Review: Answering the Call

Answering the Call

Answering the CallNathaniel R. Jones. New York: The New Press, 2016.

Summary: The memoir of Judge Nathaniel Jones, from his early civil rights efforts to his work as general counsel of the NAACP, and then service as a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

In 1909, sixty black and white citizens who were fighting for the civil rights of blacks issued “The Call” for others to join the long struggle for civil rights. This led to the formation of the NAACP. One of those who responded to The Call was a black attorney and publisher in Youngstown, Ohio by the name of J. Maynard Dickerson, who eventually served as a Youngstown city prosecutor in 1943 and served as an early organizer of the NAACP’s efforts in Youngstown. Eventually, he employed Lillian Jones, the wife (eventually divorced) of a black mill worker. Her son Nathaniel began writing sports columns for Dickerson’s paper, The Buckeye Review, and Dickerson took an interest in then boy, from insisting on precision of writing and speech, to how he dressed and comported himself. He took him along with him as various national NAACP leaders spoke in Youngstown.

This book is a memoir of that boy, Nathaniel R. Jones who went from early efforts to protest a local segregated roller skating arena, and a local restaurant, to work his way through law school. He came to the attention of Robert F. Kennedy in 1961 and was named an Assistant U.S. Attorney. In 1963, he was named Assistant General Counsel to the President on President Johnson’s Kerner Commission on Civil Disorders. His understanding of the root causes of racial unrest ultimately led to his being named general counsel for the NAACP, coordinating legal cases challenging school segregation in the north, segregation in the military, and notably, securing the pardon of one of the wrongly accused Scottsboro Boys, the last living survivor. Fulfilling a promise to name black judges to the Federal bench, President Jimmy Carter nominated Jones for a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, seated in Cincinnati. Retiring from the bench in 2002, he played an important role in the establishment of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, and an outspoken advocate for preserving the legal freedoms he and his predecessors in the NAACP fought so hard to secure.

This last is a major theme of the book. Influenced by his mentor, Jones recognized the critical importance of securing legal decisions to enforce the provisions of the Constitution and civil rights laws. He contends that laws are not enough. Nor are protests enough. He takes us through the careful, meticulous legal research and strategies employed by the NAACP resulting in landmark major decisions desegregating schools, upholding voting rights, and employment law. On the bench, he sought to educate his fellow justices of the experience of blacks in society, and the challenges black attorneys faced in the legal community. He also makes stinging remarks regarding the jurisprudence of Justice Clarence Thomas, which opposed many previous rulings and supported a reversion to “states rights” that upheld a separate but equal doctrine. The book concludes on a hopeful note during the presidency of Barack Obama, albeit one calling for unrelenting legal vigilance to prevent the erosion of civil rights so hard won.

A lesser theme, but one running through the book was the power of a mentor. Toward the end of the book, he recounts his relationship with a high school student:

I invited Raymon to accompany me to the University of Dayton Law School’s hooding ceremony, where I was to deliver the commencement speech. When I picked him up for the event, he emerged handsomely dressed in a new suit, with a tie in hand. He said, Judge, would you help me with my tie? I don’t know how.” I readily agreed and there on the street corner moved behind him in order to begin the process. As I began to perfect the knot, my mind went back over fifty years to the moment when Dickerson, this distinguished lawyer, performed the same act for me, a teenager.”

Judge Jones died this year at the age of 93. A Federal courthouse in Youngstown bears his name. He lived a life of unrelenting pursuit of The Call, fulfilling the promise his mentor saw in him. The memoir reflects the careful writing of a lawyer and a deeply abiding passion for justice. Through this work, his life can continue to be a model of the persisting, relentless pursuit of justice accomplished not through louder voices but better arguments. It is a story that can speak to anyone black or white who cares about a more just society, as did the collection of sixty black and white leaders who first issued The Call.

 

 

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Honorable Nathaniel R. Jones

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Nathaniel R. Jones, by Jay Godwin for the LBJ Library / Public domain

He grew up in Smoky Hollow. His father worked in the mills and later did janitorial work. His mother took in laundry. As a high school youth, he wrote for a local newspaper and organized a boycott of a segregated roller skating rink. He rose from working class beginnings to become a judge in the second highest court in the land as a justice on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth District. The new Federal Building and Courthouse in downtown Youngstown bears his name. Nathaniel R. Jones.

Nathaniel Raphael Jones was born in Youngstown on May 13, 1926 to Nathaniel Bacon Jones and Lillian Isabelle (Brown) Jones. After his father was laid off from his work in the mills during the depression, he washed windows and did janitorial work in local theaters, often taking Nathaniel along. His mother eventually became the subscription manager of The Buckeye Review, the local black newspaper. Publisher and lawyer J. Maynard Dickerson took young Nathaniel under his wing, allowing him to write a sports column in the paper.

As a high school student, he was active in the NAACP youth council, organizing a successful boycott of a roller skating link that allowed blacks to skate only on Monday nights. After serving in the Army Air Force, he went to a restaurant by the name of DuRell’s in the Youngstown area that refused to serve him. He filed suit against them, winning a judgment that did little more than pay his attorney’s fees. But he made a point. So began a career of pursuing civil rights for blacks.

He went to Youngstown College, and then received a law degree from Youngstown University, graduating in 1956 with his law degree. He set up a private practice, until named by Attorney General Robert Kennedy as Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio in Cleveland in 1961. He was the first black to serve in the district in this position. In 1967 he was named Assistant General Counsel to the President on President Johnson’s Kerner Commission on Civil Disorders.

After briefly returning to private practice, in 1969 he agreed to serve as general counsel for the national NAACP. At a recognition banquet hosted by the Youngstown NAACP the following year, he described the situation of blacks in the U.S. in these terms: “We still live in the basement of the great society. We must keep plodding until we get what we are striving for.” In his role as general counsel he strove to change that situation, directing all litigation for the NAACP. He argued cases challenging school segregation in the North and against racial bias in the military. He persuaded Governor George Wallace to pardon Clarence Norris, the one surviving member of the Scottsboro Boys, wrongly accused of the rape of a white woman in 1951.

His fight against racial injustice was fought not only in the courts of the United States. In the 1980’s, he was arrested in South Africa for protesting the nation’s apartheid policies. Later, he helped in the drafting of a new South African constitution, ending apartheid. He also consulted with other African countries on setting up their judicial systems.

On August 28, 1979 President Jimmy Carter nominated Nathaniel R. Jones to the to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. He assumed senior status in 1995 and retired on March 30, 2002. During his term on the bench, he taught at the University of Cincinnati law school and at Harvard Law School. On May 6, 2003, the second federal courthouse established in Youngstown was named in his honor.

After retirement from the court, he became Senior Counsel for Blank Rome LLP and co-chairman of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. He wrote a memoir, published in 2016: ”Answering the Call: An Autobiography of the Modern Struggle to End Racial Discrimination in America.” That same year, he received the NAACP’s Spingarn Award, their highest award, recognizing outstanding achievement by an African-American.

Nathaniel R. Jones died of congestive heart failure at age 93 on January 26, 2020. He was one of the most distinquished figures to rise from working class beginnings in Youngstown. His comments to the Cincinnati Enquirer may give us a clue to his distinction. He said, “The key to prevailing as a minority in a segregated, oppressive society is to not let the prevailing stereotypes define who you are.”

He prevailed.

[Special thanks to Nick Manolukas for suggesting this article]