Civil Rights Legend Nathaniel Jones Dead at 93

A former Cincinnati-based federal judge and civil rights advocate, Nathaniel Jones was internationally-known for his racial justice work.

click to enlarge Judge Nathaniel R. Jones - Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Judge Nathaniel R. Jones

Internationally-known civil rights advocate and Cincinnati-based former federal judge Nathaniel Jones died Jan. 26 at the age of 93.

Jones sat on the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals from 1979 to 2002 after serving as the general counsel to the NAACP during the rocky preceding decade at the height of the Civil Rights movement. 

Locally, Jones was a mentor to a number of Cincinnati political heavyweights, from Ohio Democratic Party Chair David Pepper to Mayor John Cranley to former Cincinnati City Council member and current Democracy for America CEO Yvette Simpson. 

"I’m grateful to have worked with him after my first semester of law school in his chambers, to help prepare his archives, page after page of his global impact," Simpson wrote in a Facebook post. "He mentored and advised me throughout my career, he was a father figure. I’m honored to have been shaped by him, to be a part of his legacy. The world is better because he served so selflessly to right wrongs and fight injustice whenever and wherever he could. He spoke truth to power, and he also got in the weeds and did the work."

Jones also lent his voice to local progressive causes, including opposition to the city's Article 12, which forbade city ordinances protecting LGBTQ rights. 

Born in Youngstown, Jones left to serve in the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II. He returned to his hometown after the war to attend Youngstown State University, where he joined the local youth chapter of the NAACP and completed a bachelor's and law degree. Afterward, he spent time in private practice before eventually being appointed the first African-American assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio in 1962.

Jones' career featured myriad highlights and acts of courage.

During his stint with the NAACP starting in 1969, Jones worked to desegregate public schools across the nation, leading to some harrowing experiences with racial violence. 

Later, in 1993, Jones traveled to South Africa as an observer for the country's first democratic elections.

“Nathaniel Jones was one of the greatest civil rights leaders this nation has ever known, having worked with Thurgood Marshall during the Brown v Board case, desegregating countless schools and institutions as head of the NAACP legal defense fund, to helping South Africa come out of apartheid, to ensuring individual rights as a federal judge," Cranley wrote in a statement. "To be in his presence was to be in the presence of greatness. Knowing him has been one of the greatest honors of my life. In 2001, he helped me write my first major piece of legislation, the city’s racial profiling ban—that’s the equivalent of getting hitting lessons from Hank Aaron."

Visitation for Jones will be held at Corinthian Baptist Church on Tennessee Avenue and Reading Road in Bond Hill on Wednesday, Jan. 29 from 5pm to 8pm and Thursday, Jan. 30 from 9am to 12pm.

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