Eric Williamson

In November of 1969, the first black woman to attend UVA Law, Elaine Ruth Jones ’70, was in demand.

The daughter of a railway worker and a schoolteacher, Jones had accepted a position with President Richard Nixon’s Wall Street law firm, Mudge Rose Guthrie Alexander & Ferndon, which had offered her an $18,000 salary. She was on her way.

“That was big money back then,” Jones said. “More money than I had ever earned doing anything.”

The only problem was, by Christmas, she couldn’t look at herself in the mirror. She had taken the job for the pay alone.

“I have a rule: Never do anything solely for the money,” she said. “Money can be a factor, but when you make it the only factor, that’s trouble. I went to law school really with social justice and civil rights in mind.”

She called the firm back to apologize and decline.

Jack Greenberg

Civil rights legend Jack Greenberg ran the NAACP Legal Defense Fund when he hired Jones.

Finding herself on the verge of graduation with no job prospects, she turned to the new dean, Monrad G. Paulsen, for advice. Paulsen suggested she go see his friend Jack Greenberg, who ran the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and was hiring.

She did. Jones arrived at the storied offices in New York City only to find the building empty.

“I said, ‘Where is everybody at 2 o’clock in the afternoon?’ Later, I learned there was a bomb scare. I shouldn’t have been in there. I was walking around the offices looking for folks!”

With the building deemed safe and the confusion resolved, Greenberg had only three questions for Jones in an interview that lasted less than 10 minutes:

Why did she want the job? What kind of legal work did she want to do? And how much money did she seek to make?

The first answer was easy. The fund had been home to so many of her legal heroes, including Director-Counsel Thurgood Marshall, under whose leadership attorneys had won Brown v. Board of Education, and who, more recently, had ascended to the U.S. Supreme Court as an associate justice.

Jones said she wanted to be placed wherever the need was greatest.

And she asked to start at $12,000, which turned out to be the going rate there for newly minted attorneys.

Greenberg hired her as the third member of his team handling death penalty cases.

Negotiations with a Reluctant Clerk

Jones’ first solo assignment was no small request. Greenberg asked her to go to Georgia and see what she could do to move Furman v. Georgia along. 

William Henry Furman had been sentenced to die by the state of Georgia. His gun had discharged while he was fleeing a home he attempted to burglarize, killing one of the residents. Attorneys contested the legality of the sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court sought to consolidate a review of the case with two others in which capital punishment rulings might have been arbitrarily applied.

“Jack said, ‘We have a problem,’” Jones recalled. “‘The clerk of the Supreme Court of Georgia refuses to certify the record with the Supreme Court of the United States. It’s usually a routine, perfunctory matter, but she has held the case up for a year.’

“It was all riding on that case — the constitutionality of the death penalty.”

Once Jones arrived, she managed to get a meeting with the clerk. Her strategy was to try to talk to the woman, Southerner to Southerner:

“So the clerk came out, a middle-aged white female, and I told her, ‘I want to be honest with you. I have a new job. I’m from Virginia, I went to school in Virginia. But then I went up to New York for this job...”

“She said, ‘I’m sick of these people from outside of our state coming down here telling us how to do our business.’

“I said, ‘I’m Southern like you, and I have felt the frustrations, but what I’m here for and what I need is much more personal. If I’m going to have a legal career, it depends on your certifying the record.’

“I told her, ‘You don’t know me from anybody, and you don’t owe me anything, but I’m asking you.’”

The clerk instructed Jones to come back the next day. Jones was prompt in her return, even though she was unlikely to hear the response she was after.

The clerk announced she would indeed certify the record.

“She said, ‘I thought about what you said, and I know you’ve got to go back to New York, and I want you to know I’m doing this for you.’”

More likely, Jones said, the clerk used her entreaty as an excuse for what had to be done anyway. “But it was fine; I took it.”

Elaine Jones and Bill Clinton

Jones escorts President Bill Clinton into an NAACP Legal Defense Fund dinner in Washington on May 16, 1994. AP Photo/Greg Gibson

In a 5-4 decision in 1972, the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty as applied was cruel and unusual punishment in the cases, and in violation of equal protection. The ruling acknowledged the likelihood of historical racial bias in capital sentencing.

While the ruling didn’t outlaw the death penalty per se, it did force 37 states to re-examine their approaches. All pending executions were downgraded to life in prison.

“I went back to New York with an excellent result,” Jones said. “And that was 600 lives when the Supreme Court decided that case — 600 lives on death row.”

The court reaffirmed the constitutionality of the death penalty in 1976.

The Criminal Cases: ‘They Had Flames’

In her three-decade career with the Legal Defense Fund that followed, Jones made a difference in thousands more lives.

The criminal cases, Jones said, were often touch-and-go, especially in the Deep South.

In a 1980 case, she sought a change of venue for Tommy Lee Hines, a mentally disabled African-American man from Decatur, Alabama, who had been convicted there of raping an 85-year-old woman. The defense never raised the issue of Hines’ incompetence, so the Alabama Supreme Court remanded the case back to Decatur for retrial. Jones, as one of Hines’ new trial lawyers, argued he couldn’t get a fair trial where he was originally convicted.

The courts agreed — and moved the case to Cullman, Alabama, where the Ku Klux Klan and the local media had been just as vocal in their belief about Hines’ guilt as in Decatur.

The defense fund knew his appeal would be doomed if it were heard in Cullman. They filed a second change-of-venue motion.

“It was a pitched battle trying to get that trial out of Cullman,” Jones said. “The newspaper was instigating. They made [Hines] out to be the worst thing that ever happened.”

Jones had witnessed the Klan outside of the courts before, but this time, given the tensions underlying the case, the threat was more dire.

This was a town that had years before posted a sign along the main highway warning blacks to leave before sundown. And just the year before, scuffles had broken out between members of the Klan and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who were protesting the outcome of the case. Protesters had been wounded by Klan bullets.

“I remember coming out of the court at 9 that night, and it was pitch dark, and up on the hillside was the Klan, in full regalia, about 20 of them surrounding the court,” Jones said. “They had flames.”

She told her co-counsel, future state legislator and judge U.W. Clemon, “Let’s look under the hood and make sure there’s not a bomb under there.”

Once the car checked out, Jones said, “Let’s mash it to the floor and get out of here!”

Fortunately, they were able to leave without incident.

The change of venue went through. On appeal, the court placed Hines in an institution for the mentally disabled rather than in a prison cell.

Civil Cases and a Fair-Minded Judge

Jones also worked on life-changing civil cases as she built her career. The cases mostly arose from the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Housing Rights Act of 1968.

One class action, Patterson v. American Tobacco, was rooted in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Their client, John Patterson, challenged a system at the company that tracked whites for higher pay and promotion over blacks.

“Your race determined your salary,” Jones said.

Jones and her colleagues litigated the case in a Richmond district court in 1973.

After her early dealings with courts in the South, her expectations were low, Jones said. But Judge Albert Bryan Jr. ’50 was one of the first judges she encountered who gave her hope for an impartial system.

“It really was getting the judge to understand what this employment discrimination was all about and how it worked in practice,” Jones said. “You know, I was stunned, because [Bryan] showed an open mind. He listened to the evidence and let it in.”

Patterson won, but the company appealed.

Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s decision, finding the so-called seniority system to be one actually hinging on race. It was a victory for black workers.

“That’s their jobs. That’s their futures,” Jones said. “That’s whether or not they can educate their children or put food on the table. So it was an amazing class action, and it made a difference.”

Jones’ other major workplace discrimination victories included Stallworth v. Monsanto and Swint v. Pullman-Standard. (Pullman-Standard was not without some irony. Jones’ father had been a Pullman porter.)

Jones said she would hear later from class members, and sometimes their children, about what the fund’s winning these cases had meant to them.

Serving Her Country

It was during her early years with the fund that Jones took time out for government service.

William T. Coleman Jr., an accomplished attorney who had been the first black person to clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court, was named secretary of transportation under President Gerald Ford. A former chairman of the defense fund, Coleman asked Jones to join him as one of his two special assistants.

“I said, ‘I don’t know anything about transportation,’” Jones said. Coleman, whose law firm clients had included an airline, said in self-deprecating fashion, “Neither do I.”

Jones gave the commencement address at the Law School in 2004

Jones gave the commencement address at the Law School in 2004. Photo courtesy UVA Law Library

Jones added, “He said that to make me feel better.”

The department oversaw the Coast Guard, and the administration decided it was time to let women serve at sea. Jones was tasked with breaking the news to the commandant.

The chief, as expected, was reluctant to go along with the plan. What if women wearing dresses proved too —distracting?

Jones provided the obvious solution: Women would wear pants like their male peers.

While her time working for the department was relatively short — only two years — her experience in government was formative.

“I was in a high-enough-level position that I was next to the policymakers,” Jones said.

That was useful to Jack Greenberg, who showed up at her office about a new position with the fund.

D.C. Lobbying and a ‘Circuit Split’

After the Tax Reform Act of 1976, the fund was able to lobby politically without risking its tax-exempt status. Greenberg asked Jones to head the fledgling D.C. office.

One of the office’s most important initiatives was to try to retain balance in the Fifth Circuit, which consisted of Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas and Louisiana. The circuit had a burgeoning caseload, in part due to civil rights complaints. A split was coming.

“It was the Deep South circuit,” Jones said. “It represented all those civil rights cases coming through to the Supreme Court.”

With caseload as the pretext, U.S. Sen. James Eastland of Mississippi, who chaired the Judiciary Committee, insisted that his state — along with Florida, Georgia and Alabama — should be separate from Texas and Louisiana, whose benches were perceived to be more liberal. His plan would have created the only two-state circuit in the country, reducing a potential check on one side, while retaining what was seen as the core coalition on the other.

“I said, ‘Wait a minute,’” Jones said. “‘We have to oppose that.’”

Adopting the public position that there should be no split, Jones convinced U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan, who was from Texas, and U.S. Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy ’59 of Massachusetts to take up the fight in their respective sides of Congress. The circuit’s fate became part of a broader judgeship legislative package.

“Do you know that for over a year we held up that omnibus?” Jones said. “And seeing eight judges of the Fifth Circuit testifying — it was major. It was a battle royale.”

By insisting on no split, when it came time to bargain, the defense fund got the 3-3 split it wanted, Jones said.

“It looked like we’d given a major concession.”

The new Eleventh Circuit of Alabama, Florida and Georgia was formed in 1980 and went into effect in 1981, forcing Mississippi to join Louisiana and Texas in the Fifth.

Resolving the circuit showdown coincided with a wave of black judicial appointees under President Jimmy Carter. U.W. Clemon, Jones’ colleague from years earlier, became the first black federal judge in Alabama. 

Leading the LDF and Steps Forward

Jones ran the D.C. office of the Legal Defense Fund for 14 years, continuing to litigate class action cases as she engaged in legislative activity. (During that time, she also became the first black person named to the board of governors of the American Bar Association.)

The defense fund promoted Jones in 1993 to director-counsel and president — the first woman to rise to that highest leadership role.

Overseeing 25 attorneys and dozens of other personnel in three cities, Jones was in charge of all aspects of the organization. That included hiring, selecting cases and raising money. During her tenure, the fund expanded its challenges in housing, health and environmental justice. Jones worked with “cooperating attorneys” across the country on a range of issues, including preserving affirmative action.

Two cases in which the fund was involved — Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger — had ascended to the Supreme Court together, testing affirmative action. The fund served as lead counsel for students of color in Gratz, who sought to defend existing admissions policies at the University of Michigan. The fund served as amicus curiae in Grutter, a challenge to policies at Michigan’s law school.

In 2003, the court affirmed in these cases that race could be a consideration in granting opportunity.

“We wouldn’t have diversity in business or anywhere if we had lost,” Jones said.

She retired from the fund in 2004.

Since then, Jones has viewed from the sidelines Fisher v. University of Texas, a Supreme Court case in which the defense fund participated. The case reaffirmed affirmative action policies, yet nevertheless returned the race-in-admissions debate to the fore.

She has also seen the rollback of the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance requirement, which previously kept jurisdictions known to have historically disenfranchised black voters from enacting voting law changes without federal approval.

On the latter issue, Jones said, the country has regressed. Concerns about voter suppression have resurfaced.  

“We make steps forward, leaps forward,” she said. “And then we become complacent. This issue of fairness and inclusion — you have to work at this constantly. You lose real ground when you lapse, and right now we’re in a period of lapse. This country depends on having the courage and foresight to give everyone an opportunity. It undergirds our democracy.”

Jones has received 16 honorary doctorates and numerous awards for her work, including UVA’s Distinguished Alumna Award and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Law, given jointly by the University and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

In 2004, she delivered the Law School’s commencement address.

She has come full circle. In the late 1960s, UVA seemed like an unlikely place to train as a civil rights lawyer. But Jones, a Norfolk native who was coming out of two years of Peace Corps service in Turkey, accepted the school’s invitation to study in-state.

She didn’t know it then, but she would be one of only two African-Americans in her law class. One of only five black people total studying law at the time. In terms of the long arc of justice, the University was still in its infancy. But the arc — and UVA — were bending.

“I took a chance on Virginia,” Jones said. “And Virginia took a chance on me. We took a chance on one another.”