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After 23 years as a judge on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, Nathaniel Jones’s black robe was starting to feel like a straightjacket-one that kept him from speaking his mind about race in the United States. So, in 2002, the former general counsel of the NAACP left the bench and regained his voice. “With regard to our understanding of our racial past, there is a tremendous void,” he says. “I can draw upon my experience as a civil rights lawyer and a judge to help the public come to a better understanding of that history.” Jones, 81, started speaking out early, as a teenager in Youngstown, Ohio. His mentor, local NAACP head J. Maynard Dickerson, introduced him to black leaders including Thurgood Marshall, then the chief attorney for the NAACP. They inspired him to challenge segregation at area roller-skating rinks and swimming pools and, eventually, to go to college and law school at Youngstown State University. After graduating in 1956, Jones worked as a city fair employment director, private practitioner, and assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio. In 1967 he was named assistant general counsel to the Kerner Commission, which studied race relations in the U.S. Two years later, NAACP director Roy Wilkins, a commission member, asked Jones to become the association’s general counsel. During his ten years at the NAACP, Jones sought to prove that segregation in northern schools was systematic and intentional. Jones brought desegregation cases on behalf of students in Columbus and Dayton, and he shaped litigation strategy for defending a Detroit plan to integrate urban and suburban school districts in Milliken v. Bradley, a case he argued and lost before the U.S. Supreme Court. Jones also inherited the so-called Mississippi Boycott case, a decadelong endeavor begun in 1969 when white merchants sued the NAACP for losses they suffered when blacks boycotted their stores. A defeat could have bankrupted the NAACP; Jones raised the $1.5 million bond a Mississippi judge said the organization needed to file an appeal. (It was later reduced to $100,000.) In 1979, President Jimmy Carter appointed Jones to an appellate judgeship. Six years later Jones took his expertise in civil rights law to South Africa, where he observed the 1985 treason trial of 16 black men. During that trip, Jones was arrested and detained for four hours for violating apartheid laws, but eventually returned to observe the country’s first all-race elections in 1994. These days, Jones’s mission is to explain the present effects of the nation’s racial past. He testified against John Roberts, Jr.’s confirmation as chief justice, arguing that Roberts had questioned whether remedies aimed at “eradicating the vestiges of slavery” were legal or necessary. Jones sits on the board of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati and is chief diversity officer at Blank Rome, where he is senior counsel in the Cincinnati office. He’s also writing a book about his life in the civil rights movement. “I get up every day,” Jones says, “and there are so many things to be done.” Back to Main Story

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