September is a solemn month for the Birmingham civil rights movement. On Sept. 15, 1963, four little girls were killed in the horrific 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. This year, local activist Frank Matthews and several others plan to honor not only the memory of the girls but also those who fight and march for a purpose.
“Activists are not made, they are born,” Matthews said. “In the 16th Street bombing, those girls were not activists—they were just four little girls—but the bombing was in retaliation of the activists.”
Matthews is currently preparing for the Sept. 15 commemoration with a Stomp the Vote event, which will include a plea for President Barack Obama to pardon Larry Langford, the former Birmingham mayor and Jefferson County Commission president who was convicted in 2009 of 60 counts of bribery, money laundering, and other charges.
“Larry Langford was the ultimate activist,” Matthews said. “He could be an activist, or he could act up.”
Langford’s reporting while he worked for WBRC-TV (channel 6) news is what made him revolutionary, according to Matthews, who recalled the time Langford went to a school board meeting with an Uzi submachine gun.
“[He showed up there] after the release of a study showing what Uzis do to the community,” Matthews said. “Most activists are never elected as mayors. Langford was.”
For Stomp the Vote, a play on the phrase “Stomp Trump,” Matthews has invited all democratic candidates to gather at Homestyle Kitchen on Graymont Ave. During the event, 53 balloons will be released at the monument for the little girls; a video of Langford’s early speeches will be played; and the movie “Glory,” starring Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington, will be shown.
Matthews has been a polarizing figure, but he is easily recognized as a participant at various events in and around the community—often strapped with a bullhorn and various signs.
“I never need anyone to protest with me,” he said. “I am the protest. If I have to stand in front of your job, your car, your house, I will if necessary.”
Matthews, 60, is originally from Cleveland, Ohio. As a teenager, he had been arrested more than 30 times. While in jail, he found God, he says.
“A guy tore up a Bible one evening, and while we were on the yard, I prayed that God would send lightning and knock one of the guards off the tower. As soon as I said that, lightning came in and struck the guy who tore up the Bible,” Matthews recalled. “I went over to him, and this guy’s face had changed. I kid you not, his face became my face, and I saw my life there, dying.”
That’s when God spoke to him: “He said ‘Frank Matthews, as I allowed the angel of death to wipe out the Egyptians, I allowed this man’s life to be taken that you might live.’ I started ministering, I was released from jail, and I began ministering in different areas in Birmingham,” where he moved after marrying a woman from the city.
As soon as he arrived in the Magic City, he began an anti-gang ministry.
“In 1990 there were six gang-related killings in Metropolitan Gardens, and I went down there to talk to the lead gang members,” said Matthews, who is a former gang member. “I pulled out my Bible, and I told [one of the leaders], ‘I just got out of prison, and I want to talk to you guys because I love you.’ He went and called someone and came back and said I was alright. I ended up baptizing 12 of the gang members.”
Matthews also served as pastor of the Hallelujah Center, a Church of God in Christ congregation. Though he no longer pastors there, he is still an elder.
In addition to his ministerial work, Matthews founded the Outcast Voter’s League in 1999 to deal with issues relating to the Cahaba River after the Cahaba River Society wanted to block developments related to Barber’s Motor Speedway. Matthews’s group branched out to address other issues, as well, and scored a number of victories, including getting the Birmingham City Council to make Trayvon Martin a citizen of Birmingham posthumously.
“No other city has done that, and I was so proud of that,” Matthews said.
Martin was the 17-year-old fatally shot by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, in Florida.
Activism gave Matthews the opportunity to work with several elected officials. He was a liaison for the Richard Arrington administration, and he played a key role in the successful mayoral campaign of Langford, who appointed Matthews to the Mayor’s Office of Community Affairs (MOCA).
During his time at City Hall, Matthews said he learned some valuable lessons.
“I was activist when I went inside, and I was so critical of everything administrations did,” he said. “But once I got on the inside and knew people on all floors of City Hall, I literally apologized to various people because I had criticized them so badly.”
Matthews had political aspirations of his own and ran for Birmingham mayor, state representative, and Birmingham city council. Even though he did not win any of those races, he was still proud that he was able to run, especially for city council.
“That was major for a person who had been arrested more than 30 times to get in a runoff … and be shy of about 200 votes,” Matthews said. “It was me coming a long way from where I was.”