Not long after Johnnie Jones returned home from serving in World War II, a police officer beat him during a traffic stop along a stretch of southeast Louisiana highway.
“I was driving to New Orleans to get a piece of shrapnel taken out of my neck,” said Jones, 95. “He knocked me to the ground and started kicking me. I hadn’t done a thing.”
Moments like those inspired his storied six-decade career as a civil rights lawyer in Baton Rouge, including a role in the country’s first large-scale bus boycott challenging segregation.
As the nation celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Jones said King’s dreams have been significantly fulfilled but there’s still work to do, pointing to turmoil over racial profiling in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere as an example.
Jones said progress often entails a long road.
“Sure, it’s going to take a while,” Jones said. “You just need to be willing to take a stand.”
Jones was just 15 days out of Southern University law school when the Rev. T.J. Jemison asked him to serve as the lawyer for the 1953 Baton Rouge bus boycott effort.
“I told him, ‘That’s an awfully big suit to fill,’ ” Jones said. “But he said, ‘Nonsense, Brother Jones, you can do it.’ ”
After a two-week boycott, the Baton Rouge City Council passed an ordinance reforming the bus company’s segregationist seating policy.
The protest served as a blueprint for the Montgomery bus boycott two years later, for which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. prepared for with a visit to Baton Rouge.
King arrived at Jemison’s Mount Zion First Baptist Church on East Boulevard in his Plymouth and signature wide-brimmed hat, Jones said.
“He wasn’t flamboyant at all. No diamond rings, no flash,” Jones said. “He was humble.”
The men talked for the better part of an hour, Jones said, during which King gave insight on his love for oration and a good legal fight.
He told them, “There’s two people I listen to, and I don’t argue with them: My English teacher and my lawyer.”
Jones’ passion for law began outside St. Francisville in a two-room schoolhouse his father helped build. One day, his fifth-grade teacher handed him a book by then-Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Hughes.
“While we were out in the fields picking cotton, I would be thinking about what I read in that book,” Jones said.
The son of lease croppers, working on land reclaimed from the Ku Klux Klan, Jones was determined to pave a different path than his parents.
“I couldn’t stand the sight of people picking cotton,” Jones said. “Everything it represented.”
Jones finished three semesters at Southern University before serving as a warrant officer in the U.S. Army during World War II. He spent several years abroad, even helping prepare for the D-Day invasion.
“I had forgotten all about segregation after being over there for three or four years,” Jones said.
That changed when Jones returned to the U.S. While riding in a convoy with captured German soldiers, Jones was forced to give up his seat to the prisoners when they crossed the Mason-Dixie line.
“It was a major insult,” Jones said.
Later, when he reported to Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, he saw separate lines for blacks and whites at the base.
“I was talking with the white officers I served with when someone with a gun walked up, hollering, ‘Boy, you need to move over there,’ ” Jones said. “That’s when I realized I was back in the United States.”
Jones said he and his group of fellow officers agreed: Something had to change.
He later returned to Southern to finish his undergraduate studies, then pursue his law degree, finishing near the top of his class.
“I believed that change could happen through the law,” he said.
Jones, who served a term in the state House of Representatives in the 1970s and practiced law until age 93, said he sees change all around him, especially in his top-floor downtown apartment looking out toward Tiger Stadium.
“At one point, I wouldn’t have been allowed to live here,” he said.
Follow Matt McKinney on Twitter, @Mmckinne17.