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At 90, Civil Rights Icon H.K. Matthews Still Engaged In Fight For Justice

Reverend H. K. Matthews, who recently turned 90 years old, was a trailblazer of the civil rights movement in the Pensacola area. In observance of Black History Month, WUWF looks back at his lifelong fight for social justice, which is ongoing.

He was born Hawthorne Konrad Matthews on February 7, 1928 in Snow Hill, Alabama, which is part of the state’s agricultural Black Belt region. He believes the seeds of his political activism were rooted within him at an early age, having experienced racism as a child raised by his grandmother.

“Watching her being mistreated and misused and having people calling her “Auntie” and they were no relation to us and seeing African American men being referred to as “Preacher,” Matthews recalled. “I think all of that was within me.”

Matthews says his activism awakened after he moved to Pensacola in the 1950’s. It was here, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, that he met his mentor Rev. William C. Dobbins.

“He initiated the downtown (Pensacola) lunch counter sit-ins and all the picketing downtown,” said Matthews. “I was a willing participant in that, because that also gave me a chance to express how much we were being mistreated as citizens.”

In 1965, Matthews responded to the call to take part in the voting rights March in Selma that became known as “Bloody Sunday.” He was beaten and gassed.

By the 1970’s, he had emerged as a leader of the civil rights movement in Pensacola.

Perhaps most meaningful to Matthews was his work to get Southern Bell and other large employers in the community to hire blacks. The telephone company finally relented after Matthews suggested members of the African American community pay their telephone bills with pennies.

“Can you imagine somebody paying a telephone bill with $30 worth of pennies, and you’ve got a line from here to the front door, waiting while they sit there and count all those pennies,” Matthews asked rhetorically. “So, that didn’t last very long, only lasted maybe a day.”

It was also in the ‘70’s, when Rev. Matthews came to the aide of black students protesting Escambia High School’s racially inflammatory “Rebel” flag, nickname and school song, Dixie.  There were numerous fights and riots at the school, before the eventual nickname change to “Gators.”

In 1975, Matthews and other local ministers led demonstrations at the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office, in relation to a case that could be making headlines today.

“We were trying to force the sheriff to do something against his will,” Matthews said. “That was to fire a deputy sheriff who had killed a young black man from a distance of three feet with a .357 magnum; blew his brains out.”

After a grand jury ruled the shooting justifiable homicide, the protests intensified. Matthews was accused of leading a chant that called for then Sheriff Royal Untreiner to be assassinated. Despite his claims that they were saying “who shall we incarcerate,” not “assassinate,” Matthews was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to a prison term of five years, of which he served 63 days. Eventually, Gov. Reuben Askey commuted the sentence to time served, and he was later pardoned by Gov. Bob Graham.

Matthews’ political activism led to his arrest 35 times. As a result, he suffered greatly, to the point where no one in Pensacola would hire him and few came to his aid.

At the end of the day, though, he’s proud of the ground gained for African Americans here and across the country, but maintains there is still work to be done.

“I don’t think that the time for demonstrations are over,” proclaimed Matthews. “The purpose demonstrations serve, or the main purpose they serve, is to keep in the forefront the things that people are enduring that they feel are unjust.”

Rev. Matthews made those comments and shared other details of his life in an interview with WUWF, in December 2007. It was after the release of his autobiography “Victory After the Fall” and just ahead of his 80th birthday. At the time, the nation was still reacting to the Jena Six, a group of black teenagers in Jena, Louisiana who were convicted of beating a white student.

Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media
Rev. H. K. Matthews leads a 2013 rally for social justice as the verdict in the Trayvon Martin shooting case was being handed down.

Fast forward to July of 2013. Matthews joined a local rally to protest the verdict in the case involving the shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American teenager who was shot and killed by a white neighborhood watch volunteer in the Orlando area.

“I think this is something that should be done and it is being done all over the country,” Matthews said of the march. “And I’m glad that these marches are non-violent, because we gain nothing by violence.”

As expected, by Matthews and the African American community in general, the shooter George Zimmerman, who claimed self-defense, was found not guilty. The verdict sparked the Black Lives Matter Movement.

“We’re just not satisfied with the way we’ve been treated by the court system, by the so-called majority in this country. And, we just don’t plan to take it any more.”

In 2015, Matthews jumped into the Confederate flag debate that was sweeping across the south, in the aftermath of the Charleston, South Carolina church shootings. Nine people were killed.

“The Confederal flag was hurtful then,” Matthews began during comments to the Escambia County Commission, which took up the issue of historical flags on government property.

“It is time that we do away with the Confederate Flag once and for all,” he commanded.

Ultimately, Escambia County and City of Pensacola removed the flags from their displays.

It was a small victory for all involved.

For his part, civil rights Ambassador H.K. Matthews has been fighting for social justice for six decades. And, now in 2018, he’s still going.

“I’m still involved at 90 and have no intentions of becoming uninvolved.”