Paul Jones Claimed “Better Seat At The Table” and Ran With It

Fifty years ago this spring, as Paul Jones was preparing to graduate from North Carolina Central University School of Law, a special edition of the law school newspaper included a front page story under the headline “A Better Seat At The Table.”

It was an editorial, reprinted from the Durham Morning Herald, calling on the General Assembly to “help the law school break out of its undeserved status as a scholastic stepchild and give it an equal place at the table in the university system.”

The reason behind the special edition mirrors the backdrop for this article: Law Day.

In 1974, attendees of NCCU’s annual law ceremony were excited to hear from alumnus Leroy R. Johnson, who in 1962 became the first Black person elected to the Georgia State Senate since Reconstruction and who later helped Muhammad Ali regain his boxing license.

In 2024, participants in the North Carolina Bar Association’s annual observance of Law Day heard from Judge Paul L. Jones of Whitsett, who received the Liberty Bell Award. Presented annually by the Young Lawyers Division since 1983, the award honors an individual “who has strengthened the American system of freedom under law.”

Paul Jones, a Black man with black glasses, wears a white shirt, gold tie and black jacket with a small black pin on the lapel. He stands with Sidney, a Black woman with curly black hair who wears a white shirt, black pants and light grey jacket. Behind them is a screen where a Law Day 2024 Poster appears with a red, white and blue image of a ballot box.

Paul Jones accepts Liberty Bell Award from Sidney Thomas, Law Day co-chair.

“I’m definitely honored, and it definitely was not expected,” said Jones. “When I look at the list of people who received this award – this is definitely a great day in the life of Paul Jones!”

The Liberty Bell Award was presented on Friday, May 3, a day on which NCCU School of Law also held the Class of 1974 Golden Legal Eagles Recognition.

“This is my 50th year – I graduated from law school in 1974, so this is truly an honor for being in the law for 50 years.

“When Judge Laura Cubbage, who is the one who nominated me, called to tell me I had been selected, I told her that I was sure she was joking. But she said she would never joke with a fellow judge. It knocked me off my feet.”

Jones was born in Greene County and moved to Kinston in 1955 when his father took a job with DuPont. He graduated from Adkin High School prior to entering North Carolina A&T State University, where he participated in ROTC and graduated in 1971.

Jones spent the next three years in law school, during which time he established his longstanding relationship with the North Carolina Bar Association.

“I had gone to an event in Houston, Texas, with the American Bar Association and got invited to an event with the North Carolina Bar Association,” Jones recalls. “It was the American Bar Association Midyear Meeting at the Exxon Towers in Houston. I went to this dinner and some of those there thought I was lost, because naturally at that time the North Carolina Bar Association could probably count the number of Black members on one hand.”

The late Allan Head, who had just begun his tenure with the NCBA as executive secretary and would later serve 35 years as executive director, extended a welcoming hand.

“I think Allan Head was asked to go meet me,” Jones said, “I told Allan the reason I was there, and he greeted me and told everybody there that I was a law student and I was there attending the American Bar Association conference. I was welcomed and greeted and even introduced at the North Carolina Bar Association dinner that evening. That’s where I first met Allan Head 50 years ago, and we remained friends throughout the years, and he encouraged me to join the North Carolina Bar Association and participate in the activities of the Bar Association.

“He said, ‘We need more younger people like you,’ and I took that to heart and became involved. I really believe that the law can be a force for change that benefits society. I never thought any challenge was too big, even when people told you that you couldn’t do something, and I felt that by being involved, when allowed, you would always have a seat at the table. I was encouraged to participate in activities, and I did. The president of the bar would ask if people were interested in being on certain committees, and then I would avail myself of that opportunity.”

Jones established another important connection at the ABA meeting when he met E. Gordon Gee, who was serving as a Judicial Fellow at the U.S. Supreme Court and who later served as president of Ohio State, Vanderbilt and West Virginia universities. Gee noted, just as Jones observed about the NCBA at the time, that there was a dearth of young minority professionals at the Supreme Court.

Their discussion led to an interview in Washington, D.C., and Jones landed the job.

“I probably had the most improbable first job that anybody could have ever had coming out of law school and working with the United States Supreme Court,” Jones said. “I worked there for nearly two years before I started to serve my military commitment. As one of eight kids from Kinston, North Carolina, I never thought I would be in the situation that I ended up in by 1) being a lawyer, and 2) working in the United States Supreme Court.

“When I left the Supreme Court, I reported to Fort Hood, Texas, where I was a judge advocate. There were 54 lawyers at Fort Hood between the 1st Calvary Division, the III Corps and 2nd Armored Division where I was assigned, and I was the only Black lawyer on the whole installation.”

Fort Hood, he added, was the largest military installation in the country at the time.

“A general told me, ‘Paul, you will find that you’re going to be one of the most well called on and well-known soldiers and lawyers on this post because you are a minority, and people are going to look for you because they think that you’re going to represent fairness for them, and they are going to want you to be their lawyer.’ He said just watch and wait. And that was Major General Julius Becton, who as a Black general in 1976 was a pioneer himself.

“But those were his words, and within days after arriving, there was a line outside of my door, and most of them were young Black soldiers who wanted to see this Black lawyer who they thought had all the answers. I saw then that the representation at the bar, and this was nearly 50 years ago, is nothing like it is now because it was almost a rarity when you saw a Black lawyer. Forty, fifty years ago, it was not uncommon for a judge to say, ‘You’re in the wrong part of the courtroom, this is for lawyers,’ and they were surprised when you responded, ‘But I am a lawyer,’ because there were just so few.”

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Jones served in the JAG Corps for three years but remained in the reserves until 2000, retiring as staff judge advocate for the 108th Division in Charlotte with nearly 29 years of combined service. When his active duty ended, he came home to enter private practice in Kinston, where he was mentored by Harvey E. Beech, the first Black graduate of UNC School of Law, and fellow Kinston attorney Donald D. Pollock, who also graduated from UNC School of Law and was a classmate of Julius Chambers.

At that time, Jones recalls, Beech and Pollock were the only two Black lawyers he knew. But things were changing, and Jones became interested in the newly formed Eastern Carolina Legal Services serving Lenoir, Greene, Wilson, Nash, Edgecombe and Wayne counties. He served on the advisory board of what later became a regional office of Legal Aid of North Carolina and spent 18 months as its managing attorney.

This work led to additional service as a charter member of the Equal Access to Justice Commission of North Carolina and four years as the supervising attorney for the Civil Rights Litigation Clinic at NCCU School of Law.

“When people talk now about diversity and inclusion and equity,” Jones recalled, “I remember Mike Crowell and Leslie Winter and I were on a campaign to get school units, boards of education, city governments, and county governments to change their method of election because then it was probably a given that with most people being elected by at-large election that minorities had little chance to get elected. We were on this thing for voting rights and surprisingly, with some decisions from the (U.S.) Supreme Court, we were able to get many units in eastern North Carolina to change their method of election from at-large to a district, and some of those districts that they formulated ended up being minority districts and minorities more and more got elected to city councils, county commissions and other positions.

“The real irony is that it also opened up a door which has been closed to minority parties and Republicans ended up being a big beneficiary because they were able to elect people of their own party. It started out as a civil rights issue for Blacks, but it ended up being a big civil rights issue for minority political parties, and Republicans benefited greatly from it.”

The unintended outcome speaks to the sense of fairness that Jones has always demonstrated, from his time in private practice and legal services throughout his exemplary service as a judge. He was appointed to the District Court bench in 1996 and became a Superior Court judge in 1999, serving in that capacity until December 2016. Jones served an addition six-plus years as an emergency judge.

“I think it started at home,” Jones said in regard to fairness. “My parents always said, ‘Try to do your best.’ They always encouraged us with education, and as a result of that, as my mother said, ‘My children have more college degrees than I have children.’ The result of that was my being able to go to North Carolina A&T, Reggie went to Duke. My brother Kenneth went to Amherst. My sister Kathy went to Smith College and went to law school at Carolina. My brother Kenneth went to medical school at Howard University. My brother Robert went to North Carolina Central and Fayetteville State.

“Education – that was a given. Because of that, that changed your attitude about what you can do in society that makes a contribution by being as educated as you can. That’s why I always felt that you have to give back. I’ve always had this commitment to the legal profession because it demonstrates my lifelong commitment to the principles of justice and democracy in our state.”

To that end, Jones remains very active in retirement and continues to serve the NCBA as a member of the Judicial Independence Committee.

“I spend most of my time now as a retiree and volunteer,” Jones said. “I’m very active in the Rotary Club. I was president of the Greensboro Rotary Club last year. I’ve been in Rotary for 40 years but I never thought I would end up being the president at age 74 but they needed a leader and I stepped up to become the leader of the Rotary Club.

“I’m on the board of trustees at North Carolina A&T; I’ve done that for seven years, and that’s my alma mater. I was appointed by (Speaker of the House) Tim Moore as his designee to that board from that House of Representatives. I’m chairman of the board of Hayes Taylor YMCA and active in my church, Providence Baptist Church, which is also the home church of Henry and Shirley Frye.

“My mantra has always been – and this is from Luke 12:48 – to whom much is given, much is required.”

Paul Jones adds his name to the distinguished list of Liberty Bell Award recipients with a tremendous sense of humility and gratitude.

“I’m honored and I appreciate the award,” Jones said, “and I will be forever grateful to the law for all that it has done for me, and I hope I have given back at least in part as much as it has given me and the opportunity that I’ve had to give back to society and my state. North Carolina has changed a whole lot, and it’s good to have been a part of seeing these changes made in North Carolina and in the country. Our country is so divided now because sometimes it appears that we are getting away from fundamental fairness and instead there’s either one side or the other and there’s not a whole lot in between.

“That’s one thing about Law Day – it tells us to respect the law and the role of law in our society, particularly in a democracy.”

Previous recipients of the award are:

2023 – Justice Samuel James Ervin IV
2022 – Cheryl Howell
2021 – Chief Justice Cheri Beasley
2020 – Congressman Mike McIntyre
2019 – Chief Justice Mark D. Martin
2018 – Judge James A. Wynn Jr.
2017 – Chief Judge Linda M. McGee
2016 – Judge A. Elizabeth Keever
2015 – Judge Sammie Chess Jr.
2014 – Maj. Gen. (Ret.) James B. Mallory III
2013 – Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson
2012 – Judge W. Earl Britt
2011 – Justice Harry C. Martin
2009 – U.S. Attorney Janice McKenzie Cole
2008 – Stacy C. Eggers Jr.
2007 – Judge R. Maurice Braswell
2006 – Judge Herbert L. Richardson
2005 – William Joslin
2004 – Chief Justice Henry E. Frye
2003 – Judge Robert R. Browning
2002 – Judge Lacy H. Thornburg
2001 – Gov. James B. Hunt Jr.
2000 – William C. Friday
1999 – Judge Sam J. Ervin III
1998 – Senator Terry Sanford
1997 – Herbert H. Taylor
1996 – Judge J. Dickson Phillips Jr.
1995 – Wade E. Brown
1994 – Judge Hiram H. Ward
1993 – Kathrine R. Everett
1992 – Congressman L. Richardson Preyer
1991 – Justice J. Frank Huskins
1990 – McNeill Smith
1989 – Judge Franklin T. Dupree, Jr.
1988 – Secretary of State Thad Eure
1987 – Chief Justice Joseph Branch
1986 – Dr. Robert E. Lee
1985 – William B. Aycock
1984 – Chief Justice Susie M. Sharp
1983 – Senator Samuel J. Ervin Jr.

Russell Rawlings is director of external affairs and communications for the North Carolina Bar Association.