Elaine Jones describes elements of effective civil rights advocacy at Elon Law forum

Elaine R. Jones, the nation’s top civil rights lawyer from 1993 to 2004, identified core values and key strategies of the African-American Civil Rights Movement through remarks delivered at Elon University School of Law's third annual Martin Luther King, Jr. forum on January 13.

Civil rights leader Elaine R. Jones speaks at Elon Law

Jones, who served as the first woman president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) and championed a number of groundbreaking civil rights cases over a career spanning three decades, said that King’s inquisitive mind, courage, use of new strategies to achieve social change, and commitment to nonviolence were important to the civil rights movement of the 20th Century and remain equally important today.

“From 1955 until he was assassinated seventeen years later, Martin gave us everything he had,” Jones said.

Noting that the Montgomery Bus Boycott, led by King, lasted more than a year, Jones said that courage and conviction were important factors in achieving legal victories in addition to knowledge and skill.

“You’ve got to believe in what you’re doing, you’ve got to be committed to what you’re doing,” Jones said.

Elaine Jones, center, with Elon Law students from left, Lucrecia Johnson, Kathy Stewart, Lien To, Andrea Davis, Hasina Lewis, Kevin Tonkin, Tiffany Dyson, Karima Grady, Willie Fennell, Tiffany Gray, Gwendolyn Lewis, Justin Ramey, and Sherea Burnett.

Commenting on the importance for King of the principles of nonviolence, Jones said that all efforts to achieve societal change meet resistance, but that parties on all sides in current national policy debates should eschew violence uniformly.

“We have very important, often competing, values at work,” Jones said, “but we have got to protect the public welfare and that is part of the role of lawyers to engage that issue.”

Jones emphasized the important connection between lawyers working on federal policy in the nation’s capital and those engaged in community matters across the country.

“All politics is local and it is grass roots and is based on who is involved. I could do nothing without the support of local lawyers,” Jones said.

Jones concluded by calling on lawyers to take a greater role in addressing economic inequalities rising in the U.S. and the legal and social needs in small communities across the country.

“We need lawyers all over the United States, in all cities and all regions, not just in major law firms and major cities,” Jones said. “Right now, what we have is a distribution problem.”

Jones began her career representing death row defendants in the South and was counselor of record in Furman v. Georgia. That 1972 Supreme Court ruling overturned the sentences of 629 death row defendants because of racial bias in the sentencing process. Since that time, her achievements in championing civil rights cases and shaping civil rights jurisprudence more broadly are numerous.

Introducing Jones, law school dean George R. Johnson, Jr. said, “Elaine Jones has led a life dedicated to breaking down barriers and opening doors of opportunity for so many who had been denied access to ‘the blessings of liberty’ – people of color, women, the criminally accused, persons who suffered employment discrimination – to so many of the least among us.”

Kevin Tonkin, ’11, welcomed the audience to the event on behalf of the Elon Law chapter of Phi Alpha Delta, which cosponsored the event. Tonkin was elected by his peers to lead the law fraternity this year. Tiffany Gray, ’12, president of the Black Law Students Association (BLSA), which also cosponsored the event, encouraged law students to carry forward King’s vision.

“In reflecting on Dr. King’s legacy, we must remember that the pursuit for equality, inclusion, and justice for all must continue on through us,” Gray said.

Tiffany D. Atkins, ’11, serving as the Program Chair, for the law school’s 2011 Martin Luther King, Jr. forum, and Lucrecia Johnson, ’11, immediate past-president of BLSA, offered concluding remarks at the event.

Elon Law invited high school and undergraduate students interested in the study of law to attend this forum. By introducing future law students to legal concepts and constructs, Elon University School of Law seeks to foster an appreciation for the range of insight and academic rigor required to enter law school, as well as an appreciation for opportunities available for groups currently underrepresented within the legal profession.

Elon Law presented this forum with support from the Law School Admission Council as part of DiscoverLaw.org Month.