On a sunny June day in 1966, J. Charles Jones stood on the shoulder of the Beltway at Georgia Avenue and spoke with reporters.
“I feel as if I own this road,” Jones said, as traffic whizzed past. “This is my Beltway.”
Jones had good reason to claim a familiarity with the circle of concrete. He had just completed a pedestrian circumnavigation of the road, walking its 64 miles with a group that fluctuated in number between eight and 35. It was a protest organized by a group Jones led called ACCESS, or the Action Coordinating Committee to End Segregation in the Suburbs.
By marching around the Beltway, Jones wanted to shame area landlords who were refusing to rent to African Americans like him. The segregated apartment complexes around the Beltway, Jones said, amounted to a “white ghetto surrounding the black ghetto.”
It had taken the protesters four days to complete their Beltway circuit, but the work wasn’t finished. “Now we have to make the circle larger, with people who have seen the depth of our commitment,” Jones said.
Not long ago, I wrote about a pair of Bethesda, Md., dads who hike a segment of the Beltway every week or so as a midlife “microadventure.” It seemed that their effort was unprecedented. But then a reader told me about Charles Jones, who made headlines 50 years ago.
Jones was a veteran of the civil rights movement, having led sit-ins in his native Charlotte. He’d been arrested for his nonviolent protests several times, including in Albany, Ga., with Martin Luther King Jr.
In 1966, Jones had just finished law school at Howard University. He was deeply troubled by housing discrimination in the Washington area. ACCESS would picket outside whites-only apartment complexes and the homes of their owners.
On June 6, 1966, James Meredith, the first African American to attend the University of Mississippi, was shot and injured by a sniper during a walk from Memphis to Jackson, Miss., to encourage black voter registration. This spurred Jones to ratchet up his protest.
“I said to myself, ‘Charles, why don’t we combine what Martin and I had done, what [Mahatma] Gandhi had done, and organize a group and walk around the Beltway, starting at Georgia Avenue on the north side?’ ” Jones told me.
On June 8, about nine protesters started walking counterclockwise around the Beltway, bearing signs that read “End Apartment Segregation” and “We Demand Open Occupancy.” The ring road — completed only two years earlier — was only two lanes in each direction, more parkway than superhighway.
Jones had the support of Unitarian ministers and congregants, many of whom marched with him. The mixed-race group marched through the heat and the rain, covering 15 to 20 miles a day on the shoulder. In the evenings, marchers would stay in the homes of church members.
“Then the next morning, we’d pick it back up,” Jones said. “That happened all the way around the Beltway.”
The protest garnered attention, not all of it welcome. Some motorists honked, jeered or shouted obscenities. One tractor-trailer swerved slightly onto the shoulder of the highway as it passed the group at high speed, forcing four ACCESS members and a reporter to jump aside.
“I remember that truck very well,” Jones said. “I’m not sure if he had a Confederate flag inside.”
But the majority of drivers were supportive. Some even stopped to deliver baskets of food and drink to the marchers.
Once the march was completed, Jones turned his attention to another aspect of the fair housing movement: African American military men were finding it hard to procure off-base housing in the Washington area. As Washington Post columnist William Raspberry noted: “It is both absurd and immoral to ask a man to risk his life for a country that denies him the right to live in freedom and decency at home.”
In 1967, Jones met with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. The Pentagon, Jones said, had the power to declare apartments that wouldn’t rent to blacks off limits to all military personnel. (It was the same power that military police used to prohibit visiting brothels.)
Rep. Joe D. Waggoner Jr. (D-La.) denounced the suggestion, saying that doing so would intrude into the personal, after-hours affairs of military men. He also called the ACCESS marchers a “rag-tag band of unwashed.”
In June of 1967, a year after the Beltway march, McNamara banned service members from renting at any segregated apartment within 3.5 miles of the Andrews Air Force Base control tower. It was a start.
Jones is 79 now. After a law career, he lives in semi-retirement in Charlotte. He feels that the Beltway protest and his discussions with McNamara helped integrate suburban apartments. He was dismayed by the destructive protests that broke out in his home town after the recent police shooting of Keith Scott, but he said protest leaders there have since embraced the nonviolent action that he and King practiced.
“It is always a continuing journey,” Jones said of our nation’s march toward equality.
And, it seems, the road isn’t always straight.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.