Fact Friday 230 - The Civil Rights Legacy of Charles Jones
Though I always lead with "Happy Friday", it saddens me that on December 27, 2019, our beloved city lost one of its most important icons.
A Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) student leader, alum, and longtime Charlotte attorney and civil rights activist, Charles Jones was an iconic leader of the Civil Rights Movement, and his story is prominently featured in the Levine Museum’s core exhibit, From Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers.
Levine Staff historian Dr. Willie Griffin recounts, “‘He really enjoyed coming to the Museum because he enjoyed the stories that are told in the Museum. Especially toward the end of his life, he would just come, walk through, and spend time soaking up the stories.”
On February 9, 1960, Jones led the first sit-in in Charlotte. Charlotte’s movement became the second largest in the country behind Nashville’s. Jones was among the founding members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in Raleigh, North Carolina. He participated in the Rock Hill, South Carolina sit-in movement that sparked the “Jail No Bail” campaign, a strategy that civil rights activists around the South adopted to help bring more national media attention to their struggle. Jones also traveled to Albany, Georgia and became close friends with Shirley and Charles Sherrod, who led the “Jail No Bail” campaign in a region often referred to as the “hell hole” of the South.
In a 2011 interview with CSPAN, Mr. Jones spoke about his conversations with Charles Sherrod as they did 30-days of hard-labor on a chain gang during the “Jail No Bail” movement. Additionally, he talked about his experiences as a civil rights activist during the 1960s, including lunch counter sit-ins at Woolworths in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the Freedom Rides. He was interviewed at his home in Charlotte and talked about his family history.
JCSU students at a lunch counter sit-in in Charlotte, NC.
Jones left an indelible mark on the work at the Levine and its staff. His story was one of the first oral histories conducted by Dr. Griffin while completing his master’s degree. Dr. Griffin stated, “I was captivated by his stories as I spent time with him. He had a way of succinctly laying out the original aims of the Civil Rights Movement. His stories were gripping and helped you understand why movement participants were so committed to the cause. He exemplified the spirit of the movement.” Dr. Griffin recounted how he traveled to Albany, Georgia for a 50th reunion celebration of the movement with many of its leaders and participants. He noticed that they all wanted Mr. Jones to tell their stories whenever possible. His storytelling would “get everyone fired up.”
This sentiment is echoed by Tom Hanchett, who worked with Jones when creating the Museum’s Cotton Fields exhibit. “We spent the whole day with him. At the beginning he had us laughing and by the end he had us crying. He wanted the story to live on beyond him. He worked very hard at that. He saw the Museum as a strong ally.” Hanchett was able to form a strong bond over the years with Jones. In 2003, Hanchett worked on a reunion commemorating the sit-ins in Charlotte and Rock Hill and recounts, “It was a powerful weekend. The spirit of joy of that weekend is something hard to communicate but is so important in the story of the civil rights movement. Charles Jones was an expert at feeling joy, communicating joy, bringing you into the joy of making the world a better place. Charles Jones shows us that history happens here. That history happened here. That we can make history. We MUST make history.”
WBTV also produced and ran this awesome piece featuring Jones on January 5, 2020, the day after he was laid to rest. The funeral was held at the chapel on the campus of Johnson C. Smith University, Charlotte's storied historically black college/university, whose history dates back to 1867.
Until next week!
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Information taken from:
January 2, 2020 email communication from the Levine Museum of the New South.
"Funeral arrangements set for Civil Rights Leader Charles Jones," - WBTV.com, December 27, 2020.
“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass