Ask Judge Nathaniel R. Jones for a pivotal life moment from his 90 years, and the Youngstown son shares enough events to fill several lifetimes.
He shares them with a precision and cadence that makes you feel you are walking with him.
It’s been an emotional journey.
As a 12-year-old in the 1930s, he learned his church elders were meeting to remove the pastor. Without telling his parents, he walked to the church that day and sat in the front row for the meeting. He eventually took the floor and chastised the elders for their embarrassing display.
As a Youngstown teen in America’s Jim Crow era of the 1940s, he went to swim at whites-only pools knowing he’d be attacked for trying to violate the city’s segregation policies.
As a student at Youngstown College after World War II, he and a white friend demanded a meeting with the campus president, Howard Jones, over the exclusion of black students from some student activities. They discovered the practice by comparing each other’s activity tickets: There were more events for the white friend.
Caught a bit off guard, the president promised the matter would be addressed. The following fall, the student activities tickets were equal for black and white students.
At the height of South African apartheid segregation in the 1980s, Jones was there as part of an international team trying to ensure fair criminal proceedings for blacks being tried for treason and terrorism in the segregated country.
While there, he met four grieving widows at a cemetery. They could not believe the black man before them was a judge. They asked what he could do about their husbands’ deaths.
He said he could do nothing for them legally. Instead, he told them a story; it was the story of America – slavery, the Civil War, freedom, segregation, protests, court fights, etc. He closed it with this promise to them:
“You, too, will have your freedom. I can’t tell you when. But as it happened in America, it will happen here.”
Such life moments are captured in Jones’ autobiography, “Answering The Call,” released this spring.
In July, his life’s accomplishments earned him the same honor as Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King Jr., Oprah Winfrey and Alex Haley when he was presented the Spingarn Medal by the national NAACP.
Those life moments will come back home to Youngstown on Oct. 5 when he will be honored with the inaugural Simeon Booker Award for Courage.
This is the first year for the award, created as part of the sixth annual Ohio Nonviolence Week, a five-day celebration sponsored by John and Denise DeBartolo York and the DeBartolo Corp.
Simeon Booker, now 98 and living in Washington, D.C., is another Youngstown son whose tough journalism in the 1950s and 1960s is credited with galvanizing the American civil-rights movement. Booker was the reporter who wrote of the horrific 1955 Emmett Till murder, the 1961 Freedom Ride beatings and other violent acts on America’s way to a more equal society.
Judge Jones – a lifelong Booker friend – goes even further about Booker’s American impact.
“The miracle that it was for Barack Obama to get elected, [historians] will look back for what elements came together to make this possible,” he said. “They’ll conclude Simeon Booker put together a web of knowledge that spurred candidates to believe that they could win.
“And he spurred in the minds of others that a person of color could win,” said Jones.
For decades, Booker wrote a column in Jet and Ebony magazines. While these national publications were largely directed at the African-American audience, Booker’s work was consumed by many in the D.C. elite due to its political and activist nature.
“[Booker’s reporting] created a legacy that destroyed the notion that [black office holders] was impossible,” Judge Jones said. “The sense of the impossible had been emasculated. That can be attributed to Simeon.”
Judge Jones believes his own appointment to U.S. District Court by former President Jimmy Carter came because of the Booker influence. The judge, who went from a U.S. attorney for Ohio to chief counsel of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, often found his name or face in Booker’s national column in the 1960s and 1970s.
By the time it came for a federal judge appointment, Judge Jones’ profile had grown in the nation’s capital.
So it was that Booker and Jones – two South Side Youngstown kids, acquaintances since childhood, members of Third Baptist Church and the black-only YMCA founded by Booker’s father – collaborated for decades on the global stage of D.C. to tackle the murky, nasty American legacy of slavery and degradation.
For Judge Jones, it’s a life that almost never was.
While in law school, he came down with a strain of tuberculosis that then was 90 percent fatal. New drugs had just come on the market, and he pulled through. Deemed a miracle recovery, he said, doctors from around the country studied his case and treatment.
“I was spared for a reason,” he said. “That reason was to do good. My blessings created a situation that I shall be forever obligated to try to do positive things.”
He never looked back.
With two degrees from Youngstown College by 1955, he first went to work for the city of Youngstown’s Fair Employment Office. He launched a private law practice for just a bit in 1959 before a national event detoured him and changed his life.
John F. Kennedy had just been elected president, and his administration began appointing black leaders to federal positions.
Judge Jones accepted an invite to be appointed the first black U.S. attorney for northern Ohio.
President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him to a federal commission on Civil Rights in 1967. In 1969, he became chief counsel for the NAACP. He set out on a national mission to correct the racial wrongs in an America that was more than 100 years removed from slavery – school desegregation, affirmative action, military discrimination and more.
In 1979, President Carter named him to the 6th U.S. Court of Appeals based in Cincinnati. He retired in 2002, but has remained employed through today with the law firm of Blank Rome in Cincinnati.
Along the way, his family life thrived, too. He and his late wife, Lillian, made a great life in Cincinnati where she was named “Woman of the Year.” Their children have made great careers of their own. Jones turned 90 in May.
And he is not finished.
“People teased when I reached 90 asking what kind of vitamins I was taking. I’ve just been blessed. So long as I can function and do things, I’ll do them. And when that time comes that I can’t, I’ll accept the judgment.”
There is already judgment from others, and it comes easily.
“He is one of the classiest and most accomplished gentlemen ever to come out of Youngstown,” said U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Howland, D-13th. “We could rave about his intellect. But what is most impressive is that he always remembered where he came from and the people who helped him achieve his dreams.”
Event host DeBartolo York has been a longtime Judge Jones’ fan.
“We are so lucky and honored to have such an upstanding courageous civil- rights judge in our area,” she said.
In his review of Judge Jones’ book, Bryan Stevenson of New York University Law School and the current torch bearer of global civil- rights challenges offered this assessment:
“Racial justice is achieved when dedicated people do difficult and at times daunting work with little support or acknowledgment. No one understands that better than the legendary Judge Jones.”
As Booker helped inspire Judge Jones in his pursuits, Booker said the judge’s life and story will do the same for more generations.
“Judge Jones is one of the brilliant legal minds that guided the civil rights movement through a series of major victories, some of which are still under attack today. From his youth in Youngstown, Ohio, through his distinguished career as a lawyer and jurist, he opposed racial discrimination in all of its ugly forms. His story will inspire many others for generations to come.”
Judge Jones is not done.
On any normal day, he is in his Cincinnati office by 10 a.m. and leaves after dinner time. His summer work and book schedule have had him dotting America. It’s an America he’s worried about, though – particularly this national election.
He doesn’t say certain names specifically. That’s the gentleman in him that has opened doors across the world. But it’s clear his meaning.
“If we don’t get a better sense of history – what happened and how – so the public can make proper policy decisions, we will go backward. We will be susceptible to misinformation, demagoguery and political opportunists. You’ll find a generation of people acting against their own best interests,” he said.
He becomes his least gentlemanly and his most irate when assessing what has become of Washington during the Obama administration. Even with his outrage, his tone is calm and his words are well-chosen – cutting like a knife in slow motion.
“Obama’s critics condemn the fact he’s a graduate of Harvard. They smear that he was not an American. Here’s an American whose done everything that the American dream seeks to encourage – only to be demeaned by a mentality that disregards those gifts. That’s because of one thing,” Jones said. “Race.”
He fears the degrading tone toward Obama will discourage others of color from seeking office. It is in that fear, he finds his last pursuit in life: respect.
“We have to elevate the word ‘respect,’” he said.
“We have to regard respect as a noble goal. Respect for differences; respect for views that we don’t necessarily share; for humanity; for working to relieve pain of all kinds. I want to see respect become respectable.”
At Wick Avenue and Commerce Street is a federal courthouse with his name on it.
His name adorns a legal organization in Youngstown.
He has almost 20 honorary degrees and too many awards to list. More honors will carry his name in years to come.
For all that has been great about his path in life and the crusades he’s led, the discussion of his legacy brings a thoughtful pause.
The time he takes to form his answer is much longer than it took to ask “How do you want to be remembered?”
He leans forward a bit in his chair.
His hands clasp in a prayer-like fashion around the middle of his face. His index fingers stroke up and down the side of his nose. His eyes lock onto the floor as if he is watching 90 years scroll in front of him on The History Channel.
Church lectures as a boy. Swimming pool protests.
Fights. YSU segregation. The 1960s America.
Detroit desegregation. Affirmative action.
Nelson Mandela. America’s first black president.
Children. Grandchildren. Hollywood friends. Presidential friends.
Judge Jones sits silent for 45 seconds. It feels like five minutes.
He leans back again, finally at ease.
He speaks quietly but unflinchingly.
“I would like to be thought of and have my name stir this thought: One need not be perfect in order to be good.
“I have not lived a perfect life. But I have tried to be good. If those efforts in goodness have brought an improvement in the human condition, I think that my living has not been in vain.”
Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at email@example.com. He blogs, too, on vindy.com. Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.