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Retiree remembers civil rights leader, boyhood pal

A Zephyrhills man recounts King and the ir younger days.

By MOLLY MOORHEAD
Published January 14, 2007


ZEPHYRHILLS - A few boys from the neighborhood dug the hole and gathered for the service in the big back yard.

Snappy, a happy mutt who liked to run the streets, had been struck by a car. At the head of his grave stood a boy no older than 4, praying over the dearly departed as he'd seen his father, a preacher, do before.

Cornelius Jones doesn't remember the words said at his dog's funeral nearly 75 years ago, or whether any wildflowers might have graced that primitive grave, but he'll never forget the boy delivering the eulogy:

A young Martin Luther King Jr.

"There should have been some inkling (then) that he was destined for great things," Jones, 79, says now.

Back then King's name was Michael (his father renamed him soon after changing his own name to honor Protestant reformer Martin Luther). And during a friendship that lasted all of King's life, that's what Jones called him.

"It was a private joke we had," says Jones.

Jones grew up in Smithfield, a section of Birmingham, Ala., that became an incubator of the civil rights movement. One of King's relatives lived next door to the Jones family's duplex, and King visited during a couple of summers in the 1930s, Jones says.

The Birmingham city directory from 1930 lists Willie and Bessie Jones, Cornelius' parents, as living next to a couple named Luke and Callie King. The directory says the Kings were African-American, and Luke King worked as a laborer.

A retired accountant who moved in 2005 to Lake Bernadette, Jones speaks with ease and knowledge about the civil rights era and the people at the center of it. But he shies from the limelight, nervous he might appear to be casting himself as a historical equal to men such as King. He has a rich voice and a bright smile, but he tears up sometimes when talking about the hard past.

"I'm no martyr," Jones says. "I just happened to be in a place, in a time. I had no major role. There were so many men who were beaten and stomped.

"I didn't experience anything like that."

Life in Birmingham

By the 1960s, Birmingham was on the verge of boiling over. Writing from his jail cell, King described it as "the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States."

Jones' family never left - but Jones did, first for college, then for an accounting job in New York City. He remembers visiting home and fearing for his parents' safety. By then they lived on Center Street, in an area nicknamed Dynamite Hill, where segregationists hurled explosives into the yards of African-American residents. Arthur Shores, a lawyer who represented the first black student admitted to the University of Alabama, lived next door to Jones' parents.

At Shores' house, the Jones house and in nearby churches, civil rights activists - King among them - held meetings to organize protests. That made them the target of violence.

The Shores house was bombed twice within two weeks in 1963, according to historical records and newspaper accounts from the time. Barbara Shores was at home when the second bomb hit.

"It blew out all of the windows in the house, (left) cracks in the foundation, cracks in the house, in the bricks and all. Not only in our house, but in houses around," says Shores, Arthur's 62-year-old daughter.

The Jones house was damaged, too. Cornelius Jones says his mother and sister were home during one of them but unhurt.

Barbara Shores lives in her parents' old house now, one of many second-generation residents of Dynamite Hill, a highly desirable neighborhood of brick homes and spectacular city views. Jones' son, Courtland, is her next-door neighbor.

Friends till the end

They stayed in touch into adulthood, Jones, the CPA, and King, the preacher. Jones, who was a year older than King, went to Howard University in Washington, D.C., King to Morehouse College in Atlanta. They visited each other during those years, though Jones admits the details of his memories are fuzzy.

Over the years, the friends had dinner together when King was in New York.

Jones doesn't remember the last time he talked to his friend. He's sure they kidded each other. He learned of the April 4, 1968, assassination the way most of the world did, on the news. He couldn't bring himself to attend the funeral.

It wasn't until the 1990s, when asked to give a speech at his church on Long Island, that Jones took stock of his friendship with the civil rights martyr. The significance of such history-making events and people, he says, wasn't evident at first. That emerged later.

"Martin was an average man to me," he says. "But what did he mean to other people? I realized he had really made a contribution to mankind."

But if history's great drumbeat didn't sound at first, another kind of foreboding did. King's death at age 39 devastated Jones but didn't shock him.

"I sort of felt it in my bones that he would never die of old age."

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

Holiday events

- The African-American Club of West Pasco presents its annual celebration at Sims Park, downtown New Port Richey, at noon Monday. Judge Myra McNary from Pinellas County is the speaker. Call (727) 868-1838.

- Former Colorado Lt. Gov. Joe Rogers performs in the "Dream Alive Program," featuring King's "I Have a Dream Speech," at 12:30 p.m. Monday in the Abbey Church at Saint Leo University. Call (352) 588-8572.

- The East Pasco County King day committee presents a program at 11 a.m. Monday at St. John Missionary Baptist Church, 13549 Eighth Street in Dade City. Angela B, a community radio host from 88.5 FM WMNF, is the speaker. A reception will follow.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day events

* The African-American Club of West Pasco presents its annual celebration at Sims Park, downtown New Port Richey, at noon Monday. Judge Myra McNary from Pinellas County is the speaker. Call (727) 868-1838.

* Former Colorado Lt. Governor Joe Rogers perform in the "Dream Alive Program," featuring King's "I Have a Dream Speech," at 12:30 p.m. Monday in the Abbey Church at Saint Leo University. Call (352) 588-8572.

* The East Pasco County King day committee presents a program at 11 a.m. Monday at St. John Missionary Baptist Church, 13549 Eighth Street in Dade City. Angela B, a community radio host from 88.5 FM WMNF, is the speaker. A reception will follow.