Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Becoming “Colored”: Deaths of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.

JONES: Now, what about Malcolm? What about Martin Luther King? Martin Luther King was killed in '68. I was in 11th grade. I remember Mrs. Shappee and the public speaking class. We could take any position and argue it, and I thought I was just being provocative and I made a speech. She said, "well, make a speech with a position," and I was saying I was trying to speak imagining what it would be like to be Malcolm X and trying to skewer him which in a room full of young white German and Italian kids, they didn't understand what the Uncle Tom and all of that, but by the same token, when the questions came back from the groups, some of them were really hard right-wing questions. I remember one guy, Charlie, and I won't say his last name, who was a friend of mine, said, "you know, you live by the sword, you'll die by the sword and that's what happened to this King." "What?" I didn't have the language but I was incensed and it became, that little exercise in Drama Club, suddenly became very real. "Charlie, you feel that way?" "He's a communist." And I thought, oh, that's — This is where I live. That was — I mean, every artist, every person goes through that but suddenly the world around you changes. I've known these kids since we were practically in diapers and now I hear attitudes that I know around my house are totally different and I became very vehement and then as we used to say and I'm sure you remember that, before it was a black, they used to say you got colored.

BOND: Yes.

JONES: I got colored in that room. I'm the only one and I'm a favorite, you know. Everyone loves Jones, you know. But suddenly Jones is speaking the language of his mother. Suddenly he's talking about you and us. It's me in the room and Mrs. Shappee was watching it bemused but also she realized what had been let out of the bottle and she saw what it was doing and she cut the exercise. It was a very important moment when the world came into that little classroom and I think that sort of started a trajectory of what I thought art and public appearances, what a public voice was.