The Dissenter's Voice
By JON WILSON and LENNIE BENNETT
© St. Petersburg Times,
ST. PETERSBURG -- Raising a dissonant counterpoint during the era of sit-ins, marches and Freedom Riders, Norman E. Jones was as politically incorrect as a black man of his time could be.
At the height of the civil rights movement, the St. Petersburg resident made sure another side of the story was recorded -- and he did so in a pungent and provocative way.
Jones died in 1990 at age 80. But a record of his work and philosophy survives at the University of South Florida's St. Petersburg campus, where his papers are now part of the Nelson Poynter Memorial Library Special Collections.
Last week, a panel that included Jones' son, Norman Jones II, and several USF academicians discussed the elder Jones' career.
"Here in St. Pete, he was at the height of his political and professional career," said Norman Jones II.
The Norman E. Jones papers, donated last year by his son and his widow, Mary Brayboy Jones, include drafts of Jones' "Let's Talk Politics" columns, unpublished manuscripts, photocopies of newspaper and magazine articles about Jones, and more than 60 hours of tape recordings about black economic pioneers.
Norman Jones II said he is donating a separate collection of his father's memorabilia -- a typewriter, a camera, press passes and a traveling case, for example -- to the St. Petersburg Museum of History.
"He was eccentric, idiosyncratic, enigmatic and bizarre in his own way," said Ray Arsenault, who holds the University of South Florida's endowed John Hope Franklin history professorship.
Comparing Jones to Huey Long, Louisiana's populist politician of the 1920s and '30s, Arsenault said Jones was "one of a kind -- he couldn't be classified."
Those who knew him agree that Jones heard a different drummer.
Instead of pushing for civil rights in his newspaper column, the journalist, publicist and political commentator sometimes ridiculed the movement, saying it brought "misery, poverty and destruction to the Negro communities, capped with disillusionment."
Jones' main message instead emphasized that African-Americans should strive for economic self-determination without government programs.
While playing on that theme, Jones pushed some hot buttons.
He criticized Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., saying the civil rights hero was a "woman-chasing, whisky-drinking charlatan" who "pied-pipered black children out of school to participate in his ill-famed marches."
Sometimes Jones used the "N" word, once referring to himself as the "smartest n--- in America."
He trashed the NAACP, calling its leaders the "ultimate Uncle Toms" and the "trained seals" of the white power structure.
Most jarring of all -- and despite having at one point vilified him as a racist -- Jones joined the political boom of segregationist George C. Wallace, supporting the Alabama governor in his 1968 and 1972 presidential campaigns.
"He was unconventional. He did what some people called the ungodly things, like going with George Wallace," said Mrs. Jones.
From 1956 to 1974, Jones' columns reached a predominantly black audience through such publications as the Pittsburgh Courier, the Chicago Defender and St. Petersburg's Weekly Challenger. He was host to radio and television shows in Tampa and St. Petersburg and for a time, was editor of the St. Petersburg Times' Negro page, which published African-American community news during the segregation era.
Jones preferred the term "Negro" to the more widely used "black." He opposed the Times' decision to quit publishing the Negro page in favor of putting black-oriented news in the newspaper's main sections.
Jones' thinking is relevant today, said journalist Christopher Curry, who recently earned a master's degree from USF.
In his final graduate school project, titled "The World According to Norman E. Jones," Curry said many people in Pinellas County "are echoing some of the controversial opinions (Jones) uttered 30 years ago about the failings of integration, particularly school integration, and the need to focus on economic redevelopment instead of social programs."
Jones' belief in self-determination for African-Americans -- and frustration with mainstream Democrats, which he thought marginalized blacks -- led to his support of Wallace.
"We were at different ends of the political spectrum; this thing with Wallace I thought was a serious error," said Omali Yeshitela, who met Jones in 1968 during a particularly turbulent time in civil rights history.
Nonetheless, a certain bridge existed between the thinking of Jones and Yeshitela, who founded the Uhuru movement in St. Petersburg.
"The assumption is that the African community must always be in some kind of dependency. People accepting dependency accept subjugation," Yeshitela said.
Jones had separated from his first wife in 1948, when Norman Jones II was 4 years old. The son did not see his father for years, but began searching for him in 1968 through various public records.
He found him in 1971 and the two built a solid relationship, Jones II said.
He treasured his father's papers and tapes, spending hours studying the material.
"From there I began to enjoy a more rounded life," said Jones II, whose eyes glisten when he talks about his father.
"He had a great impact on me," he said.
Mary Brayboy Jones says much the same.
"Now I find myself saying things he used to say. His thing was, why let the white man rule you? I could argue with him now, but I know a lot of the things he said were true," Mrs. Jones said.
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