Funding for transcribing this interview was provided in part by the Mississippi Humanities Council, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. This interview took place on March 26 and 30, 2000.
First Encounters With Racism
On the Beach
Picketing on Canal Street
From New Orleans to Mississippi
Mrs. Annie Devine
Freedom Democratic Party
Freedom Summer, 1964
CORE & Vietnam War, 1966
Rainbow Child Development Center
Mr. Matt Suarez was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1938. His parents both worked — his father as an attendant to a veterinarian and his mother as a domestic. As a child, Mr. Suarez grew up in the seventh ward of New Orleans. He witnessed an exodus into the suburbs of most of the tradesmen residing there, leaving behind the poorest residents.
In the late fifties, Mr. Suarez served briefly in the Navy. After being discharged, he lived in Los Angeles, frequenting the coffeehouses and joining in the philosophic discussions cultivated there. About the time the first sit-ins were occurring in the South, Mr. Suarez returned to his native New Orleans, where he joined the civil rights movement through CORE and SNCC. From there, he moved to Mississippi and helped organize the movement throughout the state. He was the first state director of the Freedom Democratic Party.
When CORE refused to take a position against the Vietnam War, Mr. Suarez withdrew from that organization. Back in New Orleans, he ran for some offices, worked in campaigns, and headed a political action caucus. During his political activities, he was involved in voter registration and the establishment of some positive programs, including a freedom school, food bank, after-school tutorials, and summer camp program.
Currently Mr. Suarez, his wife, and two of his children own and run a child development center in New Orleans.
Harriet Tanzman: [I'm] talking with Matt Suarez in New Orleans, Louisiana, and this is March 26, . Matt, can you tell me a little about your early life, your family, and when and where you were born?
Matt Suarez: I was born here in New Orleans in what is called the seventh ward, traditionally identified as a Creole base. You find most of the residents of this area, at least at the time I was a child, were the tradesmen. They were the plasterers,, the cement finishers, the tile setters, the slate workers, that kind of thing. Some of them were still doing iron-work. Some bricklayers. I mean, carpenters. All of that came out of this area.
Harriet: When were you born?
Matt: Nineteen thirty-eight.
Harriet: And what kind of work did your folks do?
Matt: My mother was a domestic, and my father was an attendant in a veterinarian hospital, veterinarian clinic.
First Encounters With Racism
Harriet: When you were growing up, when you were small, that was in the beginning of the forties, I guess. Early forties. Could you tell me a little about how your own awareness of race, racism, and segregation — how did that come into play?
Matt: I guess, my first experience, the first time I was impacted significantly by it, was at around nine or ten years old. At that time there were still a number of whites living, sprinkled throughout, the seventh ward, and the housing patterns were fairly well-integrated. I mean, not really integrated, but there were whites living in practically every block. At least one family, maybe.
And it was about that time that, even though we played in the streets together, and, you know, the yards together, there started to be some separation, and two things happened. One was a birthday party for a little white girl that used to live on Praya[?] Street, I think, where none of the black kids were invited. And the other was a white kid that played with us all the time, played ball and whatever, had grey eyes. And I said something. We had a little cardboard clubhouse, and I said something about his eyes looking like a cat. I said, "With them gray eyes." Not aware that it would be taken personally and given a racist flair to it. But that's what happened. He took it as an insult, thought I was making a comment about his being white, and I guess, everyone did, because when he left, the other black guys around me said something about it. I shouldn't have said that and whatever. And I still was unaware that it was an insult. I didn't understand why they were all so upset. But that and the fact that we began to go our own ways, or at least the white kids' parents started to pull them away was when I first became aware that there were some life-altering changes about to happen.
Harriet: Pulled you away from playing with them at all?
Matt: Yeah. Several things were going on then. The development of subdivisions were beginning to occur. New houses were being built. Prior to that time, everyone lived in a shotgun, just about. I mean, I guess 85 to 90 percent of New Orleans lived in shotgun houses.
[Shotgun homes, (AKA "shotgun shacks") were common in both urban and rural areas throughout the South as housing for the poor — both Black and white. They were narrow, rectanglular, wooden buildings usually 10 to 12 feet wide with a door at each end. The door of each interior room opened directly into the next room with no hallways (and usually no inside toilet). Rural plantation owners and urban employers often built large clusters of shotgun shacks side-by-side with only inches between them to house their workers. The term "shotgun" refers to the notion that you could fire a weapon through the front doot and the bullets would pass through the doors of each room in succession and exit the rear door.]
Matt: But around the mid-forties, there — I guess it was right after the second World War — they began to put up these prefab houses. And they offered private bedrooms, living room, dining room. You know. A little cottage-style house, and most of the whites began moving into those, and really segregating themselves. These houses weren't available to blacks.
About the end of the forties, the early fifties, blacks began to move into a new home, newly-constructed home, I guess I should say. About the middle fifties, there was established or constructed the first black subdivision, as such. Real black subdivision, because prior to that time, there was a black millionaire here, Adam Highdell[?], who was building some of the same type houses that whites were getting into, prefab, but he was building them for blacks out in Gentilly. In the Gentilly area. And then came the development of the first subdivision, real subdivision with new homes, new streets, sewers, lighting, and all of that. And what you found was that the people who could afford it, were the people from right here in the seventh ward, all of the tradesmen. They were the ones with the decent incomes. So, there was an exodus of whites, followed by an exodus of blacks. You know. And what happened was those of us who were really poor, were left in the seventh ward.
Harriet: So, your family stayed here?
Matt: Oh, yes. Yes. (Laughter.) We were poor. (Laughter.) Not poor, "po'." (Laughter.)
Harriet: And when you were pretty young, were you or some of your friends involved at all with — ? Did you go to the movies? And what kind of reactions did you all have? Did you do individual actions at all about segregation?
Matt: Oh. Yes. Yeah. All of the theaters were segregated. Used to be whites sitting downstairs, blacks sitting upstairs. And I guess around twelve, thirteen, fourteen years old, we began to encounter a lot of problems. A lot of insults. A lot of "stay-in-your-place" kind of actions. And naturally, you know, we rebelled against that in, I guess, the only ways that we could think of at the time. And we used to do things like take Coca-Colas and shake them up and squirt them all over the folks downstairs. Or when we would go downtown, there used to be — I forget the name of this theater, now. There was a movie theater downtown, and right around the corner, there was a place, Virginia Kitchen, that used to sell meatball sandwiches, and they would put them on French bread. And we would tell them, "Put plenty gravy. Put plenty gravy on it." And then we'd go and eat it, and squeeze it, hanging over the balcony, and just let the gravy fall downstairs. (Laughter.)
Harriet: Make them as uncomfortable as possible with having the privilege down there.
Matt: Yeah. (Laughter.) Yeah. We did a lot of little things like that as, I guess, a statement of protest, because there really was a difference in treatment, you know. The attitude that a lot of the theater owners, or at least their staff, had was, "If you want to be here, you accept anything that we do to you. And if not, then get your ass out." You know what I mean? "We don't need you here."
Harriet: Did they throw you out?
Matt: A couple of times, here and there, I was thrown out. And that was at the time when they used to have a lot of ushers, and they had men ushers. You know what I mean? Big men, like bouncers.
Matt: In the theater. Yeah. And they threw us out.
Harriet: And I know you were in — was it the Navy? You were in the service for a while. Was that right out of high school?
Matt: Yes. The Navy was another awakening for me. I was in trouble almost instantaneously in the Navy. I think I was in six or eight hours, and I was in jail. And it continued throughout my tour. In fact, when I was released from the Navy, they came and got me out of jail. (Laughter.)
Harriet: You were released while you were in the brig.
Matt: Yeah. (Laughter.)
Harriet: You were always rebelling?
Matt: Yeah, the captain called me, and he said, "Suarez, what am I going to do with you?"
I said, "Let me go."
He says, "I'm leaving." He says, "And I'm afraid the new captain is not going to be as understanding as I am."
And I said, "I just want out."
He says, "My advice to you is that you should sign up for another two years to try and get your quarterly marks up." He said, "They're so low, there's no way you're going to get out of here with an honorable discharge, and you don't realize how that's going to impact your life."
I say, "Let me go!" (Laughter.)
He said, "You need to think about this. Take some time."
I say, "Let me go!"
He say, "When?"
I say, "As soon as possible."
He say, "Tomorrow?"
I say, "Yeah." And we flew off the ship the next morning because we were on our way to Hawaii, I think. Or we were leaving Hawaii, on our way to Japan. And flew back to San Francisco. And that's where I was discharged from.
On the Beach
Harriet: And, we will be getting to you going to Mississippi, because that's a lot of what I'd like to talk about, but I wonder what brought you back home after that. You were, like, twenty? Twenty-one, then?
Harriet: So, this was the beginning of the sixties?
Matt: Fifty-nine. Nineteen fifty-nine. I left, and I went out to California. And I had decided pretty much that I was going to live out on the beach — .
Harriet: Away from everything.
Matt: Yeah. Well, I really enjoyed the beach. It was Muscle Beach. You know. POP. Pacific Ocean Park Beach. And they had all of the weight lifters out there. All of the beauty queens. All of the sculptors, the writers, and at that time — .
Harriet: This was in Venice? Venice, California?
Matt: No. Los Angeles. Los Angeles. And at that time, they had all these coffeehouses where everybody used to sit down and discuss the world's problems. They'd work on their craft or their art for a couple of hours. Then, they'd come to the coffeehouse, and then, they'd go back, and they'd work. And the bodybuilders would be out there working out. And they'd take a break and come in. Then, they'd go back. Everybody was doing their thing, but we'd wind up staying in the coffeehouse until two, three o'clock in the morning discussing world problems. (Laughter.) And I loved that life, but I don't know what it was; we wound up, we gave a party, I think for New Year's, that went on for about three days. And when I finally got my head clear, I decided to come back home, and it was right at the time when the sit-ins were beginning to take place.
Harriet: You mean throughout the South, and here?
Matt: Right. I thought that folks were crazy. I said, "Jesus." I just didn't understand that, but I wanted to know more about it. I wanted to find out what was going on, and there was something calling me back home. I don't know. Something was calling me to come back to New Orleans.
Harriet: And be close to family? You don't think that was it.
Matt: I don't know. That could have been it, but I — . You have to understand that all of the feelings, the bonds that are tied to family had been instilled in me from a child, but at twenty-one, there were a lot of other things that were attracting (laughter) my interest, also. Stimulating my interest. So, family was definitely in there, but I don't know if it was the priority at that time.
Harriet: OK. But something was pulling you back, and it happened to coincide with — . It wasn't the sit-ins necessarily, but it coincided with that. But you were curious about why they were — ?
Matt: Yeah. I wanted to know more about what the sit-ins were all about. And why people were doing them. At that time, I had a belief that if you became rich, race wouldn't matter.
Harriet: You'd be beyond where race could bother you?
Matt: Yeah. That you could buy — Well, one of the things that I understood about the capitalist society is that everybody wanted the dollar, and for the dollar, they would do just about anything or ignore just about anything. I understood that very young in life. And so, I concluded that if you acquired enough wealth, that you could get beyond the effects of racism.
Harriet: Hm. Was that partly what you were taught? Or this is a conclusion you reached?
Matt: It was a conclusion. And it was from observing dealings between blacks and whites where whites who clearly wanted nothing to do with black folks, or who didn't necessarily respect black folks, did business with them or came into the black community to do business or to get assistance when they wanted things done, if it was involving money. Right? And one of the things about what you would call the Creole community of the seventh ward is that they did a lot of business with white folks, being light-skinned. Whites preferred dealing with them. Whites preferred hiring them. Whites preferred using them, you know, to get done what they wanted to do.
Harriet: So, on a personal level, you were thinking of if you became rich, but you also wanted to check out what these crazy sit-in people were doing?
Harriet: Who were [they]? You talked a lot with Oretha Castle? Is that one of the people who influenced you a lot? Could you tell me a little about her.
Matt: An extraordinarily amazing woman. I think that if you know Barbara Jordan, then you know Oretha, right? I mean, that's the plane she was on. Highly intelligent. Skills. I mean, unlimited reservoirs of skills from inside. Totally self-confident and dedicated to advancing black people. I mean, she was just unbelievable. She — .
Harriet: You met her when she was a student?
Matt: Yeah. She is one of those persons that rarely, if ever, failed at anything. She was so committed and so determined that she just didn't let failure come into the equation. I mean, she was marvelous.
Harriet: And she had a big impact on you, Flukey?
Matt: Oh, yes. Yes. If it weren't for her, I may not have gotten into the civil rights movement. We spent — And she used to take her time. This is what was truly amazing about it, is that after working all day, and taking care of all of her other responsibilities, at ten-thirty, ten o'clock, eleven o'clock, eleven-thirty, she would sit down to begin trying to enlighten me. (Laughter.)
Harriet: She must have seen hope there. (Laughter.)
Matt: And if you talk about, I mean, someone who was resistant, it was me. Because I truly believed that the capitalist system was the way. Right? And that was the solution for problems that black people were incurring in America. That if we became wealthy, we could hire white folks to do whatever we needed done. (Laughter.) We could have white servants. You know what I mean?
Harriet: And what was her vision like, as a contrast?
Matt: She had a humanitarian philosophy. She was really opposed to capitalism. She thought that Western civilization was shit, that it was on a downhill slide, and that it was up to black people to not only save themselves, but to save the country.
Harriet: That by organizing they would be the hope of a better life for all in the country?
Matt: Yes, yes. Like I say, she was truly amazing. She was talking to me when I was incapable of understanding what she was saying, and she knew that. But she continued until I did understand. (Laughter.)
Harriet: So, she really educated you.
Matt: Oh, certainly. Certainly. Like I said, I doubt very seriously that I would have been involved in the civil rights movement if I had not met her, and if she had not devoted the time that she devoted to me. I may have been a card-carrying member of the NAACP. (Laughter.) But I doubt very seriously that my active participation in CORE or SNCC would have been anything near what it was.
Harriet: And you gradually came into CORE in New Orleans, through her?
Matt: Yeah. Right. She lured me in. (Laughter.)
Picketing on Canal Street
Harriet: And was that the time of the sit-ins, about public accommodations?
[See New Orleans Merchant Boycotts & Sit-ins for background.]
Matt: Yeah. Well, they were picketing on Canal Street, and it was primarily students at that time from Southern and Tulane. A few from Loyola, who were picketing the stores on Canal Street, and sitting in sometimes at the lunch counters, and I began to make picket signs, drive people downtown. You know, bring picket signs to them or take people here or there or carry a group home from the meeting. And things, you know, very slowly — . Like I say, she lured me in with little, minor tasks here and there, just gradually sucked me on in.
Harriet: And you weren't out on the street, though? You weren't doing the picketing?
Matt: No. No. (Laughter.)
Harriet: What did you think of nonviolence at that time?
Matt: I thought you were absolutely stupid to let somebody hit on you, spit on you, slap you, or throw anything on you, and if anybody had attempted it, I would attempt to split their heads open. (Laughter.) And I told them that I would never do that, you know. I said, "Now, I'll help you in a lot of ways, and I'll do whatever I can to help you, but I'm not getting out there. I'm sorry, because I ain't letting nobody do that crap to me."
Harriet: Did you end up picketing?
Matt: Yeah. It was one fateful day they were marching from SUNO [Southern University, New Orleans campus], I think it was, and they were coming to Canal Street and trying to bring the student body with them from the university, and the police stopped them halfway and arrested everybody. Took them to jail. And myself, and white guy, Frank, I forget Frank's last name, a Tulane student — Was it Tulane? He was in engineering, I think, at Tulane, and he and I were out there. I think I had a little secondhand Ford car at the time. Ford Fairlane. And we had all of the picket signs there waiting for them to come down and picket. And they had been picketing Canal Street faithfully for, like, six months or so. And when no one showed up to picket, I don't know what happened, I just felt that it couldn't end, you know. We couldn't miss a day. And so, Frank and I talked about it, and he took one side of Canal Street, and I took the other. (Laughter.)
Harriet: That was your beginning, in the fire? (Laughter.)
Matt: Yeah, that was it. So, well, I got some encouragement there, too. Even though I was really frustrated out there, and I was apprehensive, a lot of black people who were walking by were saying positive things to me about it, and that they wouldn't shop in the stores, or whatever, and then there were some white guys who stood up there and looked like they were thinking about coming and trying to do me something, and they sort of gave me a sign. I forget, really, now. It was so long ago, what happened, but I know that it was a sign of encouragement.
[And] then there were three white women who stood up and watched me, and they were talking. And every time I passed by them, they were talking and talking, and finally, they came over to me, and I think they were from Germany from their accents. But they spoke English, and they said they were very happy to see me out there. That they would never go in that store and spend a dime. And keep up the good work, or whatever. And all the time, I'm thinking, "They're coming over here, and if they spit on me..." (laughter,) "I'm going to wrap this picket sign around their heads." (Laughter.)
Harriet: And instead they —
Matt: (Laughter.) Yeah. Yeah. So, my first experience turned out to be very positive. And after that, it was like, you know, I was in. I was hooked. Yeah. I was gone, then.
Harriet: Mm-hm. . Did you have meetings over at homes? At Oretha Castle's home?
Matt: Yeah. You have to understand that — I guess the only way the general public could relate to it is to understand a gang-related kind of thing. You know, where you give up everything else, and you become a member of the gang. And you're there all day, every day, all night, every night. And that's the way it was. It became my life. I was at 917 North Tonti half the day and three-quarters of the night.
Harriet: And what was there? Was that [Oretha's] family home?
Matt: Yeah, that was her family's home, but that was the center of all CORE activities. Everybody who came to town, came there. All of the meetings, just about, took place there. Now, there were mass meetings that took place in churches around town, but anyone who wanted to know anything or see anyone or contact anyone, went to 917.
Harriet: Mm-hm. And her family was very supportive?
Matt: Oh, yes. Yes. It was unbelievable how supportive they were. I mean, at the time I took it all for granted. You know, it wasn't until later on, when I got settled in my own home, and just the number of civil rights friends who were coming through town that were dropping in and staying with me and that kind of crap, that I understood what those people did and endured to accommodate, you know, civil rights workers. Because it was unbelievable. They would be sleeping in (inaudible) and Johnny B.'s[?] bed, and Johnny B. would come home from the river front at twelve-thirty, one o'clock at night, and have to push somebody over or squeeze him a space or get a chair to sleep in because there'd be people throughout his whole house on the floor, on the sofas. You know. That kind of thing. Oretha and I would still be at the kitchen table talking. (Laughter.)
I mean. It was one night, James Baldwin came here for something. And he and I were still talking at, like, five o'clock in the morning. And he had missed his plane, and he chartered a jet to fly out because we stood there at that kitchen table, talking the entire night, right? At 917. And that's just the way it was. People were always there, around the clock. They were there, and they were always doing something. And her mother cooked and fed them. She gave them a place to stay. She even gave her kids money to help get leaflets printed or, you know, things of that nature. It's just, like I say, unbelievable. That's the only word I can think of to look back on it, now, and see what they did. The contribution that they made, and the inconvenience in their lives that all of this provided.
Harriet: They must have had a very deep belief in it themselves, you know?
Matt: Yeah. But I think it was more of a belief in their children. In their daughter, really.
Harriet: Was Oretha and her sister — ?
Matt: Doris. Yeah, both of them.
From New Orleans to Mississippi
Harriet: And some of the people in Mississippi. You had this intense around-the-clock life. What drew you out of here to Mississippi and drew some of the other CORE workers? Was this at a time that things were changing here [in New Orleans] or was it just that people were recruited to go [to Mississippi] in the early sixties?
Matt: No. Things were changing in Mississippi. We had two people who were in Mississippi, Dave Dennis and George Raymond. George was working up in Sunflower County. In fact, George got Fannie Lou Hamer to come off the plantation. A lot of people don't know that, but George Raymond is the one went on the plantation up there, got her, and brought her off.
Harriet: [I didn't] know that.
Matt: Yeah. George Raymond was the organizer up there that really began the movement up there in Sunflower County. Well, he was catching holy hell. He was catching holy hell up there. They were running George ragged. And Dave was in Mississippi.
Harriet: Both from New Orleans? Both from Louisiana?
Matt: Right. Dave was in Greenwood, I believe, then. He had — No, I don't think he had moved. He had moved down to Jackson, I think, maybe, and gotten an apartment, but he was still primarily working up in Cleveland [MS] and in Greenswood. He was with Amzie Moore and a couple of other people up there. I forget, now. He was working with Aaron Henry and people up there in the northern part of the state. Up in the Delta. And they were crying for people to come up and help them. They were saying, "We need help. We need anybody who is willing to come up." Whatever. Bump, bump, bump, bump, bump.
And Jerome Smith said to me, said, "Man, why don't you go up there and give Dave a hand?" (Laughter.) You look back and you think how young and dumb you were. (Laughter.) And I said, "OK." (Laughter.)
Harriet: Did not know what you were getting into.
Harriet: This is 1962, was it?
Matt: Yeah, right. And threw my stuff in a duffel bag from the Navy. I had a big old duffel from the Navy; still have it. We drove up there. I don't know whose car we were in, because Jerome doesn't drive, and doesn't own a car. But I remember we drove up, and I started following Jerome around the state just to become familiar with it and introduce myself to folks and stuff like that. And wound up staying on Tougaloo's campus. It was awkward for me because all of a sudden I was thrown in the midst of all of these people who identified themselves as SNCC. And — .
Harriet: You were CORE. (Laughter.)
Matt: Yeah. (Laughter.)
Harriet: Did you come to Canton from there? Is that when you went to Canton?
Matt: No. Canton was later. Canton was right after Medgar was killed. Canton was in sixty-three. The summer of sixty-three, I think. I had just finished the demonstrations in Jackson, I think. We were marching downtown every day in Jackson, and all of the kids from Lanier High School, we were taking them, marching downtown.
[See Jackson Sit-in & Protests and Medgar Evers Assassination for background.]
And I think I went to Canton after that for that summer. George had come out of the Delta and established the project in Canton, and he was catching holy hell up there. And myself, [and] Doris came up from New Orleans. Jean Thompson came up from New Orleans. We had three girls here, the Thompson sisters. Who else? Annie Moody was there. I think Annie Moody was there when we got there for that summer. I forget.
Harriet: She had come over from Tougaloo. Yeah. Well, you said that he was catching holy hell. Was it enormously repressive there towards the first people that got involved in the movement? What was going on?
Matt: To answer your question, yes. In a word, yes. (Laughter.) But George was attempting to take people to the courthouse to register to vote, and there were all kinds of reprisals taking place against people who he was bringing to the courthouse. Against him. He was being threatened, shot at, run off the road, and all kinds of things like that was happening to him. And he had really good connections there. When we got there, we were introduced. I think, Doris and I went in together. Jean didn't come till later. I think.
We were introduced to the Chinns, and C.O. Chinn had a barroom restaurant that we were taken to and introduced to his family and his wife Minnie Chinn. And what they said to us, I mean, immediately upon meeting us, was that, "If you're hungry, you come here, and you eat. If you need a place to stay, let us know. We'll get you a place to stay. If you need to go somewhere, one of us will drive you. Don't go anyplace alone." They started telling us the rules out there. And sure enough, his sons, his nephews, his cousins — this is C.O. Chinn I'm speaking of — all of his family would take and drive us anyplace we had to go. They watched over us like babies. I mean, it was like having your own bodyguards. You know what I mean? They watched over us.
Harriet: Did they have arms in the car?
Matt: Oh, yes. Yeah. There were other people, too, who really — I've forgotten a lot of them because I went back to Meridian, and people were telling me stories about things that we had did together, and I couldn't remember a darn thing. But I remember there was a girl, Doris, who gave us everything she had. I mean 100 percent, she was there with us. I think Doris was from Jackson. I think Doris was from Jackson and came up to Canton to work. But there was a local guy Eskell[?]. I heard he was killed in an automobile accident, and that didn't surprise me because he used to drive at 100 miles an hour. He would take us anywhere we wanted to go. Didn't matter how far it was. Whatever. He had a convertible, too.
Harriet: Now, C.O. and his family and some of the others were enormously courageous.
Matt: Oh, yeah. There was a guy, Washington, had a grocery store. And he lent us a little cautious support, but his son was much more accommodating to us. It was the father, from the older generation, being apprehensive and concerned, you know, about reactions of whites if they found out he was giving us some support. But his son, Young Roberson[?], was much more, I guess, don't-give-a-damn. He was concerned that his father might get hurt, or his father might lose his business, but still, he did a lot more than his father did. And he was there. He wasn't afraid to come out to the meetings or speak at the meetings or, you know, get us housing. I think he gave us a house to stay in for a while. There was a local funeral director — I forget his name — who was supportive. Had done a lot of stuff for George and did stuff for us while we were there.
Mrs. Annie Devine
Harriet: What was Mrs. Devine's role? Mrs. Annie Devine's?
Matt: Mrs. Devine was the person who brought the community to us. Who went out and literally got them door by door, one door at a time. She was in insurance, I believe, at the time, and so, she had this route of going around collecting, you know, the weekly policies, twenty-five, ten cents policies. Burial policies. That kind of thing. I don't know for certain, but I know she went around, and she knew all of the houses and who lived in them. And so, on her route, she talked to everyone about coming out to the mass meetings, of standing up to be counted, of going down to try and register to vote, of getting with us and supporting us and providing any help they could, and really, more than anyone else, she got the churches open to us. The ministers were scared shitless.
Harriet: They were?
Matt: Yeah. (Laughter.) I don't blame them. I mean. (Laughter.)
Harriet: Took a long time to get a meeting place?
Matt: Oh, yeah. Yeah. But Mrs. Devine was the one that got the churches open to us.
Harriet: Because, she herself was connected with them, very strongly?
Matt: Yeah. She was connected to the churches, and she was respected throughout the community. And one night, I think they had the church locked up, and she lambasted the pastor and forced him to open up the church.
Harriet: Was this her church? What church was this?
Matt: I don't recall.
Harriet: But she was able to talk and shame him?
Matt: Shame him. Embarrass him. (Laughter.) And got the church open to us. You know.
Harriet: Did she work with you all about how to work with the local people? I mean, did she mentor you all?
Matt: Yeah. She not only did a wide area kind of canvas for us, but she also directed us to the people we should talk to. To the teachers who were the leaders, and who could get other teachers in. She told us how to approach them, where to approach them, when to approach them. I mean, she just for every ounce of energy that we put into it, she was right there putting her 50 percent up alongside us.
Harriet: So, Mrs. Devine was able to, really, taught you how to approach the different classes of people in that community?
Matt: She taught us who, where, when, and how. I mean, a lot of us probably would have messed up and frightened people away, and we may have been successful at forming a community organization there, but I doubt very seriously that it would have had the strength, or the numbers that it had without Mrs. Devine. And I doubt very seriously that we could have accomplished it in the short period of time that we did. You know.
Harriet: How long were you [in Canton]?
Matt: I was in Canton until the end of the summer [of 1963], and then after that, it was in and out, in and out, in and out.
Harriet: But one of the strongest movements in the state was built there, wasn't it?
Matt: Oh, yeah. Between September and January, I really don't remember. I know I went down to Laurel and the project there had been in shambles, I think. And I put that one back together, and I left, and I went someplace else to do something. And I don't remember the freedom folks.
Harriet: Was that fall, the one that was in November or October of sixty-three.
Matt: Something like that. Well, I went back down there, and put together the campaign to sign up Freedom Democrats.
[See Freedom Ballot in MS for background.]
And then I left and went to Meridian, I think, to open up the Meridian project.
Harriet: In the winter of sixty-three, sixty-four? Before Mickey Schwerner came? Mickey and his wife?
Matt: Yeah. I was there, I guess, in and out of there for about three or four months before Mickey got there. Because by the time Mickey got there, I had established contacts in Newton, and Kemper, Lauderdale [Counties]. I had set up Meridian as the base of operations, but I was moving out into Newton County and Kemper County, and Neshoba. In Newton and Kemper, we were able to get a foothold. In Neshoba, we weren't able to do "a rien." I mean, it was impossible. Right?
Harriet: The terror in that state. The violence and repression, I have been told recently, is less than it once was. Maybe that's one victory from the movement, but — . (Laughter.)
Matt: It couldn't help but be. (Laughter.) But, no, I'm going to tell you. I went back to Neshoba in, oh, it must have been like '94, '95. And, you know, a couple of people pulled me on the side, and said things hadn't really changed all of that much. They said, they was still finding bodies. Black people. One particular thing they pointed out to me, and it sticks in my mind, is that they say they found a black guy 200 feet in the woods, beaten to death. And the sheriff ruled it as an accidental automobile death.
Harriet: In the middle of the woods?
Matt: Yeah. Said he had went off the highway and ran his car into a tree and been thrown out of his car. Two-hundred feet.
Harriet: Two-hundred feet from any road.
Matt: You know, so, they were saying to me, regardless of how things appear — And at that point, the secretary of state who was getting ready to run for governor, I forget what his name was, he was down there and talking about the progress and how Mississippi had moved ahead and all of this stuff, and they were, you know, the black folks were pulling me on the side saying, "Don't believe all this bullshit." Said, "Ain't much changed since y'all were here." And that particular incident sticks in my mind, but it was not an isolated incident as they were relating it to me. This was something that was happening on a regular basis there.
Harriet: Well, when you all were there in '63, '64, it was a general reign of terror, all the time. I know it was against local people, but also against the [civil rights] workers. How did you handle any of this, yourself, personally? I know you drove like a maniac. (Laughter.)
Matt: Yeah. But also, when you're young, you have a feeling of being invincible, you know. Really, it has had a devastating effect on me, in the last few years. Didn't affect me, then, but, you know, when I heard guys from Vietnam talking about flashbacks, I ridiculed them. I'd say, "That's bullshit. They're trying to figure out a way to get some free money out the government." (Laughter.) Oh, no, I recognize it, now, because I guess it may be four or five years ago, I started waking up in a cold sweat, reliving things that had happened to me and recognizing how close to death I was at the time. And just totally ignorant of it, thinking, "I'm going to survive anything." I can. But, it doesn't bother me, now, but for about a period of two years, it was tearing my ass up at night, you know?
Harriet: You were remembering — ?
Matt: Oh, yeah. I was reliving.
Harriet: Like, near Laurel, for instance?
Matt: Laurel, Jackson. I mean, there were numerous incidents where our lives could have been snapped in a split second. Sometimes we were aware of it. I guess we were always aware of it, but what I mean is that sometimes we felt it was much closer. Death was much closer. Other times you felt like —
Like, one night, I got picked up by the police, and they drove me off into wilderness. They caught me coming out of a bar. I was tipsy. I was high, and immediately I thought, "Damn fool! You are fucked up, now." But still — I'm scared, you know. But still, I'm thinking, "This ain't going to happen. Not to me." Right? And luckily, it didn't. I mean, they wanted to talk to a civil rights worker, off the record, to get some information, right? They wanted to know why we were there; what we wanted. Why were we doing all this? What did we expect to happen? Didn't we recognize that Mississippi was not going to change? And being tipsy, and, you know, getting I guess a little comfortable with their questions, I spoke very frankly to them, which, you know, in looking back on it, was kind of stupid. (Laughter.) I never should have trusted my mouth in that situation, being out there, isolated. (Laughter.) But, luckily, again, nothing happened to me.
Harriet: They let you go?
Matt: Yeah. In fact, they drove me back into town, and let me out on a street. I had to really walk to get home, but I mean, they didn't leave me out in the woods. Which they could have very easily done, and they could have left me out there dead and nobody would have known a goddamn thing because, I mean, it was like two o'clock in the morning, two-thirty in the morning. The club was supposed to have been closed. We were in there drinking after hours. And I just got really high and decided to leave, and left out by myself. And never made it to my car. They knew I was in there. They had obviously been watching me or following me or something, and soon as I came out, they just snatched me and put me in the car.
Harriet: You're lucky to be alive.
Matt: Yeah. And that's why I say that I would wake up in the middle of the night, dripping wet with sweat from fear. And I mean, almost paralyzed from fear of stuff that happened thirty years ago.
Harriet: Mm-hm. They call it post-traumatic stress, whatever — [PTSD — Post Traumatic Stress Disorder]. Just like the Vietnam veterans.
Matt: Well, that's when I began to understand what the Vietnam veterans were going through, and I said, "Well, this probably isn't bullshit they've been talking about." (Laughter.)
Harriet: It's for real.
Matt: Yeah. (Laughter.) Yeah. But, I don't know. When you're young, you don't let that bother you. My mother, they used to call my mother and threaten to blow up the house, which I really should have taken much more seriously. And I'd just disregard it. I told my mother, "Oh. Don't worry about that. They ain't going to do nothing. They're just talking."
Harriet: Your mother must have been very frightened.
Matt: Oh, yeah. Well, it was a mixed bag of tricks with her because on the one hand, I think she was frightened. And on the other hand, she was like, "If any son of a bitch come here to blow up this house, I'm going to leave them laying out there in the street." (Laughter.)
Harriet: Make sure to get them. (Laughter.)
Matt: Yeah. But the fact of the matter is, is that there were a hell of a lot of dynamitings of buildings and homes and stuff taking place in New Orleans. I think as late as 1966, there were 26 bombings here in New Orleans. But, again, being young and idealistic and feeling invincible and all of the, you know, things that go along with being youthful, I didn't pay any attention to it. And I wasn't really concerned about it. You know, I figured I would survive, and my family would survive.
Harriet: Well, you had a very different perspective than the one you had in '58 or '60?
Matt: Oh, yeah. But you know, George Raymond is dead. Isaac Ramsey[?] is dead. Doris Castle is dead. Shirley Thompson is dead. And I attribute all of their deaths to their involvement in the civil rights movement.
Harriet: The stress?
Matt: The stress. The lifestyle. The bad eating habits. The drinking. I think all of that contributed to helping kill them. You know. George Raymond died of a heart attack at the age of, like, 40 years old.
Harriet: I think he was only 30.
Matt: Thirty? Yeah.
Harriet: He had spent most of his grown life in Mississippi, hadn't he? George came to Mississippi quite young, didn't he?
Matt: Mississippi. Yeah. He went to Mississippi at, like — George must have been about 20 years old. He and I had been road buddies here and drinking partners here, with the CORE chapter here, but I think that, you know, you look at George and what he gave to Mississippi, what he gave to black people, it caused him to lose his life. And when I look around at the members of the CORE chapter, I mean, looking at Rudy [Lombard], Jerome [Smith], myself, Claude Reece[?], oh, and the Thompsons and Dodie[?].
Dodie is dying, now, I understand. She's seriously ill. But she's one of those who was there every time there was a call to walk a picket line. She went to jail every time they asked people to go to jail. So did the Thompson sisters. You know, I tried to say it before, but, it became their lives. And they gave everything to it. It was like — And I said to them, I said, "You know, if we could come together to do something other than a civil rights campaign, and use this kind of energy, like, to make some money, we would be fantastic." (Laughter.) "If we gave to another project the kind of dedication and energy that we brought to the CORE chapter and the civil rights movement, we'd be dynamos."
Harriet: Do you think people would? If they came together for a cause, that's what they'd come together for? That's it?
Matt: Yep. That's it. That's it. When I returned to New Orleans, I asked them about getting involved in electoral politics, and they said, "No."
And I said, "Well, you're abdicating your responsibility." Said, "The people who want those offices are the people who are going to betray everything that we fought for. Those are people who are only interested in money and power. They aren't interested in doing good, and if we don't get there to do it, then we leave it to them." And that's what we did because — .
Harriet: That's what's happened?
Matt: Oh, of course. They said that they didn't want to be involved in electoral politics. That was dirt; that was filth. That was the scum of the earth.
Freedom Democratic Party
Harriet: Was that a result, partly, of what happened with Freedom Democratic Party's — What happened at Atlantic City?
[See Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) Founded and MFDP Challenge to Democratic Convention for background.]
Matt: I think that was just a small, small part of it. It was just the entire political process that they had experienced throughout their lives that they had no trust and no confidence in the system, whatsoever.
Harriet: But how did you feel, looking back on the Mississippi movement? In terms of electoral or in terms of building an independent party, the Freedom Democratic Party? Did you feel differently towards — Did you feel that that was a victory, that people achieved, or that that was an important framework, in your perspective?
Matt: I figure it's a double-edged sword. I think that the Freedom Democratic Party and civil rights movement in Mississippi served to advance the cause of poor people in Mississippi, but it also served to harm them. A lot of people — If you look at C.O. Chinn, and you look at what he had when we got there and what he had when we left, he was virtually broke and destitute by the time we left Mississippi. I learned later that he was set up and sent to [the] penitentiary, all of which, I'm sure, was because of his participation with the movement.
While Mrs. Hamer was able to go on, and Victoria Gray was able to go on, and re-establish themselves and to take care of themselves financially, the road is covered with bodies of people who couldn't, that we dislodged from their lifestyles, arguing that we were there to help and to improve the situation, but, when we left, they were much worse off than when we got there. And that concerns me. That really bothers me. The other thing is that a lot of people didn't really understand what the movement — I don't know if they didn't understand so much as they were looking to use the movement for their own personal gains. But in it, what happened was, a lot of people were convinced that the federal government owed them something. And consequently, they took a posture of sitting on their butts, looking and arguing and always criticizing and ready to protest to try and get something for nothing.
Harriet: Are you referring partly to the response to the OEO coming in with the programs? The fights over Head Start?
Matt: That's part of it, but it goes beyond that. That was a very small segment of people involved in that. But I think overall, what was said, a lot of times by a lot of well-intentioned people was picked up by a lot of not-so-well-intentioned people. You know, when you said, "The government owed" you something, it didn't mean that you were entitled to welfare for the rest of your life, or that the government should take care of you from cradle to grave.
It meant that there had been past injustices, and that there should be some sort of compensation for that, but that really what we were looking for was to be able to start at the starting line, with the same amount of weight on our backs. If you know anything about horse races, you know they put different amounts of weight to compensate for the jockey's weight distribution, or weight on the horse's back. And, I'm saying that I think a large number of people were saying that America should give blacks in this country an opportunity to compete fairly. You know, not any special privileges. Not any special set-asides or anything like that. Just make sure all conditions are equal, and that we can all compete fairly. Right?
Harriet: Equal opportunity, basically.
Matt: Yeah. Yeah. But a lot of people — And someone said something to me once. He said, about some people that I had some very negative things to say about, who were leaders in housing projects, and he said, "Well, they stay there because that's the only place they can be a leader." Said, "If you take them out of that element, the kind of bullshit that they're talking won't sell anyplace else." But in the public housing project, you can always be against things and get a large crowd to follow you. You know what I mean? So, I'm saying that we opened the door for a lot of that to take place. That I don't think we were as effective as we should have been or could have been, in terms of educating the community at large and in terms of establishing some very clear and specific goals and policies and that kind of thing.
Harriet: Did you think FDP, Freedom Democratic Party, was one vehicle that people worked at to try to do that?
Matt: Yeah. FDP made a really good effort at educating people of the political process, and how the process could be used to benefit not only blacks but the nation. The fact that some people attempted to misuse that is not FDP's fault. I mean, you know, I think that that was a tremendously credible job that was done. I think it could have been done better, but given the limitations and resources and the opposition, the conditions, you know, it was a hell of a job. I mean, that was one spectacular thing that happened.
Harriet: It's almost like a miracle that it could come together.
Matt: Oh, yeah. You know, a man named Moses. (Laughter.) [Referring to SNCC/COFO leader Bob Moses.]
Harriet: And in Canton, they had a very strong local group of FDP people, didn't they?
Matt: Yes, they did. I wasn't around that much. I attempted to initiate organizing the FDP's state office in Jackson, initially. I was the first state director of the FDP. My efforts were nowhere near what was needed, and some people very quickly pointed that out to me. (Laughter.) And [Lawrence] Guyot, I think, took over.
But it was a very strong organization inside of Canton. I did what I could in Jackson, and then I think I went back to Laurel, and I helped them in Laurel. And then Jesse Morris[?] asked if I would rove around the state and look at different projects to see how they were doing. And write up an evaluation of how they were coming along.
Harriet: So, you helped the process around the state. You tried to — ?
Matt: Yeah. As much as I could. It was a kind of awkward situation because people clearly did not want their activities or their actions evaluated, you know. But coming out of the Laurel project, I wrote a report that Jesse was impressed with, and he thought that we needed to do that on all of the projects. Stating what the attributes and the negatives were about any given situation. So, you know, that's where I was at.
Harriet: Now, this was the summer of sixty-four? Or thereabouts?
Matt: Yeah. I think so. I remember I was still doing that at the time that we left. Well, I left, because I drove up alone to Oxford, [Ohio, for the volunteer orientation training].
Freedom Summer, 1964
Harriet: To [the summer volunter] orientation in June, 1964.
[See Mississippi Summer Project and Lynching of Chaney, Schwerner, & Goodman for background.]
Matt: Right. I was in Meridian, and I drove to Jackson. Stopped in Jackson, picked up some fresh clothes and whatever. And took off for Oxford, and drove to Oxford by myself because the buses had left. People were gone.
Harriet: You tried. Did you [continue project evaluation] through the summer?
Matt: No. When the summer came, that's a blank for me. That's a blank for me. As you know, when we got back [to Meridian], the reason we came back was because Mickey and Chaney and Goodman were killed. I knew they were dead as soon as they told me they were missing. I knew they were dead before they were found.
Really bad, bad, I don't know — vibes. Something about the whole situation. But anyway, people were talking and people were flying in from everywhere, and they were meeting and huddling, and somebody made the comment — I forget what the comment was, but somebody made the comment that they ought to be able to raise millions off of this, or something about, "You got to watch that SNCC doesn't try to use this as a fund-raiser." Or something like — I forget. You know, that Schwerner was a CORE worker, or whatever. These were some people coming in from National [CORE]. And I mean, when they said that it was like everything just went red, and I don't remember anything that happened after that until I decided to leave Mississippi in January. I knew I had to go.
I know after that, I don't remember anything except Rudy and them asking me to take them into Neshoba. With the exception of one time, Jesse Morris, Dave Dennis, Rudy Lombard, I don't remember if there was anyone else. Might have been George Raymond, asked me if I would take them into Neshoba because I was the only one knew the roads and stuff, in and around Neshoba.
And I said, "OK." And we went in, and the Klan had Neshoba locked up tight. Between the Klan and the Highway Patrol, all of the roads were monitored, blocked off, whatever. We wound up having to drive through a field and everything to get away from the Klan out there. But other than that one incident — We were going in to see if we could find out anything about what happened to Chaney and them. And other than that one incident, the next six months is a total blank to me, you know. Total blank. I don't remember nothing. And all of these years, I've tried to remember, but I don't remember a thing.
Harriet: Well, that was a devastating — .
Matt: Yeah. Some things still bother you, you know. Some things still bother you after all these years, still come back on you.
CORE & Vietnam War, 1966
Harriet: So, you left to come back here [New Orleans]?
Matt: Yeah. I got back here in January, late January, early February of '65.
Harriet: Was CORE still active then?
Matt: Yeah. In fact, I was reading an interview that a woman did with me from one of the universities. She did a book, and I had completely forgotten about it, that in the summer of '66, I think, they had the CORE convention. I forget where it was. But that's where I resigned from CORE.
Harriet: What was the issue?
Matt: The war in Vietnam. CORE was unwilling to take a position against the war, and it was a lot of argument, and a lot of conferencing and meeting, and stuff going on, and finally, it hit the floor and people had to state their positions, and whatever. And they said clearly that CORE would not be taking a position against the war in Vietnam, and it was mostly because — I interpreted it anyway — that they were concerned about what the White House's reaction would be. So, I said then that I could no longer be a part of the organization.
Harriet: Did other people walk out?
Matt: Yeah. That's one of the things she pointed out in her book. She said that about another fifteen people walked out then, and within six months, over 50 percent of CORE had left the organization.
Harriet: So, that included a lot of the southern CORE people?
Matt: Oh, yeah. Which is what, I think, opened the door for what's-his-name to come in.
Harriet: Innis? (Laughter.)
Matt: Innis. Roy Innis. Yeah.
Harriet: Yeah. Sort of turned CORE totally upside-down. Another world.
Harriet: You said that a lot of the people that you talked to here weren't that — didn't want to continue doing electoral for a lot of reasons that what they saw about the system and what they saw about that arena. Did you continue, yourself?
Matt: Yeah. I ran for office a couple of times, myself. Lost very badly. But I continued to work in campaigns. I managed several campaigns for individuals, and I worked in, I guess, a good thirty, forty campaigns. Every election I was involved in some way or another. And in fact, I headed a political organization, a political action caucus PAC, for about four years. We did a lot of selection of candidates, evaluating candidates, making recommendations to the community, and we did a lot of community work.
I was telling someone, we went into the first and second wards, uptown, and began working in the community to help get people registered to vote. We saw that as an area where a black could get elected to the State House of Representatives, and we established a freedom school up in the Episcopal Church there on Simon Bolivar, and we had food bank going, and we had after-school tutorials, and we had a summer camp program. And a lot of good, little things like that going. All building a base, and, you know, trying to get people to go down and register to vote. And we worked at that for a couple of years. And then, Ernest Morial announced that he was running for office, from the first and second ward. He rented an apartment on Magazine Street, and claimed he had residency in the district, and ran so he would be the first black elected state representative.
[ For background, see Matt's New Orleans Community Organizers — Report from 1965.]
Harriet: So, he capitalized on what you did.
Matt: Oh, yeah.
Harriet: When was this, the seventies?
Matt: No. I forget. But he was very shrewd. He was someone who was watching, and he had his fingers on a lot of different pulses, and he knew when the time was right. He knew when the time was right.
Harriet: What happened to your group?
Matt: Oh, we disbanded. It went on for a while after I left, but it eventually disbanded. The project closed down a long time before the political activity ceased. It got to be where it was just endorsing candidates. And then eventually just faded away.
Harriet: So, it separated from the community activity.
Rainbow Child Development Center
Rainbow Child Development Center
Harriet: You've been working with young people — the very young — for a long time. Right? For twenty years? Has that been a real satisfying thing?
Matt: Twenty-five. This is my twenty-fifth year in business here.
Harriet: Running the day-care center?
Matt: Yeah. We celebrated twenty-five years in June of last year .
Harriet: This is you and your wife, and now, a few of your kids?
Harriet: But with the kids, what was — ? You were really challenging them to learn, all these years, right? I mean, it must have been a good thing to work with the little ones, in many ways.
Matt: Well, that, for me, is what has really given all the joy. I get the joy from seeing them learn, seeing them develop. Right now, this afternoon, they had a chess class back here, and I'm watching their little brains work. And you just stand up there in amazement, knowing that at that age, you know, the only thing I wanted was probably a piece of bread. (Laughter.) You know, just give me a piece of bread in one hand and let me go out in the yard and play. Hitting a stick or something like that. And at four years old, these little rascals can play — .
Harriet: Stretch their heads.
Matt: Yeah. Develop. And that's one of the things that, really, we established as a goal from day one, was that we wanted to develop the child totally. We didn't want them to be an academic whiz kid and a social misfit. You know what I mean? We didn't want them to be some selfish, snooty, little brat with a lot of attitude and over-confident or anything. So, you know, we looked at developing their minds, their bodies, their personalities, their manners. You know, we looked at developing the total child. And that's the way our program is structured. We give them a lot of activities, physical and mental. We give them a lot of concrete learning, and we give them a lot of social interaction. So, it's worked out really well. We've got a really good reputation going.
Harriet: You've built it a lot, haven't you? It's at what, about a hundred kids?
Matt: Right now, we're at about 130.
Harriet: And do these kids keep touch, sometimes, later?
Matt: Oh, yeah. Yeah. We have, believe it or not! (Laughter.) I mean, this seems strange to me, but we have children of children who graduated from here with us. (Laughter.) They have their babies in here, now.
Harriet: Doing a new generation.
Matt: Yeah. And really, some of them are like the fifth, sixth, seventh kid that have come from a particular family. Yeah. We've got a baby in there, now. The grandmother brought the baby on over. She say, "And I told them, Uncle Matt. They finished from here, and that baby wasn't going no place else but here." (Laughter.) "I know what y'all are about." And they bring — You know. We've got a whole lot of them over there who have their parents graduated from our preschool. Now, that makes you feel old! (Laughter.)
Harriet: Yes, indeed. Not to mention, you're already a grandparent. Both of you. Right?
Matt: Yeah. You look at them and they're young professionals up and on their way. And they're bringing their kids, and you remember they graduated! (Laughter.) No, but it's been good. It's been good. I've enjoyed it. It's just that I've been backing off the last year. It takes so much out of you to stay on top of it. I don't deal with high income clients. I'm dealing with working parents that are eking out a living and trying to do the best they can for their kids. So, in terms of income and, you know, an excess pot of money that you could just do things that you want to do, we don't have that. So, it's like, you look at the shelves — we made them. Computer tables — we made them. See. Look, all that's old wood? We make it. We piece it together. We pick up stuff here and there.
Whatever we can throw together. We pick up what people throw out. We put it together to try and make ends meet, and that watching the expenditures and always having to figure the dollars real close, it wears and tears on you after a while. I mean, for a while, you know, it's fun. You're excited about it. You like making it work. Seeing it. But after a while it gets to be a chore, and then it really gets to be a drag. And like I said, now, I'm tired. I want to do some things for myself. There are some other goals I want to accomplish, and this is pretty much underway, that it'll go fine without me and my wife. It'll go fine.
Harriet: It's really established. And two of your daughters are real involved in it, right?
Matt: Right. Right. My baby girl manages the administration, and my middle daughter is in charge of programming and curriculum and stuff. And then, my sister works in the business, also, as a kind of general support person for them.
Harriet: So, it's a family business.
Matt: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. At different times, all of my nieces and nephews have worked in the business with us, and everybody in the family on my side and my wife's side have been in to help us. I mean, during a pinch when things got tight or we were shorthanded or whatever. Everybody on her side of the family and my side of the family have been up in there working to make this thing what it is. You know.
Harriet: That's great. So, you think it's ready to go without you?
Matt: Yeah. The girls know what it's all about, and they have some key staff people there who have been with us for a while that know what it's all about. And really the role that we're playing right now is really monitoring. We're just monitoring the situation. That's all. Except I'm developing and trying to add and build new stuff, but the program could go on, now, and they wouldn't even miss us.
Harriet: But now, you're creating these new, the computer room, and the chess, and all the rest of it? Well, that's because I can't leave well enough alone. (Laughter.) I'm not playing a really significant role in that end of the business, so, I'm over here doing something else. Putting something else together.
But we find ourselves as, I don't know, victims of our own success. I guess. The kids that we have been producing, I guess, are best described as over-qualified for the school system, in terms of hard skills. They go to school prepared to do work while a majority of the other students they're in school with come to school unprepared. They're starting from block one, and my kids are maybe at block fifteen. So, it's creating a problem for the school system. It creates a problem for the student. It creates a problem for the family. The kids are not getting challenged. They're not being challenged. And in many cases, they're sitting bored in the classroom, and left unattended by the teachers.
Harriet: They don't know what to do with them.
Matt: Right. So, what I'm doing with this place is to try and move them off into another area that is going to develop them and help to create a whole person. A really thinking individual, but at the same time will still be able to participate in group activities in the school system. They, right now, our kids are lost when they go into the public school system. Parochial schools are not much better, but the parochial schools like our students. They want our students, because they say, "Oh. When we test them, we know Rainbow students right away, so I want — " They'll be fighting to get them in their class. "I want them." Because they know they aren't going to be any trouble. (Laughter.) So, you know, they're a little bit better than the public school, but it's still not providing the child with what the child needs, and, well, to make a long story short, hopefully this center here will be able to do things that are positive with the child, help to develop them, but to take them, to back them off of the concretes. You
Harriet: Oh, not teach them the reading and writing as much as just stimulating them?
Harriet: So, you're doing a freedom school. (Laughter.) In a way.
Matt: Yeah. I guess you could put it like that. Yeah.
Harriet: What about politically? Do you stay — ? You must be very consumed with this, but do you see any — ? Have you been active in the last few years? Or, no?
Matt: No. No. I really stopped. Oh, it must have been about 85 or so. It might have been a little earlier than that, but my wife — You know, one of the things that was happening was I would go off, and work on a campaign, and sometimes I would work around the clock. Wouldn't come home for two days or so. And it was taking a toll on the family, and my wife said to me, she said, "I need you to give that up."
And I said, "Why?"
She said, "Well," she said, "I need you here with me and the kids." And she said, "You're missing out on the best part of their lives." She says, "And if you miss seeing your children grow up, you're never going to get that back. You'll never get another opportunity at that."
Harriet: Yeah. It's really just one time.
Matt: Yeah. So, you know, I thought about it, and I said, "She's right." You know, I've been putting the community and civic responsibilities and politics and everything else before the family. I would run every time the gong rang; I'd break out of the barn. And so, I just stopped cold turkey. I mean, I just — And I started devoting myself to the family. And that's where I've been.
Harriet: Mm-hm. So, you have the rewards of watching them all grow.
Matt: Yeah. She pulled me in and made me look at what I was missing. And I owe her that. I thank her for that because it's really been great. I thoroughly enjoyed sharing and participating in their growing up and their maturing. And, you know, it's been wonderful. And we've got a really good family. We're still close. Everybody's close. Even my oldest girl that's married. I've got a son in D.C. He calls every other week. And he comes down twice a year. So, it's been good.
Harriet: So, you have an older boy and three girls, and a younger boy?
Matt: And a younger boy. Right.
Harriet: The younger boy is about to sprout his wings.
Matt: Right. Right. I hope so. (Laughter.)
Harriet: Sounds like your wife does, too.
Matt: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Well, he's eighteen, and he's about to graduate from high school and go off to college someplace. Looks like he might be going to Grambling. He wants to play in the band up there, but once he does that, her and I will be footloose and fancy free! (Laughter.)
Harriet: Ready to honeymoon.
Matt: It's been very satisfying for me. Up until this point, I have thoroughly enjoyed it, but now, I'm looking to do something else. In fact, I've stated that to the family, that I'm going to be moving out. My baby girl is pretty much running the business, now, and I'm helping to get this place together, and soon as I do, I'll be out of here. My wife wants to open up a private school, and I told her I'm not doing that. (Laughter.) That's a commitment, you know, that I am unwilling to make. That's a fifteen-hour-a-day job. And at this point in my life, I want things that are at arm's length. I'm trying to get from underneath commitments, and responsibility, and to relax and enjoy life a little bit more. I want to have time to travel. In fact, my friend Ed Dubinsky, who is retiring, in Atlanta, we're planning to go to Rome and Greece, next year. We're putting a trip together. And I'm going to be doing more of that kind of stuff.
Harriet: The one that was the math teacher here?
Matt: Yeah. that's him. He's been at Atlanta University for the last four years, and that's where he's retiring from. And he's moving to upstate New York. Well, I'm going to help him move, and then he and I are going to be doing some traveling together and I've got another friend out in St. Jones Parish[?], Carl Baloney[?]. He wants to do some traveling, too. He's ready to give it all up. And, so, I'm going — .
Harriet: (Laughter.) Semi-retired.
Matt: Yeah. I'm going to get away from all of this. Although there are other things I want to do. One of the things that I want to do is get into the hospitality business, and I want to get into the hotel, tour guide, and limousine business.
Harriet: Talk about twenty-four hours a day.
Matt: No. No, no, no. (Laughter.) Because I'm going to design, develop, and turn over. You know. My little nephew wants to get into the hotel business with me, and he will probably be running it if we are able to do it. One of my daughters will be in charge of the limousine business. Probably my oldest girl. I've got a son coming along, too. So, you know. I've got nieces and nephews and people who can pick it up and handle it.
Harriet: Well, I want to thank you, Matt. Flukey. (Laughter.) I think of you as. Are you called "Flukey," still?
Matt: Yep. All of my childhood friends, the kids that I grew up with here around New Orleans, that's all they know me by.
Harriet: Oh. What about the friends from CORE?
Matt: Pretty much the same thing. It's people that don't know me that call me by my name. (Laughter.)
Harriet: OK. Thanks very much, Flukey. I really appreciate it. And we'll see how this turns.
Matt: All right.
Copyright © Matt Suarez. 2000.
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