Jones, Elaine Ruth

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Jones, Elaine Ruth

A leading African–American attorney, Elaine Ruth Jones has devoted her career to the cause of Civil Rights. Since 1993, she has served as director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF). Known for her eloquence and tenacity as well as for her creative approach to the cause of civil rights, Jones heads the LDF's 80-member staff while frequently speaking out on legal, social, and political issues.

When Jones was born on March 2, 1944, in Norfolk, Virginia, opportunities for blacks in her birthplace were limited. Her father was a Pullman porter who had been taught to read by her college-educated mother. Jones, her brother, and her parents felt the sting of being turned away from whites-only facilities. Yet the family believed in success through hard work and especially in education. Jones graduated third in her class from booker t. washington High School, in Norfolk, in 1961, and then attended Howard University, from which she graduated cum laude with a political science degree in 1965.

Jones served in the Peace Corps in Turkey between 1965 and 1967. She returned to the United States determined to pursue social change through the law. Particularly inspiring to her was the career of Thurgood Marshall, founder of the LDF and later a U.S. Supreme Court justice. In 1970, she became the first black woman to graduate from the University of Virginia Law School. Jones's distinction in law school earned her a lucrative offer from the New York–based law firm of Nixon, Mudge, Rose, Guthrie, and Alexander, at that time the firm that represented President richard m. nixon. At the last minute, she chose not to accept the offer; she wanted to pursue Marshall's work.

Jones joined the LDF as an attorney. As the NAACP's litigation and public education arm, the LDF provides legal assistance to African Americans, and has brought more cases before the U.S. Supreme Court than any other legal body except the solicitor general's office. Assigned to death-penalty cases, Jones represented numerous black defendants in state and federal court. Only two years into her career, she worked on the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 92 S. Ct. 2726, 33 L. Ed. 2d 346 (1972), in which the Court struck down death penalty statutes in 39 states after finding that the death penalty violated the cruel and unusual punishments Clause of the Eighth Amendment. The ruling held up hundreds of executions until states could rewrite their laws. Starting in 1975, Jones spent two years working for the federal government. As a special assistant to the U.S. secretary of transportation, she helped to formulate official policies on a broad range of transportation issues. Among other accomplishments, she helped to open the doors of the U.S. Coast Guard to women. But she longed to return to her former job at the LDF. "Once you get started doing civil rights work, it is hard to put it aside and move on to something else," she said. "I believe that is because there is still so much injustice. You see it everywhere and you want to do everything possible to stop it."

Jones returned to the LDF in 1977, to work in its Washington, D.C., office as an assistant counsel. She again litigated civil rights cases, but the new position also required her to review government actions and policies. She monitored civil rights enforcement activities of Executive Branch agencies and legislative initiatives of Congress. In 1988, she became deputy director and counsel for policy and planning, devoting herself to determining new areas in which the LDF could pursue its civil rights agenda. In 1989, Jones became the first African American to be elected to the American Bar Association's Board of Governors.

These positions gave Jones a political education that broadened her public visibility and her view of the LDF's mission. When an opening for the organization's highest position, director-counsel, appeared in 1993, she was the board of directors' obvious choice. "[She] was precisely the kind of person whom Justice Marshall no doubt envisioned to take up the leadership position," commented LDF president Robert H. Preiskel. "Elaine shared a good many of the characteristics that made him such a powerful leader."

Jones soon began pursuing a broader agenda for the LDF. She identified new civil rights issues, including environmental disparities as evidenced by the dumping of toxic waste in minority communities and the presence of dangerous lead-based paint in buildings in which black families lived and the need for health care reform. She also used the LDF's public-education function to address traditional issues, advocating continued support for Affirmative Action programs and opposing racial inequity in death-penalty cases. Jones supported the Racial Justice Act (H.R. 3315, 103d Cong., 2d Sess. [1994] §§ 601–611), legislation—ultimately stripped from President bill clinton's 1994 crime bill—that would have prohibited executions that fit a racially discriminatory pattern. In 1994, she received the Washington Bar Association's prestigious Charles Hamilton Houston Medallion of Merit, an award given to leaders who use the law for social change. In 2000, President Clinton presented her with the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award.

"We find it emotional, we find it uncomfortable, we find it hard as a nation to have a calm, rational discussion about the impact of race on institutions in our society."
—Elaine Jones

In recent years, Jones has continued her work as president and director-counsel of the LDF. She has received numerous awards and honorary degrees and is an active teacher and lecturer both in the United States and around the world. She is frequently called upon to comment regarding civil rights issues of national significance.

Further readings

Blannon, Nancy. 1995. "Affirmative Action in Action: Its Past and Its Future." Human Rights 22 (fall).

Jones, Elaine R., et al. 1994. "The Death of Fairness?" Panel discussion. Houston Law Review 31 (winter).

Kluger, Richard. 1976. Simple Justice. New York: Random House.

Orfield, Gary, Susan E. Eaton, and Elaine R. Jones. 1997. Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education. New York: New Press.

Schwartz, Bernard. 1986. Swann's Way: The School Busing Case and the Supreme Court. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Cross-references

Capital Punishment.