February 6, 2020
Judge Nathaniel R. Jones: A Life of Wisdom, Courage, and Moderation
Dean Emeritus and the Wilbert and Helen Ziegler Professor of Law, University of Cincinnati College of Law
Giants do walk the earth. There are heroes among us. And, on January 26, 2020, Judge Nathaniel R. Jones, a legal giant and a hero to many died at the age of 93 after eight decades of fighting for civil rights, of fighting for justice.
Judge Jones was a direct legal descendent of Walter White, William Hastie, Thurgood Marshall, and Robert Carter. As a recipient of the highest awards given by the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, the Freedom Conductor Award, and by the NAACP, the Spingarn Medal, his name is forever linked with artists such as Marion Anderson, Duke Ellington, and Richard Wright; with historical figures such as Rosa Parks, Dorothy Height, John Lewis, and John Hope Franklin; and with friends such as Leon Higginbotham and Quincy Jones. His life and service have also been recognized by world leaders including Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. Impressive company, indeed.
As a lawyer, he served in private practice, as Assistant U.S. Attorney, as General Counsel of the NAACP, as a Supreme Court litigator, and, after 23 years on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit he was a valued Biglaw partner for two decades. His resume as a lawyer is incomparable. However, being the giant that he was even a field as capacious as law was insufficient to contain his talents and his interests. Does any reader know, for example, that he harbored a desire to captain an Ohio River coal barge? His daughter Stephanie made that happen.
Judge Jones’ life story from his Youngstown youth to the well of the United States Supreme Court and from his membership on the Kerner Commission to serving as an election observer in South Africa is told with great grace in his 2016 memoir Answering the Call: An Autobiography of Modern Struggle to End Racial Discrimination in America. Judge Jones heard the call to fight for justice when he was a 10-year-old and he never wavered, he never ignored racial injustice, he never stopped fighting against it. He was answering the call right up to his last speech on civil rights at the dedication of the Nathaniel R Jones Center on Race, Gender and Social Justice at the University of Cincinnati College of Law on November 14, 2019.
Answering the Call is required reading for anyone who wants to know about the many lives of Judge Nathaniel R. Jones; it is also required reading for anyone who wants to understand the history of civil rights over the last 80 years.
One of the lesser-known aspects of Judge Jones' career is that he was a superb teacher and scholar. His scholarship can be found in law review articles and is manifest in his many public speeches. He was a remarkable teacher in many venues. For over 30 years he served as an adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Law. He also taught at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, any number of other United States law schools, and in Cincinnati public schools. Even though he was a formidable classroom teacher, his teaching role transcended the classroom and affected every phase of his life. Just ask any of the dozens of law clerks that he has shepherded throughout his 23 years on the bench. Those clerks have become leaders in private practice, law professors, cabinets secretaries, and outstanding public servants.
Still, his teaching reached beyond his chambers and beyond the court room. He was unstinting in his community service. As a member of corporate and nonprofit boards his teaching continued. Indeed, as a board member he might best be characterized as a CCO – chief conscience officer. His participation in board meetings was always germane and on matters of justice and civil rights indispensable.
What qualities, gave Nathaniel R. Jones such stature as a civil rights voice and leader and as a citizen committed to justice?
Judge Jones possessed an abundance of the virtues needed to live an outstanding life; to live the life of a hero. He possessed wisdom; he possessed a piercing intellect. Judge Jones was a principal actor in many of the key civil rights activities over the last half-century and more. He knew everyone. He knew his history, his politics, his society, and his community. He remembered everything. And, he was able to bring all of that intellect and knowledge and all of those experiences together to confront racial discrimination in the United States and in other parts of the world.
He possessed the courage to keep his eyes open and speak his mind when confronted with injustice and he had an extraordinary capacity to focus. He never wavered in his commitment to civil rights; he never lost sight of the need for constant awareness of civil rights violations and the need to recognize them where they existed. No forum was inappropriate for him to acknowledge racial bigotry and discrimination. No audience could prevent him from talking about his passion.
He also possessed moderation. Politics of any kind can be intense and contentious. Racial politics can draw bloodshed and has been fatal. In the face of such contention his voice was always steady and clear; forceful and persuasive; and never shrill, never false, never expedient. He spoke his mind in the world with dignity, diplomacy, and deep humanity.
In Judge Nathaniel R. Jones, the virtues of wisdom, courage, and moderation that he possessed in such abundance contributed to and advanced the cause of justice for all of us.