Remembering Judge Nathanial Jones, a Human Rights Icon


The Honorable Nathaniel R. Jones is a member of the KnowledgeWorks Board of Directors.

Today we mourn the passing Judge Nathanial Jones, a civil right leader and activist.

President Barack Obama once said of Jones, “For decades – from here to South Africa – you’ve helped advance the cause of justice. Your lifelong commitment to that mission and your ongoing work to ensure vital lessons borne out of struggle and progress remain at the forefront of our collective memory.”

The legacy that Jones leaves behind includes eight decades of fighting for freedom and human rights. He was a vocal proponent of civil rights in both the U.S. and South Africa. He served as the first African American Assistant United States Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio in Cleveland and later as Assistant General Counsel to President Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, also known as the Kerner Commission. For nine years, Jones served as NAACP general counsel, which had him arguing cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. Jones, after an appointment from President Jimmy Carter, served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit for 23 years. In 2016, the NAACP recognized Jones’ lifelong work by awarding him the Spingarn Award. Past recipients of that award include George Washington Carver, Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Judge Jones is an icon,” said KnowledgeWorks chief strategy officer Matt Williams. “He was a gentle, contemplative warrior for justice. He had a quiet, unwavering force to him.”

For fifteen years, Jones served on the KnowledgeWorks Board of Directors. “He was a never-ceasing voice for young people throughout their educational journeys, and he always reminded us that we, as an organization, exist to ensure equal access to a high-quality education for all,” said former KnowledgeWorks CEO Judy Peppler.

In his 2016 acceptance speech for the Spingarn Award at the NAACP Annual Convention in Cincinnati, Jones said, “Let me pledge to you tonight that as long as I have breath in my body and my lungs are functioning and I can speak, my advice will be to all of us to stay focused on the real threat, and to resist all efforts to nullify the gains that have been made, the remedies that have put in place that give meaning to the laws that the constitution permits to be enacted.”

That pledge and advice stand as a call to action for us all. In pursuit of it, we are helping to Jones’ legacy in human rights continue to live on.