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J. Charles Jones, civil rights activist who led protest walk around Beltway, dies at 82

J. Charles Jones, right, begins a march around the Beltway on June 9, 1966, to protest discriminatory housing policies.
J. Charles Jones, right, begins a march around the Beltway on June 9, 1966, to protest discriminatory housing policies. (Steve Szabo/The Washington Post)
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J. Charles Jones, a civil rights activist who led lunch-counter sit-ins and voter-registration drives across the South and once walked the entire length of the Capital Beltway to protest discriminatory housing practices near military bases, died Dec. 27 at his home in Charlotte. He was 82.

The cause was complications from Alzheimer’s disease, said a son, Michael Scott Jones.

Mr. Jones figured prominently in anti-segregation demonstrations in the early 1960s, when he was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a key group that linked young people with the larger civil rights movement.

He organized some of the first lunch-counter sit-ins in Charlotte and later served a sentence of 30 days of hard labor after refusing to post bail when he was arrested in South Carolina.

In the early 1960s, Mr. Jones was part of the Freedom Riders, a group that sought to end segregation on interstate buses in the South. He led voter-registration efforts in Georgia and Mississippi. He was arrested multiple times at demonstrations, including twice with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., with whom he was on a first-name basis.

Soon after graduating from the Howard University School of Law in 1966, Mr. Jones took up a new cause by drawing attention to segregated housing near Washington-area military installations.

As the president of ACCESS — the Action Coordinating Committee to End Segregation in the Suburbs — Mr. Jones identified dozens of apartment buildings and housing developments that did not permit black residents, even when they were members of the military.

Calling the suburbs “a white ghetto surrounding the black ghetto,” he told The Washington Post at the time: “The tendency in northern suburbia is to say how bad things are in Mississippi. This time we have to talk about what is happening in suburban metropolitan Washington.”

He decided to take his advocacy to the street or, more precisely, to the newly opened Capital Beltway.

“I said to myself, ‘Charles, why don’t we combine what Martin and I had done, what Gandhi had done, and organize a group and walk around the Beltway, starting at Georgia Avenue on the north side?’ ” he told Post columnist John Kelly in 2016.

Mr. Jones began his march in June 1966, carrying a sign reading “End Apartment Segregation.” Walking counterclockwise around the Beltway, from Maryland to Virginia and back into Maryland, he and a changing cast of fellow demonstrators traversed the entire 64-mile circuit of the Beltway in four days. (He and the other marchers stayed overnight at private homes.)

Some drivers jeered and shouted obscenities, and one tractor-trailer appeared to swerve toward the demonstrators, forcing them to scramble out of the way. Other drivers, however, offered encouragement and handed out sandwiches, fruit and lemonade.

The march ended where it began, at the Georgia Avenue interchange north of the District, with about 30 demonstrators singing “We Shall Overcome.”

“I feel as if I own this road,” Mr. Jones said at the time. “This is my Beltway. I’ve grown a lot in these four days. Now we have to make the circle larger.”

In September 1966, after a 14-mile march to protest discriminatory housing policies in Northern Virginia, Mr. Jones and his followers were met by members of the Ku Klux Klan and people wearing Nazi swastikas. The groups were kept apart by police.

Seeking to take his complaints about housing directly to Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, Mr. Jones and several supporters organized sit-ins at the Pentagon, where they received a surprisingly cordial welcome. He ultimately had a meeting with McNamara’s chief deputy, Cyrus R. Vance.

In 1967, McNamara issued an order prohibiting military personnel from living in segregated housing within about three miles of Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. The decision was denounced by Rep. Joe D. Waggonner (D-La.) as an “imperial edict” that “follows the demands of that ragtag band of unwashed which paraded around Washington last year under the name ACCESS.”

Joseph Charles Jones was born Aug. 23, 1937, in Chester, S.C. His father was a Presbyterian minister, his mother a teacher and school administrator. The family moved to Charlotte in 1947.

Mr. Jones was a 1958 graduate of the historically black Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte. In February 1960, days after a lunch-counter sit-in by African American students in Greensboro, N.C., Mr. Jones organized a sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Charlotte.

“I have no malice, no jealousy, no hatred, no envy,” he said at the time. “All I want is to come in and place my order and be served and leave a tip if I feel like it.”

He expected about a dozen students to take part, but more than 200 showed up. Everyone involved — the police, students and government officials — acted with restraint, sparing Charlotte from the violence that erupted elsewhere in the South.

Across the state line in Rock Hill, S.C., several students from a historically black college were arrested for refusing to leave a whites-only lunch counter. Using a tactic called “Jail, No Bail,” they refused to post bail and were kept in jail.

In solidarity, Mr. Jones and several other demonstrators were later arrested at a lunch-counter sit-in and held behind bars, serving a 30-day sentence of hard labor.

“We were shoveling wet sand from the creek bed onto dump trucks and busting up rocks,” Mr. Jones told Charlotte magazine in 2011. “You know if you’re gonna do it, you choose and commit yourself to an act and the consequences of it. Then you accept it and embrace it.”

As a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Mr. Jones traveled throughout the South, helping African Americans register to vote, often in the face of barely veiled threats from white police officers. He was twice arrested with King — and hundreds of other demonstrators — in Albany, Ga., in the early 1960s.

In 1963, Mr. Jones entered law school at Howard, graduating three years later. After living in Washington and Pittsburgh, he settled permanently in Charlotte in the mid-1970s. He worked as a prosecuting attorney before establishing a private law practice, with an emphasis on civil rights.

His marriages to Marian Irving and Joanne Vasco ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 34 years, the former Jackie Blackwell; a son from his first marriage, Michael Scott Jones; two children from his second marriage, Joseph Charles Jones Jr. and Ireti Jones Burrell; and four grandchildren.

Mr. Jones often spoke to school groups and reporters about his experiences in the civil rights movement, including the 1963 March on Washington, where King delivered his celebrated “I Have a Dream” speech.

“I had never seen that many black people in one place,” Mr. Jones told the Charlotte Observer in 2013. “We had all been fighting against segregation for so long, and suddenly we were all together and you realized just what you had been a part of. You realized how really big it all was.”

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