set straight.”