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Nathaniel Jones, A Cincinnati Civil Rights Icon, Dies At 93

Emily Maxwell

Retired federal judge and local civil rights icon Nathaniel Jones has passed away. 

Our news partner WCPO reports the Hamilton County Coroner's office confirmed his death on Sunday.

Jones was the first African American to be an assistant United States attorney in Ohio. He was an assistant general counsel for the Kerner Commission, which looked into the causes of the 1967 racial unrest in the U.S. As NAACP general counsel, he led the fight against school segregation. In 1979, he was nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit by President Jimmy Carter.

Jones served on that appeals court until 2002, when he retired. After leaving the bench, he went to work for the Cincinnati law firm of Blank Rome LLC.

As much as he meant to the civil rights movement and the African American community in Cincinnati, this was his adopted hometown.

He was born in 1926 in the Smoky Hollow section of Youngstown, Ohio, only a few blocks from a federal courthouse that now bears his name. He had been general counsel of the NAACP - a position once held by Thurgood Marshall, who was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson as the first African American U.S. Supreme Court justice. It was his appointment to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals which brought him to Cincinnati, where he spent the remainder of his days.

In 2016, he received the NAACP's highest award, the Spingarn Medal. During a panel discussion at the NAACP convention in Cincinnati that July, he criticized Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and John Roberts for their jurisprudence, and Congress for its failure to correct the removal of section five from the voting rights act. 

"We're getting it from the judicial front and we're getting it from the political front and unless we are mindful and careful all of these gains that we've talked about, having won in 1954, will be obliterated," he said at the time

That same year, he published a memoir, Answering the Call: An Autobiography of the Modern Struggle to End Racial Discrimination in America. At the time, he joined Cincinnati Edition to talk about the book and the continuing battle for civil rights. You can listen to that interview here

"Nathaniel Jones was one of the greatest civil rights leaders this nation has ever known," Mayor John Cranley said in a statement. "To be in his presence was to be in the presence of greatness. Knowing him has been one of the greatest honors of my life. ... Cincinnati and our country is a better place for his life. Rest in peace."

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Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.