Black rights advocate refuses to quit

February 19, 2009
Tim Mitchell
Staff Contributor

The phone rings in Burnley "Rocky" Jones' office, and he rises from his seat.

"Excuse me one moment," he says.

It's a large finished basement filled with hunting and fishing 
memorabilia. Still, there's a desk, filing cabinets and a plaque on 
the door that reads "B.A. Rocky Jones and Associates." This is where 
Jones operates his law firm.

"Hello? Uh-huh, did you go to Dalhousie Legal Aid? Well, I'm actually 
in the process of retirement," Jones says with a sigh.

He hangs up after a minute or two and returns to his desk.

"Now where was I? Oh yes," Jones picks up telling the story of an 
opposition to city plans of building a massive public housing project 
in North End Halifax in the 1960s that would have forced tenants from 
their homes.

"The tenants were able to organize. The whites that were trying to 
keep the blacks out of the labour union now had to work with us 
because we all lived there," Jones says about the area around Maynard 
and Creighton Streets in the North End. "It became a class issue more 
than a race issue."

Jones, who got the nickname Rocky at 16 for repeatedly singing Bill 
Haley and his Comets' song "Don't Knock the Rock" has always been 
comfortable with a good fight. Now, at the age of 67, he says he is 
ready to retire from practising law.

"It's hard because my phone keeps ringing and I'm too stupid to say 
no," he laughs.

Jones was a pioneer of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and 
1970s. The national press painted him as "Rocky the Revolutionary," a 
radical militant and Canada's own Stokely Carmichael, who was the 
honorary prime minister of the Black Panther Party ­ an 
African-American group that fought for black rights ­ and the man 
accredited with coining the term "Black Power."

Jones shook up whites in Canada in 1968 when he brought Carmichael 
and the Black Panthers to Halifax to jumpstart progressive change and 
draw international attention to the city's racial tensions. The Black 
Panthers' visits led to the creation of the Black United Front of 
Nova Scotia that same year.

Jones was under RCMP surveillance for many years and the police kept 
thousands of pages worth of records on him, following his every move. 
He was aware of the RCMP's "undercover" surveillance and would often 
approach its unmarked vehicles to offer them coffee in the morning. 
One time Jones even asked officers for a drive, seeing as they'd have 
to follow him anyway.

On Jan. 20, Jones kept five of his 14 grandchildren home from school 
to watch President Barack Obama's inauguration on television.

"I don't know if they'll remember," says Jones. "Hopefully in 20 or 
30 years when I'm dead they'll understand why I kept them out of 
school." Jones believes Obama can only begin the process of 
implementing change rather than implementing change itself. He says 
Obama makes a big difference to the image of change.

"Now a black kid growing up in the worst circumstances believes that 
they can rise to the top," he says.

Jones was the fourth of 10 children. Growing up in a small black 
community called the Marsh on the outskirts of Truro, N.S., he was no 
stranger to racism. Because of the colour of his skin, he was not 
allowed to bowl at the local bowling alley, even though he worked 
there, nor was he allowed to play at the local pool hall or eat at 
certain restaurants. He says the Marsh had a lot to do with him 
ending up as a civil rights activist.

"I was so protected in that community and encouraged to do anything I 
wanted to do," says Jones. He recalls learning to swim at the age of 
seven by being thrown in the river by some older children; he thinks 
his older brother may have been there to "help" him learn to swim as well.

"In this life you can only sink or swim," he says.

At 16, he quit school and joined the army, but only lasted a year 
because he "got into too much trouble." A few years later he took a 
job driving tractor trailers in Toronto and he says that gave him 
time to read about his interests in black politics.

It was in Toronto that Jones first became a prominent face for the 
Black Power movement. He was working for the treasury department of 
the Ontario government and one day, on his way home from work, he 
noticed a group of white protestors. They were protesting the denial 
of voting rights to blacks in Selma, Alabama.

Jones, along with his then-wife Joan and their one-year-old daughter 
Tracey, protested alongside the group, thinking they couldn't let 
white people fight their battles. As the only black man at the 
demonstration, Jones was a magnet for media attention. He soon found 
his face on newspapers and TV screens across the country.

Talking to the national press, he found in himself a new sense of 
charisma and an ability to motivate groups. He became an in-demand 
speaker at civil rights demonstrations and he quit his job at the 
treasury department to travel the U.S. and speak to people.

He brought the fight back to Halifax in 1965 when, along with Joan, 
he helped found and run Kwacha House, a Halifax youth program where 
he taught his philosophy of social reform to predominantly black youth.

"They (the youth) were important in bringing about change in their 
own communities. We taught them that they have the power to implement 
change," says Jones.

At Kwacha, a word from Zambia meaning "freedom," they held 
discussions about employment, housing and education opportunities. 
The youth group also formed its own police force to keep hard drugs 
out of Halifax communities and built a park for young children called 
the "Tot-Lot."

"It got eaten up with the development back in the '60s," says Jones. 
"That rolls off my tongue like nothing, doesn't it?"

Jones' daughter Tracey Jones, now the manager of ESL and Diversity 
Services for the Halifax Public Libraries, remembers what it was like 
growing up with parents fighting in the civil rights movement.

"As a child growing up, you don't know much about what's going on," 
she says. "As you get older, you start to feel like this is the 
example you want to grow up to. I didn't really understand the 
significance at the time. People like Stokely Carmichael, they were 
just friends of the family."

Tracey was one of the first black students at LeMarchant Elementary 
School. At the time, she was the only black student.

"I was out of my comfort zone ­ I was used to everyone looking like 
me. I got called names and I had to fight back. I do remember the 
principal, Mr. Black. He died years ago, but he took good care of me."

Jones eventually went back to school himself and graduated with 
bachelor's and master's degrees in history. He also earned a law 
degree from Dalhousie in 1992 through the Indigenous Blacks and 
Mi'Kmaq (IBM) program. He would later help found the Transition Year 
Program (TYP), a one-year program designed for First Nations and 
African-Canadians who "do not yet meet standard Dalhousie entrance 
requirements." Jones taught as a part-time lecturer in the program 
for 10 years.

Jones would like to retire, but he's not ready to give up the good 
fight. His former wife, Joan Jones, who recently retired from her job 
at the Nova Scotia Legal Aid Commission, says she understands why he 
wants to retire.

"We've worked hard on the causes we've worked on," says Joan. "We've 
earned it. He probably won't totally retire, but he should be able to 
participate when he wants to and not when he's obligated to."

As Jones sees it, there have been three phases in the international 
Black Power movement. The first was a philosophy of integration, 
usually driven by white supporters. Then came the black nationalist 
philosophy, and now, Jones says, the third phase has moved back to an 
integration philosophy.

"This time it's not designed by whites, but by co-operation," says 
Jones, "and that's what we see with the Obama phenomenon. Now we're 
in a phase where there is that interracial co-operation to the point 
where a black person can have the leadership role."

But Jones doesn't see this as an acceptance of the black race.

"Society has not changed to accept black people, only to accept a 
well-mannered, well-educated, well-positioned black man," says Jones. 
"For all intents and purposes, he is one of them as much as he is one 
of us. He's managed to walk the finest line that I've ever seen 
anyone walk. He acknowledges his roots but he doesn't frighten people 
­ because he's trained."

Jones says Canadians deserve to acknowledge that this country's 
leadership has progressed to the point that Canada's highest 
political official is a black woman.

"People forget that we've already done that," Jones explains. "The 
problem is I don't think most little boys and girls know who she 
(Governor General Michaëlle Jean) is. We need to tell them."

Jones would like to start his own fishing show if he ever gets around 
to retiring and he's also in the process of "supposedly" writing an 
autobiographical book about his fights for Black Power in the 1960s 
and 1970s ­ he hasn't quite gotten around to it yet.


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