John O'Neal
(1940 — 2019)

Remembering John O'Neal, SNCC Legacy Project


As remembered by Joyce Ladner
February 15, 2019

I'm saddened to hear that John has gone on to dance with the ancestors and to organize a Free Southern Theatre with Gil Moses and others in that ancestral place. He traveled the backroads of Mississippi to bring theatre to black folks. I remember when John came to Mississippi upon graduating from Southern Illinois University. John, Doris Derby and Gil Moses founded the FST and were soon joined by Denise Nichols. Like so many others in SNCC and the movement they had a vision and fulfilled it. After Freedom Summer John and others moved the FST to New Orleans. Over time he stayed the course and kept to his mission for half a century.

John was a beautiful person, even tempered, tenacious, and gifted. I will never forget seeing him perform " Junebug Jabbo Jones at Reggie and Charlie's annual Chincoteague weekend. It was so much fun. I saw John at Freedom Summer 50 at Tougaloo College. He will live on for many of us


As remembered by Larry Rubin
February 15, 2019

John's passing is a huge loss. He was a courageous Freedom Fighter, a talented actor, director and producer and a wonderful writer. His Junebug Jabbo Jones explained things that helped build understanding and empathy among people around the world for Black Southerners in struggle. (Junebug wrote a slightly fictionalized piece about me and Mama Dolly Raines for Southern Exposure magazine that gave me a deepened perspective on myself and on our work.)

John's art was not only about people in struggle, it was for people in struggle.

John, Jack Chatfield and I lived with Mama Dolly on her farm in Lee County, Georgia, often sharing the same bed (all 3 of us) and once sharing the same jail in Dawson. Now both John and Jack are gone.

It's getting very lonely.


As remembered by Karen Spellman
February 16, 2019

I still can't believe that John is no longer on the planet. But as long as we listen to the wisdom of Junebug and conjure up that all-knowing chuckle-smile John used to tell his stories, then we'll always have him with us! I took this photo of John at the 2016 SLP gathering at Duke. He loved SNCC folks and the grin on his face tells it all! This is the way I'll always remember him.


As remembered by Denise Nicholas
February 18, 2019

RIP John — we shared such great times in The Free Southern Theater running from the KKK in Mississippi, Louisiana, in Georgia & Alabama. John was a principled human being, brilliant and caring. We made a theatre where there never had been one before! It was a miracle of blood sweat and tears, an experience beyond anything I could've imagined. John, Gil Moses, Roscoe Orman, the whole group — amazing. Goodbye dear one.


As remembered by Rachel Elizabeth Harding
February 18, 2019

Please accept my deepest condolences. I had a chance to meet and interview Brother John O'Neal when I finished college and I remember feeling so excited and happy about the history of FST that he shared with me. Indeed, we have a goodly heritage of struggle in this land. And we're not going to stop until we're all free. May the family and friends of Mr. O'Neal be comforted. And may our newest ancestor rest in peace.


As remembered by Daphne Muse
February 18, 2019

He sure knew how to crank up the laughter and I will be eternally grateful for him introducing the world to Junebug Jabbo Jones. Rest in the power of what you brought to the table and may your legacy be inherited by future generations.


As remembered by Akbar Imhotep
February 18, 2019

He taught me the difference between a 'storyteller & a liar" and helped me find my inner 'Junebug'. What a joy to have known such a great person & performer.


As remembered by William Stuart House
February 18, 2019

Truly saddened to learn of John's passing. I have wonderful memories of his kindness, gentle being, humor, talent as an actor, and contributions to the Movement. I will always remember working with him and the Free Southern Theater in Mississippi and New Orleans, the plays "In White America" and "Waiting for Godot". Rest in Peace, John.


As remembered by Belvie Rooks
February 18, 2019

Rest In Peace and Power Dear One. You always knew where all the real after parties were in New Orleans!


As remembered by Gail Cohen
February 18, 2019

Junebug Productions is the organizational successor to the Free Southern Theater (FST). In 1963, John O'Neal and Doris Derby, field secretaries of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), cofounded FST with student leader Gilbert Moses to be a cultural wing of the SNCC. FST went on to become a major influence on the Black Arts Movement. In 1965, FST moved its base from Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss., to New Orleans. It continued to use arts to support the Civil Rights movement through a community engagement program and training opportunities for locals interested in writing, performing, and producing theatre, as well as touring.

In 1980, FST produced Don't Start Me to Talking or I'll Tell Everything I Know, the first solo piece written and performed by John O'Neal featuring Junebug Jabbo Jones, a character created by SNCC members to represent and symbolize the wit and wisdom of common folk. That was the last production of the FST and the first production of Junebug Productions. In 1985, "The Funeral of the Free Southern Theater, a Valediction Without Mourning" celebrated the work of FST and started the journey of Junebug Productions.


As remembered by Kimberly Ellis
February 18, 2019

Wow. I am so saddened by this loss. He gave us so much. It was a pleasure to meet and talk with him in Mississippi and to discuss the importance of Theatre. We cannot thank him enough.


As remembered by Chester Grundy
February 18, 2019

I will cherish always the memories of working with this wonderful artist/warrior. Long Live Junebug Jabbo Jones! Wishing you the Peace That Has No End, John!


As remembered by Zoharah Simmons
February 19, 2019

I have such fond memories of John O'Neal and the Freedom Theatre coming to Laurel at least twice during the two years of the Laurel, Mississippi Freedom Project. Perhaps it was only once but I remember clearly that they did two productions: "Waiting for Godot" and "Purlie Victorious." As I recall, the theatre was a bid open lot on black owned land with a few chairs and blankets on the ground. The community turned out in large numbers and thoroughly enjoyed the production.

I could hardly believe that an audience that had never seen a live professional theatrical production resonated so with both these productions. It was a wonderful experience for ALL. A really bright spot during a hard time in racist Jones County.

Farewell to our Brother, Comrade and Friend, John O'Neal. Gone but not forgotten.

A Luta Continua!


As remembered by Timothy Jenkins
February 20, 2019

TO: Family All: My Quiet Echo

It is with joyous sadness that I recount that more than once John and I walked or danced arm in arm at 125th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem back in the Sixties regaling curious gaggles of trailing little boys and girls with our loudsome freedom songs and tales of the South as clearly and vividly as if it were just yesterday.

And it is that memory that sustains my belief that our living has not been in vain.

Long after I no longer had a mailing address in Mississippi, I continued to be forwarded affidavits by John of persons documenting their daily troubles trying to register and vote. It was my task to collect and forward these testimonies for presentation to the U. S. Justice Department and Congress as the terrestrial prayers that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

John was always the voice from down under echoing Paul Robeson's four word career advice to a Broadway novice, who became Harry Belafonte — "Sing your own song." And sure enough the world could not help but learn to listen.

Let us keep singing John's song with our own while teaching it to the people of the day after tomorrow.


As remembered by Joanne Gavin
February 21, 2019

John O'Neal and Free Southern Theater gave us many memorable moments.

Here is one that few witnessed but that has always been a treasured memory for me.

In the summer of 1965 Free Southern Theater brought their nascent Children's Theater Project to Jackson with its work-in-progress and still largely ad-libbed "Beauty and the Beast", which had its world premier in the Tougaloo village for the Project Headstart students.

The night before, some of us had hung out with John at a local ice house and he had said that they really wanted to have animals in castle moat during the prologue. He invited anyone who wanted to be one of the animals to make their own costumes and come and be in the performance.

That was how I got to play my lifetime dream role of "a crocodile" and have a close-up view of a moment of creativity.

John, as "Beauty's Father" did a largely-ad-libbed introduction. He told how he had three beautiful daughters, and that one of them was "so beautiful that we named her 'Beauty'..." and at that moment he paused, so deep in thought that finally he brightened so visibly that I could almost see one of those comic-strip "idea!" light bulbs over his head, as he continued "...Yes. 'Beauty Mae Jackson'. That's her name!"

All these years later, remembering that moment has given me many an "all-over smile" and often an out-loud laugh!

AND: from then on, those of us who heard it had for our Mississippi tales a female counterpart for "Junebug Jabbo Jones" in "Beauty May Jackson".

Thank you, John O'Neal, for many moments of inspiration!

With much love,


As remembered by Ed Dubinsky
February 23, 2019

I first met John when, after spending some time working in Freedom Summer in August,1964, I went to New Orleans to take up my new position in the Mathematics department of Tulane University. Throughout the next five years of splitting my time between Tulane and the Civil Rights Movement, John was a constant source of support.

The closest thing I had to a background in theater was many conversations I had in the Michigan Union with Denise Nicholas, when I was a graduate student and Denise was an undergrad. But I tried to contribute what I could to John's work. This consisted of driving cast members and support folk from New Orleans to various towns in Louisiana and Mississippi for performances and after-performance discussions.

One of the plays that Free Southern Theater put on was Waiting for Godot. I remember thinking, along with members of the company, that this play would not be well-received by a rural Mississippi audience of people unfamiliar with modern theater. But John insisted that the audience would understand and in the discussion he was proved right when he asked the people who had just viewed the performance, "What do you think this play was about?" and they responded, "It's about our lives".


As remembered by Kim Neal Mays
February 26, 2019

I worked and toured with John and Junebug Productions as a member of Roadside Theater. Junebug/Jack and with El Teatro Pregones in Promise of a Love Song and countless Story Circles across the country. Workshops and residencies of indescribable value. The world needs more John O'Neals.


As remembered by Mike Miller
February 28, 2019

John O'Neal started what became the Free Southern Theater with skits that he directed and acted in along with Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) staff and local people, who weren't professional actors. I was in Hattiesburg, MS living with him in the back of a local African-American beauty salon during the summer of 1963 when he was planning and rehearsing them. On several occasions during the summer of 1963, I was in the audience that saw those skits. They were the highlight of "mass meetings" that often were attended by 30-or-so people because to attend these meetings was to risk life, limb, job or firebombing of your home. These skits had a standard set of characters:

The drama was in their exchanges: when the Uncle Tom spoke, the audience would boo; when the local Movement leader spoke, there would be cheering; the cop or sheriff would be booed. And when the standard conclusion took place--the uncommitted local person decided to go to the courthouse to become a registered voter--the cheering was deafening!

This use of drama to embody the hopes and fears of African Americans in Mississippi, the most racist of the racist Deep South states, was a stunningly effective form of political education, one developed by John O'Neal.

There is an interesting side-bar to this story. A year-or-so later, in California's San Joaquin Valley, actor-director Luis Valdez, later a Hollywood film director, created the Farm Worker Theater. Its skits, presented to mostly Mexican and Mexican-American farm workers who were on a three hundred mile pilgrimage to the State Capitol, had a similar cast of characters — differing only in their context: a farm worker, a grower, a sheriff or cop whose actions supported the grower, a union organizer, a scab, and a worker uncertain about whether he would join the union or not. As it happened, I was at one of those presentations as well. The audience response was strikingly similar to that of Mississippi Delta African-Americans.


As remembered by Clarence L. Johnson
February 28, 2019

As a teenager growing up in the Mississippi Delta Town of Greenwood in the early 1960's, I remember going to the Elks Hall to see two productions performed by the Free Southern Theater. To this day, they are seared into my consciousness and will be as long as my cords of memory remain. Glory Hallelujah!

One of those performances was the Ossie Davis play "Purlie Victorious" (later on Broadway as "Purlie"). Starring in the play were Davis, Ruby Dee and Denise Nicholas among others. WOW!!! What a good time.

The other was the Samuel Beckett play "Waiting for Godot" of the Theater of the Absurd genre, different but also entertaining and thought-provoking.

So, I too, tip my hat to John O'Neal for his extraordinarily invaluable contribution to this Democracy and our Human Family. A gift which enhanced both my personal growth and development as a person. A person made more whole, though still healing who now, as then, appreciates the arts and their role in advancing the cause of civil rights, social justice and the down-home joy of a plain ole good belly laugh even while we keep the Movement, moving forward...

Three cheers to John O'Neal, this giant of a hero and those like you and All of our Beloved SNCC Freedom Fighters...Hip, Hip, Hooray!

In solidarity,

Clarence L. Johnson, Senior Minister-Pastor
Mills Grove Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)


Remembering John O'Neal
An Appreciation From the SNCC Legacy Project

March 2019

Thank you. I will not be long, but am standing here to express the fact that for all of the productive things he did, he and we always saw him as one of us in SNCC. As veterans of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee we want to emphasize here how big a gap there is with the passing of John O'Neal. To the extent that there is any compensation for this loss it lies in the knowledge that he is still with us in so many ways.

John O'Neal is most often thought of as one of the founders of the Free Southern Theater, and as the performing personality Junebug Jabbo Jones whose stories revealed with great, often ironic depth, the profound wisdom found in the currents of everyday southern Black life. But while we could go on at great length about the theater and Junebug, he is best understood as an organizer in an organization of organizers. Although from an early age John wanted to be a playwright he could not escape the pull of the Southern Freedom Movement and became a SNCC field secretary, first in Southwest Georgia, then in Mississippi.

It was within this context that the Free Southern Theater was born, first in conversation with Doris Derby who was working with SNCC on a literacy project in Mississippi, and Gilbert Moses, a young journalist with the Movement- oriented Mississippi Free Press. Their conversation quickly committed them to a shared belief that a theater would be valuable to the Movement. And let us be clear, the idea was that of creating a Movement theater.

As John reflected years later: "The artist is a vehicle for a force greater than him — or includes the whole spirit life that we participate in, as well as the whole political, social and economic life." As far as he was concerned John told the New York Times, "I don't intend to work for a living [but] to live for my work."

Art in service to the people always frightens power, and just a year after the theater's 1963 founding, following a group performance of Waiting for Godot at the New School for Social Research in New York city, two FBI agents arrested John as an "unproven" conscientious objector. He was sentenced to serve two years in Chicago as janitor in a hospital before appealing and having his assignment moved to the Bronx.

All of us have these experiences with so-called law enforcement both above and below the Mason-Dixon Line. I put forth this story of John's New York City arrest not to bemoan white power once again but to point out the strength that has always kept the movement going. John's whole life was about moving forward creatively. The great lesson to be drawn from his life and what keeps him alive in our hearts and minds is that we too can keep on a keepin' on.


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