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    Mattie Jones didn’t expect things to go smoothly. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, raised in Louisville, Kentucky, and living south of Jackson, Mississippi, she knew the algorithm of the 1960s, the South, her blackness. Her confident stride into the polling site would not be welcome. 

    The year was 1961 or ’62, best Jones can remember. Her husband, Turner Harris Jones, dropped her off and parked their station wagon down the road, close enough that he never lost sight of the building. Just in case. Who knew what sort of anger that strong will of hers might crack open? Mattie, who was in her late 20s and wearing jeans and a checkered shirt, entered through the back door, the “colored” entrance. 

    She and her husband had reason to worry for her safety. Jones was involved with the local chapter of the NAACP and was an ally of Medgar Evers, the young civil-rights activist who, in 1963, would be murdered at age 37 by a white supremacist angry over Evers’ work to integrate Mississippi schools. 

    A sheriff’s deputy stopped Jones. Tall, 40-something, a brick of a human with a cowboy hat and a deep Mississippi drawl — that’s the memory that lingers nearly 60 years later. “Very intimidating,” she recalls. “If I wasn’t such a determined person, I would’ve looked at him and turned around.” She remembers their back-and-forth. 

    Deputy: What do you want, girl?

    Jones: I came to vote.

    Deputy: What about your poll tax?

    Jones: I paid it.

    He handed her a literacy test. She answered all the questions. She’s sure she did well. He looked it over.

    Deputy: You got to take this other test. Do you know the song, our song?

    Jones: The national anthem? You want me to sing that?

    Deputy: If you know it, girl.

    Mattie Jones sang. She sang in that rich voice of hers that eases and presses through freedom songs to this day. She sang clearly, buttoning every patriotic word and note into place. 

    Deputy: That’s wrong. That’s not the right tune. You didn’t pass. You can’t vote.

    Jones could’ve predicted his reaction. Still, she stiffened, tense and defiant.

    Deputy: You better get on outta here, girl. 

    Jones: I tell you what: I know that wasn’t the wrong tune, because I know I can sing. 

    She walked back to her husband waiting in the car, told him what happened. Then the two of them sat for a while, waiting out anyone itching to follow the courageous black couple home.

    Brianna Harlan first heard this story last fall. Mattie Jones is her grandmother, affectionately known as “Nana.” Harlan, a 27-year-old artist currently living in Brooklyn, knew of her grandmother’s deep involvement in the civil-rights movement in Kentucky, earning Jones a place in the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame. Harlan knew that the 87-year-old matriarch of her family had attended meetings with Martin Luther King Jr. in the ’60s and marched and sang at countless protests that appealed for equity in education, housing and labor practices. She knew her grandmother had participated in a hunger strike in Frankfort during the fair-housing movement and that she’d traveled to protest in Georgia, a place so steeped in racial tension that Jones and other activists had to be protected by the National Guard. Harlan even knew that her grandma had been arrested 30-plus times due to her social-justice work. 

    But this voting story was new to her. 

    Harlan, who merges her art with social advocacy and action, had been wanting to submit a piece for an upcoming Louisville Visual Art exhibition titled “BallotBox.” She now had her inspiration. The show, in Metro Hall downtown from mid-March to December, will reflect upon the power of voting, those who fought to achieve that right, and the many who still can’t fully participate. 

    Skylar Smith, a Louisville artist, educator and curator, says 2020 seemed like the perfect time to explore voting rights through art. Not only is there a (what will surely be contentious, probably nasty) presidential election, but 2020 marks the centennial of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, and the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a measure that aimed to abolish barriers designed to prevent Black people from voting. Barriers like requiring the recitation of the Constitution or demanding the singing of the national anthem, only to declare the attempts insufficient. 

    Smith conceived “BallotBox” several months ago and, with the help of a Kentucky Foundation for Women grant, put out a call for artists who would represent different races, ages and genders. Harlan is one of two New York-based artists and three Kentucky artists selected to complete original work for the show. New Albany artist Penny Sisto is contributing a piece titled Choice Ballot ’68, a tapestry that looks at the volatile election of 1968 and how it relates to modern times. Smith wants to hang photographic portraits of prominent national and local voting-rights activists.

    “BallotBox” artists are creating a range of pieces, including large painted maps that will explore redistricting as a tool to manipulate power across the country and in Kentucky. One piece highlights the disenfranchisement of former felons, and a series of paintings focuses on the African-American voting experience through three generations. A video installment will showcase the vitriol of political ads — and how when the name and affiliation of the politician is stripped from the ad, they’re all eerily similar. “For me, a successful artwork is something that makes me see the world differently,” Smith says. “That would be my hope — that people seeing the show will see things differently and think about the role they play as a citizen.” 

    Harlan’s piece, You Sang Off Key, is a set of three 4½ -foot-long velvet banners that tell the story of Jones’ attempt to vote in Mississippi. Accompanying the banners will be a decommissioned ballot box that Harlan found on eBay and wrapped in chains. She’s also including a recent Courier-Journal article about Jones receiving the city’s 2020 Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Award. 

    Harlan’s banners and a few other pieces from “BallotBox” will travel to library branches throughout the year in an effort to expose as many Louisvillians as possible to the work. Smith is also planning special events to coincide with the show and has placed “BallotBox” on this summer’s Fund for the Arts Cultural Pass, in hopes that kids and teens will be encouraged to visit Metro Hall, a place known more as a stale government habitat than a home for political art. 

    Mattie Jones helped raise Harlan and her brother. When they were babies, Jones cradled them in her arms and swapped lullabies for freedom songs to lull them to sleep. When they came home from school singing, “I’m proud to be an American,” from the Lee Greenwood song “God Bless the U.S.A,” Jones flinched. “She’s like, ‘We don’t sing that song,’” Harlan recalls, adding that Jones then explained the “history and legacy of our people” in this country. It’s clear Harlan has deep admiration for Jones, a woman who often declares, “As long as I feel like we’re not free, I’ll keep on until God calls me home.” And Jones, who worked alongside the likes of MLK and Angela Davis, proudly speaks of her decades “doing the work.” But when asked about being a part of “BallotBox,” the pride isn’t just in her words; it swells and transforms her whole face. She pauses, her eyes smile, her mouth grins. “To work with Brianna, you know, that’s an honor,” she says. 


    This originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photo by Mickie Winters,

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