For more than 60 years Hubie Jones has worked as an agent for social change and justice in the city of Boston. Jones is a Social Justice Entrepreneur in Residence at City Year and a Charter Trustee on the National Board of Trustees. In honor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, Jones discussed Dr. King’s values and how we can strive to live by them.
Q: You heard Dr. King speak on October 28, 1956. What about his message that day inspired you to work for social justice and social change in America?
A: Hearing Dr. King speak at Boston’s Ford Hall Forum on October 28, 1956 was a personal watershed for me. He was in the middle of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and it wasn’t clear if he was going to be able to keep this commitment but about 5 days before, word came that he was coming. I got to Jordan Hall very early because I knew there would be an enormous crowd to see this new leader who had catapulted onto the national scene.
Dr. King came onto the stage without notes and went into this oratory that only he could do. That was just quite inspiring. He started off by talking about the philosophical basis for the movement, discussing Buber, Hegel, and Gandhi. It was such a compelling speech and it sealed my commitment to work for social justice and racial equality in America. I was so elevated by what I had heard that I actually felt like I was levitating, like my feet weren’t even touching the ground. It had an enormous impact on me.
One of the things he said was ‘the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ That was inspirational but, for me, it was also disquieting. As a young man in a legitimate hurry for big time social change in America, I had no interest in hearing about the arc of history. I wanted racial discrimination to end now; I wanted prison reform now; I wanted childhood poverty in the richest nation in the world to end now. And to talk about the arc of history and what might come sometime in the future was like ‘I don’t have any time for that’. So I would say that it took me some time in life to embrace the concept of what I would call revolutionary patience. Because he was talking about patience—in a sense—by talking about the arc of history, and change was going to take time. But he was also saying we’re not flotsam and jetsam that just waits around for social forces to come into the right place; we have a responsibility to do something to change things and shape the social and political forces that will get us to a big breakthrough. We are called to bend the arc of the universe toward justice.
Q: The deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner sparked outrage across the country and a deeper outrage at the inequality that persists in poor communities of color. What do you think Dr. King would encourage us to do with this anger in order to make positive change?
A: I think the challenge for black Americans is that obviously we’re very angry about racial inequality in America and all that we’ve had to deal with. But the challenge is how do you take that anger and translate it into energy to work for constructive social change. That’s what I’ve done with my life. I’ve found a way to take my anger about inequality and translate it into energy, and to use that energy for constructive social change, and that means working with others to find where we can get breakthroughs to lead us to a better place. I think that’s what King would be saying now.
I’m writing a book on Boston and race and one part of it deals with what I call the anatomy of a race riot—the stages that a community goes through in the midst of this kind of anger and protest. So I basically knew how it was going to come out in Ferguson. The first stage is what I call glee and euphoria, that people who are appropriately angry and aggrieved feel, “it’s payback time.” Then stage two is you recognize that the consequences of this are horrific for the community. And you go into really deep fright and concern that this is out of control and it has to be put back under control. Then, what usually happens—and it all happens within the black community—is you suddenly recognize there’s great damage that may not be repaired for some time, so you go through a period of deep grieving. Then you go through a fourth stage during which the general public begins to forget that this ever happened and no permanent change is made. And that’s what we’re seeing in Ferguson. Basically the challenge now—the wakeup call from Ferguson—is how we can move this country to better community and police communication and relationships to a place where there is trust.
Q: Do you believe education and City Year’s service in urban public schools can help play a role in achieving Dr. King’s vision for equal rights for all? If so, how?
A: Dr. King gave many speeches on public education and saw it as one of the ways to get lift. City Year made a pivot about 8 or 9 years ago to direct all of its community service into the most troubled urban schools in America. It was a brilliant move: Michael Brown and the City Year leadership team basically came to the conclusion that community service is very good in and of itself, but if you can’t use community service to move a societal needle that’s important to the country, then the work is not going to be sustainable. One of the societal needles that must move is getting young people in urban communities to graduate successfully from high school so that they have decent chance to go on to college and career. Today, if you don’t have a college degree and have the necessary skills, your chances of having access to the economy and workforce as they exist are not great. Public education has always been the great equalizer—it is the asset made available by cities and localities that particularly gives young people a chance for mobility in society.
Q: Of Dr. King's many values, which do you believe City Year most embodies or tries to live by?
A: Dr. King has often talked about building the “Beloved Community”, and that is a very powerful idea and goal. And what it means for me is that you’re deeply committed to inclusion for everybody. To have a community that is “beloved”, to have a community that is authentic, you have to have a place for all races, all ethnic groups, and all social classes working together to build and thrive in a community. That is what America is trying to do, and we have to find ways to get there by any means possible. City Year is one of those models that is living this value.
Hubie Jones, City Year's Social Justice Entrepreneur in Residence, is Dean Emeritus of the Boston University School of Social Work. Jones has helped to found, lead and sustain more than 30 social services and advocacy organizations in the Boston area, including serving as a founding adviser to City Year. In order to create his own “Beloved Community”, Jones formed the Boston Children Chorus (BCC) eleven years ago. The aim of this group was to use the power of singing to create a community where authentic social integration was occurring. BCC comprises over 500 children from both urban and suburban communities and who are members of multiple racial, ethnic, and religious groups. Each year, at the Ford Hall Forum -- the same stage where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s words first inspired Hubie Jones -- the Boston Children's Chorus performs an inspirational concert dedicated to King's ideals and legacy.