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Prominent Civil Rights Lawyer Elaine R. Jones ’70 to Give Commencement Address

Elaine Jones
Jones was admitted as one of only seven women and two African-Americans in the class of 1970. “They took a chance on me, so I took a chance on them,” she said.

Elaine R. Jones '70, President and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) and the first African-American woman to graduate from the Law School, will give the commencement address to the Law School Class of 2004.

Jones, who announced in January that she was retiring from the LDF effective May 1, has worked for the LDF for all but two years of her career, when she served as a special assistant to the Secretary of Transportation in the Ford Administration. Jones turned down an offer from a private Wall Street firm to work for the LDF, where her first assignments involved litigating death-penalty cases in the Deep South. Just two years out of law school she was counsel of record in Furman v. Georgia, the landmark case in which the Supreme Court struck down death penalty statutes in 37 states, a decision that held for 12 years.

“We wanted someone who had achieved distinction in a law-related field and could serve as both an inspiration and role model to the future lawyers in our class,” said Kevin Ritz ’04, chair of the Student Bar Association’s Graduation Committee, a group of third-year students that invites the commencement speaker each year. “We also valued a record of public service and focused on people with a particular connection to the Law School and/or the University.

“In the Committee’s judgment, Elaine Jones fit these criteria better than anyone else. … She has obviously distinguished herself as a first-rate lawyer and public servant,” he added. “We think she’ll offer an inspiring and challenging message to the Class.”

As LDF director-counsel, Jones followed in the footsteps of founder Thurgood Marshall, who argued Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court and later became a Justice of the Court; Jack Greenberg, who argued some 40 cases before the Supreme Court and defended sit-in demonstrators, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; and Julius L. Chambers, who helped ensure enforcement of the Voting Rights Act and defended it and the Civil Rights Act of 1966 before the Supreme Court. Jones has made her mark as well; she recently helped win a legal victory that overturned the drug convictions of 38 mostly black defendants in Tulia, Texas, a feat that was featured on 60 Minutes. Some of the defendants were serving terms of 90 years or more, despite the fact that the case was based on the uncorroborated testimony of one white undercover police officer. “It is the kind of thing that many people assume doesn’t happen in this country anymore, “Jones told the Washington Post in June. “The reality is that color still matters in this country. It still does. And we certainly don’t advance the ball by pretending that it doesn’t.”

After her stint in the Ford Administration, where she took the lead in opening Coast Guard service to women, Jones helped the LDF establish its Washington office. She now oversees a staff of 70, including 25 attorneys housed in offices in Washington, Los Angeles, and New York. Jones has led LDF’s continuing efforts to ensure that all Americans receive equal access to education, criminal justice, political participation, and fair economic treatment. In 1982 Jones became the first African-American to be elected to the American Bar Association’s Board of Governors.

A Norfolk native, Jones earned her B.A. in political science from Howard University, and then spent two years in the Peace Corps teaching English in Turkey before applying to law school in 1967. Virginia’s policy in the 1960s was to pay qualified black applicants to study at out of- state colleges and universities, but Jones was admitted as one of only seven women and two African-Americans in the class of 1970. “They took a chance on me, so I took a chance on them,” she said in a 1994 interview. Jones received UVA’s Distinguished Alumna Award in 1998, an award honoring a female graduate who has demonstrated excellence, leadership, and extraordinary commitment to her field, and who has used her talents as a positive force for change. In 1999 she was awarded the Thomas Jefferson Medal in Law, the highest honor bestowed by the University.

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