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Nathaniel R. Jones, rights lawyer and federal judge, dies at 93

Nathaniel R. Jones, a former chief legal spokesman for the civil rights movement and later a federal appeals court judge who devoted his long career to eradicating the legacy of slavery endured by his own family, died Jan. 26.
Nathaniel R. Jones, a former chief legal spokesman for the civil rights movement and later a federal appeals court judge who devoted his long career to eradicating the legacy of slavery endured by his own family, died Jan. 26.Librado Romero/New York Times/FILE 1971

NEW YORK — Nathaniel R. Jones, a former chief legal spokesman for the civil rights movement and later a federal appeals court judge who devoted his long career to eradicating the legacy of slavery endured by his own family, died on Jan. 26 at his home in Cincinnati. He was 93.

Stephanie Jones, his daughter, said the cause was congestive heart failure.

As the general counsel of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the 1970s, Mr. Jones revealed unwelcome truths by challenging school segregation in the North and racial bias in the military justice system, in which, among other things, Black defendants had complained of being unable to trust white lawyers. He was also a strong defender of affirmative action programs and other measures to address historic discrimination.

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In 1976, Mr. Jones helped persuade Alabama officials, including Gov. George C. Wallace, to pardon Clarence Norris, the last surviving member of the Scottsboro Boys, the nine Black teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women aboard a train near Scottsboro, Ala., in 1931.

A decade later, Mr. Jones was arrested in South Africa for protesting the country’s apartheid policies. He later helped draft the constitution that ended that country’s system of legal racial segregation and advised emerging African nations in designing judicial systems.

In “Answering the Call: An Autobiography of the Modern Struggle to End Racial Discrimination in America” (2016), Mr. Jones acknowledged the civil rights gains that had been achieved in the United States in the more than 60 years since, as a college student, he sued an Ohio restaurant that refused to serve him because he was Black. But he cautioned that it was “no time for celebration.”

“Strong and unrelenting efforts have been unleashed,” he wrote, “to place the nation once again under what NAACP leader Roy Wilkins once described as the ‘smothering blanket’ of states’ rights.”

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His invitation to the White House in March 1979 for the 25th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education school integration decision turned into a personal celebration as well: President Jimmy Carter named him to the 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals, in Cincinnati. He retired from the bench in 2002.

In his book, Mr. Jones recalled being struck that his fellow judges had been “numb to the fact that the institutions that govern people’s lives are shaped by subjective factors tinged with racial and class stereotypes.”

“Even rarer,” he wrote, “were judges capable of rising above their own prior social and economic conditioning to apply principles of law in a neutral fashion.”

Nathaniel Raphael Jones was born on May 13, 1926, in Youngstown, Ohio. His parents had moved there from Virginia farm country a few years before to find better jobs and to send their children to racially integrated schools. His maternal great-grandparents and paternal grandparents were born into slavery.

His father, Nathaniel Bacon Jones, was a laborer in a steel mill. Laid off during the Depression, he took jobs as a window washer and janitor.

But the family still depended on relief, even as his mother, Lillian Isabelle (Brown) Jones, held a series of low-paying jobs: housemaid, laundress, ladies’ restroom attendant in a theater. She was eventually hired as the subscription manager for a Black weekly newspaper founded by J. Maynard Dickerson, a civil rights lawyer and local NAACP leader who would become young Nate Jones’ mentor.

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After serving in the Army Air Forces at the end of Word War II, Mr. Jones enrolled in Youngstown College in his hometown. When white employees of DuRell’s Restaurant in suburban Austintown, Ohio, refused to serve him and a friend dinner in 1948 because of their race, he sued.

“‘The statute calls for judgment up to $400,’ DuRell’s lawyer wrote,” Mr. Jones recalled in “Answering the Call.” “‘If you make a demand for $300 or $350 we could probably avoid a trial.’ We settled the case for $300. After the attorney fees, only a little money was left, but I had made my point.”

A lawyer retained to defend the restaurant owner, Mr. Jones said, turned out to be the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Ohio.

Attending classes on the GI Bill, Mr. Jones graduated from Youngstown College with a bachelor’s degree in 1951 and earned a law degree from Youngstown University. (The two institutions are now collectively known as Youngstown State University.)

During the Kennedy administration, Mr. Jones was the first Black person to be named assistant US attorney for the Northern District of Ohio. Under President Lyndon Johnson, he was assistant general counsel to the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, which famously concluded in its report, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”

Roy Wilkins, the NAACP’s executive director, named Mr. Jones general counsel in 1969; he held the job for 10 years. After convincing the federal courts that separate but supposedly equal public schools were illegal and challenging racially segregated systems in the South, the NAACP began to file suits that exposed similar disparities in Northern cities.

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In 1971, a federal judge found that Detroit’s schools had been deliberately segregated. But the US Supreme Court later all but banned the busing of children between mostly Black urban districts and mostly white suburban ones to achieve integration.

“The court has said to Black people: ‘You have rights, but you don’t have a remedy,’” Mr. Jones said at the time.

He married Jean Graham Jones, a niece of W.E.B. Du Bois, a founder of the NAACP, in 1958; she died the next year. His marriage to Jean Velez in 1964 ended in divorce in 1974. He married Lillian Hawthorne in 1975. She died in 2011.

In addition to his daughter, Stephanie, from his first marriage, he is survived by a stepdaughter, Pamela Velez, from his marriage to Velez; three stepsons, Marc, Rick and William Hawthorne; a sister, Allie Jean Wooten; and eight grandchildren.

Mr. Jones held to a simple but powerful credo. As he told The Cincinnati Enquirer in 2012, “The key to prevailing as a minority in a segregated, oppressive society is to not let the prevailing stereotypes define who you are.”