The Rev. H.K. Matthews is 6-feet, 1-inch tall. “And a half,’’ he added.
Tall enough, sure, but the 88-year-old civil rights icon seems much taller in person. With his slowed but purposeful gait, piercing dark eyes and commanding voice, he is easily recognized as a man of influence, passion and performance. He has the air of a preacher, or learned professor, whose depth of knowledge and experience commands respect.
He seems taller. Like a giant of a man.
And to many in Northwest Florida and Alabama, Matthews is just that. The iconic civil rights leader was at the forefront of the fight for equality in the 1960s and 1970s, and was arrested more than 30 times for his civil rights protests. On Wednesday, the city of Brewton, Alabama, honored Matthews with a street named in his honor.
Matthews led lunch counter protests in downtown Pensacola in the early 1960s; protested against the “Rebels” name and mascot once used by Escambia High; and was arrested in 1975 for protesting the death of Wendell Blackwell, a black man who was shot and killed by a sheriff’s deputy after a speeding stop in late 1974. Deputies claimed that Matthews was inciting a riot and making death threats and was sentenced to five years in prison. He spent 63 days imprisoned before Gov. Reubin Askew commuted his sentence to time served. In 1980, then-Gov. Bob Graham pardoned Matthews.
Matthews was also beaten and gassed while participating in the “Bloody Sunday” march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.
Brewton, where Matthews has lived since being, as he said, “blackballed” in Pensacola in the late 1970s, honored the pastor with his own street on Wednesday. About 100 people — Brewton and Escambia County officials, as well as friends and family — gathered for the unveiling of “H.K. Matthews Drive,’’ formerly West Underwood Drive. Matthews is a pastor at Zion Fountain A.M.E. Zion Church in Brewton.
He sacrificed so much,’’ said Escambia County Commissioner Lumon May, who attended the ceremony. “He paved the way for generations. I wouldn’t be where I am today without H.K. Matthews and people like him.”
A Lasting Impression
On Wednesday — his son Chris Matthews' 37th birthday — Matthews was given a key to the city by Brewton Mayor Yancey Lovelace and Mayor Pro-tem Fred Barton.
Matthews said the establishment's attitude toward the self-described "agitator" has changed over the decades. He said he was once a pariah in Pensacola, and his home was targeted by vandals many times while in the city.
"Now I can go to Pensacola and I don't have to be home by dark,'' he said. "I've had some good days, some hills to climb and some dreary days,'' before promising to never stop "fighting for equality and justice."
Inspired by his mentor, the Rev. W.C. Dobbins, Matthews was a leader in the movement to integrate downtown lunch counters in the early 1960s. Dobbins, who formed the Pensacola Council of Ministers in 1961, gave Matthews the job of organizing non-violent demonstrations and pickets of stores.
In his autobiography "Victory After the Fall,'' Matthews recounted the sit-ins.
"Whites called us names while some students were burned with cigarettes,'' he wrote. "One girl even had insecticide sprayed in her eyes by an enraged white man." Within a few years of the demonstrations and pickets, Pensacola lunch counters were integrated.
His work continued, though. In 1972, students at Escambia High asked Matthews and other civil rights leaders to assist them in their efforts to bring change to the school, which, at the time featured "Dixie" as the school song and "Rebels" as the school nickname. Matthews and others pressured the Escambia County School Board to bring about changes, but had no luck.
On March 22, 1972, more than 100 black students at Escambia walked out of classes to protest the policy. Fights broke out between white and black students and Matthews was asked to intercede, while law enforcement descended on the school.
Matthews got on a bullhorn and asked the students to stop fighting. He said many of the students thought they would be jailed. Matthews told them no one would be. That's when he was arrested for inciting a riot. An all-white jury later acquitted him.
But one of Matthews biggest challenges was still to come.
In early 1975, Matthews and other civil rights activists led demonstrations at the Escambia County Jail to protest the death of Blackwell, a black man who was shot and killed by a sheriff's deputy after a speeding stop Dec. 20, 1974. A grand jury ruled the shooting justified. That's when Matthews and other pastors and demonstrators protested in front of the jail.
During the protest, demonstrators started a chant: "Two-four-six-eight, who shall we incarcerate?'', then naming three deputies the protesters felt should be arrested.
Deputies then arrested 54 protesters, including Matthews. The deputies reported that Matthews led a chant of "Two-four-six-eight, who shall we assassinate?''
"He paid the price,'' said Michael Jackson, 63, of Pensacola, who served as Matthews' bodyguard in the 1970s when he — and his family — were receiving constant threats of injury or death. "He was terrorized. He was jailed. He was beaten. He definitely sacrificed. And all he wanted was — his ultimate goal — was to see equality for all. That's it. But he had to fight and sacrifice to bring about change."
Matthews told the crowd of about 100 — which included Pensacola Police Chief David Alexander III — that despite his age, or because of it, he will continue to fight against injustice wherever he sees it.
"I haven't changed that much,'' he said. "One thing that's changed is that I can visit Pensacola and don't have to leave by dark. But I'm still fighting the fight. I have no plans to give up. At my age, it's too late to give up."