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Civil rights activist recalls protests at MLK prayer breakfast

By Mark Labbe Pilot Staff
Posted: 1/19/2018

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Cardinal O'Malley joins hands with Prayer Breakfast participants while singing "We Shall Overcome." Pilot photo/Mark Labbe

ROXBURY -- Roxbury-resident Mimi Jones was 13 when she first saw the inside of a jail cell. It was 1961, and the cell, meant to house only around four prisoners at a time, held 10 or 15 youth. It was night, and the youth had been walking through the streets of Albany, Georgia with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., protesting the systematic racial segregation and oppression at that time.

Hundreds marched, and as they did, police rounded up groups at a time and deposited them in the local jail, their only crime having attended a planned and peaceful protest.

Dr. King was arrested with the group. He was released shortly after and, as Jones and her fellow youth waited for their own release, Dr. King visited their cell, shaking each of the youths' hands.

"How you all doing?" Jones recalls Dr. King saying "in his amicable way."

Speaking at St. Katharine Drexel Parish in Roxbury for the 33rd annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Prayer Breakfast, held on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Jan. 16, Jones said she can "still feel his presence and his power shaking our hands."

Yet for all that power, Dr. King's hands, she said, "felt like the softest glove I have ever felt."

The parish hall of St. Katharine Drexel Parish was packed for the breakfast. Sponsored by the parish in collaboration with the Archdiocese of Boston's Black Catholic Ministries, dozens of people sat at tables, occasionally calling out in agreement over something Jones said.

Jones, a long-time Roxbury resident and community activist, continued telling her stories of working on the frontlines of the Civil Rights Movement in her youth.

She recalled participating in what is now known as the St. Augustine Movement in St. Augustine, Florida, organized by Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), in 1963 and 1964 that saw a myriad of pickets and sit-ins throughout the area.

Jones, still just a teenager at the time, traveled to Florida with her pastor and a group of like-minded community members. There, she participated in a number of protests, including participating in a "swim-in" at a Monson Motor Lodge, a whites-only motor lodge where Dr. King had famously been denied service at days before.

Speaking at the breakfast, Jones said she one of a handful to participate in the swim-in. Press lined the pool area as Jones, other youth, and two white guests went into the pool.

"I swam to the center of the pool, and then I swam back to the edge of the pool," she said. It was peaceful, until suddenly "I didn't realize what was happening -- all I knew was that I couldn't breathe and in front of my face the water was bubbling up like a volcanic eruption."

It was then that she saw the hotel manager, James Brock, pouring muriatic acid into the water in front of her.

A police officer who had been watching the manager jumped into the water fully-clothed and pulled Jones and the youth out. They were arrested, and charged with "deliberate breaking the peace, trespassing, and conspiracy." The manager was not charged.

Jones recalled hearing Dr. King give his famous "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, D.C., and called upon those present to walk courageously and "be a champion of democracy, a foot soldier for freedom and justice for all."

"When all is said and done, and we have achieved the love and community that Dr. King dreamed of, we can all cry 'Glory, I thank you,'" she concluded.

Father Oscar Pratt, administrator of St. Katharine Drexel Parish, Black Catholic Ministries coordinator Lorna DesRoses, and Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley were among those who also offered remarks at the event.

"Looking back, I think a lot of Dr. King's dream has come true," said Cardinal O'Malley, "but in this last year, we've come to realize that we still have a long way to go."

It is the "culture of encounter," that Pope Francis often talks about, the "need to be close to people," that's "really going to be the antidote for racism that still dogs our country," said the cardinal.

"We gather today to honor (Dr. King's) memory and to thank God for his legacy, his sacrifice, and all that he did that has helped us to come this far, but also to encourage us to go the rest of the way, because there is a long journey still ahead of us," the cardinal said, before bowing his head in prayer.

The Archdiocese of Boston Black Catholic Choir sang during the breakfast event, and parts of Dr. King's writings were read aloud.

Cliff Jeffery attended the event with his family. It is the second time he has attended the annual event, he told The Pilot, noting that "really, really enjoyed it."

"For me, it's always a learning experience to learn something new about our history," he said. "Today, I think Ms. Jones really taught me something new."