Civil rights lawyer reflects on history-making cases

Published: Feb. 17, 2010 at 10:50 PM CST|Updated: Feb. 23, 2010 at 2:07 PM CST
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Johnnie Jones
Johnnie Jones

By Donna Britt - bio | email

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - The life of Baton Rouge attorney Johnny Jones, well known for his part in civil rights cases, spans from a child working in the farm fields of St. Francisville to the Louisiana Legislature.

His civil rights history goes deep into Baton Rouge's own history. He climbed aboard one of the old buses from the 1953 bus boycott, the one before Rosa Parks. A woman named Martha White had sat in the whites-only front bus seat before Rosa Parks did and she was arrested. Rev. T.J. Jemison was arrested also.

"He (Jemison) drove up while the bus driver was having the women arrested and tried to intervene. That was interfering with the law and Jemison was arrested. He did not go to jail," Jones recalled.

It was then that Jemison became the lawsuit plaintiff against the Baton Rouge Bus Company and Johnnie Jones was a brand-new lawyer, just out of Southern University School of Law.

"I was out of law school only 15 days when I became nationally known," Jones stated.

Jones, the young lawyer, said he warned Jemison the case didn't belong in district court. He argued it should be a federal case, but the reverend insisted, ramming it into state laws that did not protect black rights. Martin Luther King in Montgomery later pursued the case in federal court and won. Young Johnnie Jones also defended the Southern students who staged the lunch counter protest at Kress downtown. He helped desegregate the courthouses. Jones cut his legal teeth on history-making cases.

When President Barrack Obama took the oath of office, Jones was supposed to be sitting near him. However, like so many others on that very cold Washington day, Jones was scuttled into an area consisting of international media and Oprah Winfrey, too.

"You had media right here, (gesturing right) Oprah Winfrey was right over here (gesturing left)," Jones said. "I wanted to get a chance to shake a hand or something. (I) couldn't do that."

Jones got a ticket to the inauguration through U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu's office. In fact, when he and the senator posed for a picture, Chiquita Tate stood with them. Tate was later murdered in her Baton Rouge law office.

He's seen Baton Rouge's first black mayor elected and now looks at a city still facing racial issues, but he says it's not for the lawyers anymore. Jones says the law on racism is settled, but people need to erase the racial lines that still divide us in church, schools and community organizations.

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