Retired Judge Nathaniel Jones to be honored by NAACP for his lifetime commitment to civil rights

'You just have to keep persisting.'

CINCINNATI — Retired federal Judge Nathaniel Jones will take center stage at the NAACP Annual Convention Wednesday to accept the organization's highest honor — in the same city where he couldn’t even get a hotel room or dine in a downtown restaurant as a much younger man.

Jones' first visit here was 70 years ago when he attended the NAACP Annual Convention in 1946, decades before he became a judge in Cincinnati. The city was so segregated back then that convention delegates had to stay in private homes and have dinner at local churches.

 

He came back to Cincinnati in 1963 as a young assistant U.S. attorney to argue a case before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Jones had no trouble getting a room downtown by that time. But when he tried to get a shave in the hotel barbershop the morning before his hearing, none of the barbers would acknowledge his presence. They just stood near their chairs, drank coffee and read their newspapers while he waited.

"My first experiences in Cincinnati were not very pleasant," said Jones, who turned 90 in May.

So it would be understandable if he viewed winning the NAACP's Spingarn Medal as something of a victory lap here in Cincinnati, where the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall received the same honor in 1946. Other recipients of the award have included the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Hank Aaron, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Oprah Winfrey.

RELATED: Spingarn Medal winners since 1915

But Jones isn't gloating at all.

"It's very surreal," he said when asked about his reaction to the honor. "I haven't done anything that I consider to be that extraordinary." 

Friends and colleagues disagree.

Marian Spencer Photo by Emily Maxwell | WCPO

"I think he's well deserving," said Marian Spencer, a Cincinnati civil rights icon and a long-time friend of Jones and his late wife. "I've always felt he was a man who would go to his death having changed many things that he had to face in his own life that others will not have to change."

Jones' drive to make change started when he was a child growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, and continues to this day.

Challenging the Status Quo

Jones was born and raised in Youngstown, one of four children — two boys and two girls. When he was just 9 or 10, his mother started taking him to meetings at the segregated YMCA to hear nationally known speakers address local concerns. He would sit in the front row and listen to the speakers and then watch as his mother and other members of the ladies auxiliary poured tea and served cookies.

A Youngstown lawyer, Maynard Dickerson, took an interest in Jones and made sure he got to meet all the speakers. Dickerson later became Jones' mentor.

"I would tell my buddies about the meetings and what they talked about," Jones said. "There were occasions when I got a little older that we organized ourselves to challenge some things we didn't like."

Retired Judge Nathaniel Jones discusses his long career. Photo by Emily Maxwell | WCPO

He and his friends protested segregated theaters, swimming pools and a local amusement park.

He served in the military after high school and then attended Youngstown State University on the G.I. Bill, both as an undergraduate and for law school. There, he and a white classmate noticed that Jones' activity book was missing some of the tickets that were included in the book that belonged to the white man.

Tickets for dances and anything else of a social nature had been torn from Jones' book, leaving only tickets for sporting events behind. Jones and his white classmate complained all the way up to the university president's office before they got results.

"I was there on the GI Bill, and Uncle Sam was paying," Jones said. "Next time around, I had a full book."

A 'Great Gentleman'

Here in Cincinnati, Jones is best known for the more than two decades he spent as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. Former President Jimmy Carter nominated him to the bench, and Jones served from 1979 until he retired in 2002.

Looking back, Jones said many people considered his nomination too controversial for him to be confirmed.

After he served as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, he was assistant general counsel to former President Johnson's National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, more commonly known as the Kerner Commission. The commission report's controversial conclusion was that that racism was a root cause of the civil unrest that tore through the nation's cities in the 1960s.

Jones also worked as the NAACP's general counsel from 1969 to 1979. In that role, he tackled problems that blacks were having in the military, inequities that black students faced on college campuses, employment discrimination and school desegregation in the north.

Nathaniel Jones said he was "in awe" of the responsibility of being the NAACP's chief counsel. Photo by Emily Maxwell | WCPO

"People thought of segregated schools as limited to the south," Jones said. "But we were seeing an increased amount of racial isolation in the north."

Before long, public school integration was framed as a question of "busing," a solution that was contentious from the start.

So when Carter nominated Jones to become a federal judge in 1979, many observers figured the country's anger over busing would be his undoing. Those people were wrong.

"When I was nominated, Strom Thurmond supported me," Jones said of the late U.S. senator from South Carolina who was known for his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. "By that time, (black) people were voting in South Carolina. And Strom Thurmond could count."

Jones and his wife and their children moved to Mount Lookout. He served on the court until he retired in 2002.

Over those roughly 23 years, Jones mentored scores of young lawyers as his clerks, many of whom went on to have distinguished careers of their own, said David Pepper, a former clerk for Jones who now is the Ohio Democratic Party chairman.

David Pepper

"If you look at the people whose lives he's touched and followed their course, it's amazing," Pepper said.

Former clerks include Anthony Foxx, the U.S. Transportation Secretary, and dozens of judges, community leaders and activists, Pepper said.

"He is one of the great gentlemen you'll ever meet," Pepper said. "Even though he's done all these amazing things in his life, once you enter it, however you do it, that relationship never stops."

Preserving Freedom's Legacy

Jones' accomplishments include working in South Africa to help end apartheid in that country. The people who drafted South Africa's new constitution and laws consulted Jones, and he worked with Nelson Mandela after Mandela was released from prison after 27 years.

Locally, he was instrumental in the founding and creation of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

Jones was a co-chairman of the Freedom Center's board early on and still serves as an honorary co-chair and attends every board meeting.

"His spirit and his commitment to the whole subject for which the Freedom Center stands is distinctly rooted in its intellect and spirit," said former Procter & Gamble Co. CEO John Pepper. Pepper green-lighted P&G's involvement in the project and loaned former company executive Ed Rigaud to the effort. Rigaud became the Freedom Center's founding CEO, and Pepper and his wife have contributed millions of dollars to the center.

John Pepper

"He and I spent a lot of time together with Ed Rigaud during the development campaign," Pepper said.

As a federal judge, Jones wasn't permitted to ask for donations. So when the time came to talk money during visits with important supporters, Jones would leave the room, Rigaud said. 

"But he was definitely allowed to talk about the nature of the work of the Freedom Center," Rigaud said. "We had lots of support around that vision coming from lots of different people. But there were only a few who really lived, breathed and breathed life into the Freedom Center. And Nate was one of those."

Ed Rigaud

To honor Jones' commitment to freedom and human rights, the Freedom Center made him its 12th recipient of the International Freedom Conductor Award in May. He joined the ranks of Rosa Parks, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Lech Walesa and Mandela — all former recipients of the award.

It was another moment when Jones said he felt unworthy of the honor. But John Pepper disagreed.

"I felt that Judge Jones added a luster to the content of the group of people who received this with respect to the way he had fought for freedom in the most basic sense in the U.S. over a whole career in so many different ways," Pepper said.

Being 'A Paul Revere'

Jones' recent advocacy extends beyond remembering history.

After retiring from the federal bench in 2002, Jones began working as an attorney of counsel with Blank Rome LLP, a national law firm with offices in Cincinnati.

He also renewed his political activism. He helped campaign for David Pepper when Pepper ran unsuccessfully to become Ohio's Attorney General. He was a big supporter of President Barack Obama. And, more recently, he has campaigned for former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland in his Senate campaign and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her campaign for the presidency.

"To see in the last 10 years where we're seeing ID laws and all sorts of different attempts to make voting harder, I think he's clearly frustrated that we're going backwards," David Pepper said of Jones.

Jones said he decided to retire in 2002 because he felt jurisprudence was moving backwards. Judges appointed by former President Ronald Reagan and other conservatives were overturning important precedents that other, less conservative judges had established.

"It was very disheartening to see the changes that were taking place. And I felt that the public did not understand the connection between the changes that were taking place," Jones said. "I just felt that someone had to get up and be a Paul Revere."

Ever since he retired, Jones has been speaking out on the death penalty and on matters involving the Voting Rights Act. He feels strongly that Cincinnati and other communities must deal with the impacts of so many people going to jail and what happens to them when they return. And communities have to improve education, he said, to stop the pipeline to jails and prisons that starts when children fall woefully behind and can't catch up.

But perhaps most of all, he's focused on this presidential election and what it could mean for the country's future.

"This election is going to determine the direction of the country for the next 50 years or more in terms of social justice and economic justice," he said.

The way Jones sees it, that future is something worth fighting for — especially for anyone who remembers and fought the battles of the past.

"Institutions are subject to change if the approach is strategic and persistent. Persistence is a very important part, and change doesn't come all at one time," Jones said. "You just have to keep persisting. And that's one thing that I believe in doing."

Cincinnati, after all, has changed a lot in the 70 years between Jones' first NAACP Annual Convention here and this one. If the judge has anything to say about it, the progress here — and across the country — will continue.

Retired Judge Nathaniel Jones stands in front of a bookcase displaying photos and honors from his long career. Photo by Emily Maxwell | WCPO

For more information about the NAACP Annual Convention and the Spingarn Medal, click here.

To order tickets for the Spingarn Awards Dinner, click here.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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