Nova Scotia

Burnley 'Rocky' Jones celebrated in posthumous autobiography

Rocky Jones, who fought for the rights of black Canadians from the streets of Halifax to the highest courts in the land, died in 2013. But he left behind about 90 hours of conversations recorded with the poet George Elliott Clarke and the historian James Walker.

90 hours of interviews turned into book telling life story of black activist and lawyer

A young Rocky Jones speaks his mind. (CBC)

A new book tells the life story of one of Canada's greatest civil rights leaders, Burnley "Rocky" Jones.

Jones, who fought for the rights of black Canadians from the streets of Halifax to the highest courts in the land, died in 2013. But he left behind about 90 hours of conversations recorded with the poet George Elliott Clarke and the historian James Walker.

Walker led the multi-year project to turn those tapes into Jones's posthumous autobiography, which was released last weekend. It's called Burnley "Rocky" Jones: Revolutionary

Rocky Jones's autobiography was compiled after he died by his friend James Walker. (Submitted by Fernwood Publishing)

'Historical guide' to black activism

El Jones, who served as Halifax's poet laureate from 2013 to 2015, read a poem at the launch for the new book.

She noted the 300-plus people at the launch came from his family, close friends, the legal profession, political and social activists, Mi'kmaq, black and white Nova Scotians. 

"One of the things that I think represents how Rocky was as a person is how many groups he brought together," she said. "People coming together to celebrate his life and what he stood for."

She said the book is a "historical guide" to black activism in Nova Scotia and Canada.

"He made you feel good about being black, and that's how he did so much consciousness raising," she said.

Rocky Jones was born in a black community called the Marsh near Truro, N.S., in 1941. One of his first direct experiences with anti-black racism came as a boy when the white owner of a local pool hall barred him from playing because he was black — but he was allowed to watch his white friends play.

He earned the nickname Rocky the Revolutionary in the 1960s as the RCMP monitored him and he invited Black Panther prime minister Stokely Carmichael to Halifax. 

El Jones drew inspiration from Rocky Jones. (Robert Short/CBC)

'Rocky was always down'

In later years he played a leading role in creating a program recruiting black and Mi'kmaq people at the Dalhousie Law School. He then enrolled in the program at 50, graduated as valedictorian, and went on to win a case before the Supreme Court of Canada about racial biases in judges.

"Rocky was always down. The people he was there for are the working class, people in the neighbourhood, the people in the streets, the people in prison," Jones said. "He cared deeply about black people, he cared deeply about justice, and he committed himself to that."

Rocky Jones, a fierce champion of racial equality and justice, died last night at the age of 71 2:35

El Jones, who is not related to Rocky Jones, said the blueprint he put out in the 1960s can teach organizers of modern movements like Black Lives Matter.

When she was starting out as a spoken word artist, she'd often deliver militant messages that upset her audience. She recalls seeing Rocky Jones at one such event, smiling at her and pumping his fist in the air.

"He always affirmed you, he made you feel proud of yourself as a black person. He was so proud of Nova Scotia black history and he made you feel good about doing activism," she said.

Daughter discovers dad's 'naughty' childhood

Tracy Jones Grant, Rocky Jones's oldest daughter, said reading her father's book was "bittersweet."

"It's nice to know that his legacy and his story will live on for many, many years," she said.

She told CBC's Mainstreet one thing she learned about her dad was that "he was bad!"

"He was some naughty as a kid," she laughed.

She also learned more about his activism while she was a child. "My parents worked really hard to shield us from those things," she said.

But she did run into people with racist ideas at the mainly white school where she was the only black child. Her father wanted to educate teachers and make a deep change while her mother focused on how she herself could deal with bigotry.

Teaching by doing

Her childhood home was once firebombed. Another time police raided her house and arrested her father. But the kids were kept to their innocence as best the parents could manage. She was an adult before she learned that guards protected her on her school walk as a child.

"They educated us by example. In the house, we didn't sit down and have a talk about racism and how it's going to impact you," she said.

"It's, 'Look at what we're doing, follow our lead. If something comes up, don't run from it.' That's the model he set.

"I don't think at any time in his life, in all of my 50-some years, I've ever heard or seen him talk about, 'It's about me.' It's always been about community, about others, about partnerships, about relationships."