Roscoe Jones cheated death during Freedom Summer

Paula Merritt / The Meridian Star

Roscoe Jones stands in front of First Union Missionary Baptist Church, often referred to as the headquarters of civil rights activities among Meridian churches. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at First Union a month after the disappearance of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman.

During Black History Month, The Meridian Star looks back on a time of tension, uncertainty and change with the stories of four individuals from the Meridian community who have their own memories of the civil rights movement. Those highlighted have made significant contributions to the movement, while also making history as being among the first African Americans in Meridian to hold positions in education, law and government. Today, we present the first installment of the four-part weekly series.

Roscoe Jones Sr. is 70, but he still remembers the conflicting commitments he made for the morning of June 21, 1964, when he was just 17 years old.

The night before, he had agreed to go to Philadelphia with 21-year-old James Earl Chaney, who was leaving that Sunday morning to investigate the burning of a black church. Chaney had approached him about accompanying him to Philadelphia during a visit to a teen event the night before.

“James really wanted me to go,” Jones recalled. “I knew that James was afraid. He was concerned about getting in that car and going to Philadelphia. He knew there could be trouble.”

Jones gave Chaney his word that he would accompany him. But that Sunday morning, Jones was reminded that he also had promised to speak to a youth group at Fifth Street Baptist Church about the student groups and Freedom Schools being set up to help advance civil rights in Mississippi.

When Jones told Michael Schwerner about the scheduling conflict, Schwerner told him to make the church visit his priority.

Chaney, Schwerner and Andrew Goodman traveled from Meridian to investigate the church burning. The three were arrested following a traffic stop outside Philadelphia. They were held for three hours before being released. As they left town in their car, they were followed by law enforcement and others. Their car was pulled over again and all three were abducted and shot at close range.

“For a long time I felt a lot of guilt,” Jones recalled. “I had given James my word that I would go with him. He knew, I think, that death was upon him. But I also was told that I was needed in Meridian. If I had been in that car at 17, I have no doubt that I would have died. Anyone who was in that car on that day would have been dead. I don’t know why God wasn’t ready for me that day, but he just wasn’t. That’s the best explanation I have.”

Jones didn’t let the murders scare him away from his dedication to the civil rights movement. He dedicated himself to the work of the Freedom Schools, alternative schools organized to help advance the movement. The schools focused on topics including civics and character education, with an emphasis on organizing young people for social change. The Meridian school had almost 400 students, Jones said.

“Mickey (Michael Schwerner) told me to focus on the young people – on the kids – and so that’s what I did,” Jones said. “Meridian had probably the strongest Freedom School in the state and we were very proud of that.”

Jones’ involvement with the Freedom Schools turned out to be the beginning of a lifelong commitment to education. He went to Yankton College, a small liberal arts college in Yankton, South Dakota. He then went into the Marines, fighting in Vietnam.

“Vietnam was a hard, hard time,” Jones said. “I don’t talk about it much. But honestly? Between being involved in the civil rights movement and going to Vietnam, I thank God I’m not crazy. I know I was lucky to make it back home, and I don’t talk a lot about it. That’s something that a lot of us that served there have in common. We just don’t talk about it.”

After Vietnam, Jones taught in California and earned a master’s from Pepperdine University. He married and had two children – a son and a daughter. Both of his children went on to college.

Jones worked at Meridian Community College counseling students who had been in the military. He also was the first black administrator for the Meridian Housing Authority and served as a transportation director in the Meridian Public School District.

Through all his living, he still remembers the summer of 1964 vividly. And he still believes that there is something in the Freedom School model that could be of value to young people today.

“I think that a lot is needed in Meridian now, and it starts with education,” he said. “My dream is really to keep teaching young people the important things – ethics and the importance of civil rights and vital life skills. Kids need involvement – they need to know we are there for them, they need love and understanding, and they need to know that what they do matters. That (Freedom) Summer was a difficult time, but I think that one thing that saved us was that as young people we knew what we did matter. We knew we could make a difference. That’s something I want young people today to know, too.”

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