On a summer day in 2013, my spouse, Helms, stood under the sprawling oak in our front yard welcoming a cheery busload of children home from Enderly Park’s Freedom School site, when an older man she did not know got out of his truck and approached her.
He placed a hand on her shoulder and began to speak. She sensed both his gentleness and authority. Something about him compelled her to listen, rather than to pull back. “I see you when I pull by here occasionally, always engaged in some kindness,” the man said. “I want you to know that you are building what we back in the Movement called ‘the Beloved Community.’”
Without leaving his name, he got back in his truck and headed home.
We did some digging, and with the help of the Levine Museum of the New South, we figured out who he was. Charles Jones was his name. He was an original Freedom Rider, associated with the Friendship Nine, and leader of the student movement in Charlotte.
Jones spent his life creating and building Beloved Communities in every place he lived. Although his work took him many places, he spent most of those years in the Biddleville neighborhood in west Charlotte, where he died on December 27, 2019.
On Saturday, a Beloved Community gathered around Jones one last time, in the chapel of his alma mater, Johnson C. Smith University, to tell stories and to celebrate his life.
Over the course of two short hours at his memorial service, nine speakers highlighted his unforgettable personality alongside his long list of accomplishments. Attorney James Ferguson, who helped form North Carolina’s first integrated law firm in the 1960s, pointed to Jones’s unusual ability to “combine humility with grandiosity.”
Jones was one of the most important men to ever live in this city, one of a generation of Civil Rights leaders we are now losing too quickly. He was one of those who had the courage to walk into places where they previously weren’t welcome and challenge Charlotte to confront inequity and injustice.
Speakers celebrated his readiness to sing, or even to speak in song. Mayor Vi Lyles noted the importance of his “radicalism with a smile.” Everyone acknowledged his ability to tell a story. My, could he tell a story. Those of us gathered accompanied him with singing to his final resting place.
As Jones told it, one key story of his life went like this: He was driving home on February 1, 1960, when he heard radio reports of the first sit-ins at the Woolworth’s in Greensboro. On February 8, one week later, he organized a meeting with a few student leaders at JCSU, and they planned to stage sit-ins at the lunch counters in downtown Charlotte the following day.
He went to bed not knowing what to expect, but the next morning more than 200 students showed up to participate. Their efforts went on for more than six months. At the end of those months, Mayor Stan Brookshire called Jones personally to invite him to come enjoy a lunch downtown, in any seat he desired.
Jones was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Along with his SNCC comrades, he helped initiate a “jail, no bail” campaign, pioneered by the Friendship Nine, that changed the trajectory of the Civil Rights Movement. He greeted the Freedom Riders when they stopped in Charlotte on their 1961 bus ride across the South. Following a night downtown, the bus stopped in Rock Hill, where John Lewis (now a U.S. Congressman) was beaten.
Only a couple of days later, the bus was burned and chased out of Anniston, Alabama, and then greeted with violence in Birmingham. At that point, Jones left Charlotte to go and join the ride, meeting both the bus and the increasing violence against its integrated riders in Montgomery to finish the journey to New Orleans.
Jones helped organize the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and later spent time in jail with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. while working on a campaign in Albany, Georgia. (“I called him ‘Martin,’ and he called me ‘Chuck,’ he told me.)
Nonviolent protest is a strategy for dramatizing a story that the dominant culture does not care to recognize. By the force of love, nonviolent direct action seeks to create a crisis so that the story as it exists cannot continue.
In occupying lunch counters, Jones and the thousands of young adults like him around the country were seizing their own power, and at the same time were showing white America what they could not, or would not, see — that by both their direct involvement and by their silent complicity, the posture of white America toward its Black neighbors was one of brutality. The cruelty of racism could not continue. Though white America did not want to know this, until the story changed, no one could be free. Jones and his companions were going to do their part in helping to write that new story.
In their Charlotte sit-ins, Jones and his student companions were announcing, and not for the first time, their presence, their unwillingness to be silent, and their intentions to force America to make good on its promises of justice for all. The story they were telling Charlotte was the story of Charlotte, a city of great promise and immense lost opportunity.
Back in 2013, after we learned the identity of the mystery man in our yard, we sent him a letter. Jones responded and stopped by again. Soon his visits, always unannounced, became regular. A friendship formed. (We suspect we are not the only ones who received these kinds of visits from him.) Each visit began with a series of introductions to each person in the room, usually done in song, and sometimes in rap.
For as long as we could keep him, we’d listen to stories from his childhood, or his time with SNCC, or his other activism work. Some involved names we did not know, and some included people everyone knows. Each afternoon like this was filled with humor and grace and tears. And then, when he was ready, which was always too soon, he would stand to offer a blessing before leaving.
A blessing is sort of like a story. But where a story relates events from the past, a blessing takes a story and directs it into the future. It bends time, casting from what is past, across people who are present, to try and shape what will be.
Jones would call on his ancestors, on the elders of the Freedom movement, and on his own brilliant mix of humility and grandiosity. He would look us in the eye and speak courage, compassion, and wisdom. He would call us to be our best selves. And then he would bop out the door until the next serendipitous afternoon.
With Jones’s death, our city lost one of its most important storytellers and living historical figures. But he would have reminded us that the work of freedom is now ours to do.
He would have exhorted us to do that work with great love and much perseverance. He often sang the old marching song to that effect: “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around, turn me around. Gonna keep on walkin’, keep on talkin’, marching up to freedom land.” That song closed his memorial service on Saturday.
Charles Jones is now an ancestor of his family, and of his people, and of this city. And he knew — his life showed — that sometimes, time still bends. It can happen most any afternoon. If you listen, you can hear the script of a new story being spoken — one where the promises of this city flow to every neighborhood and family, where equity and justice become the songs of our lives.
Greg Jarrell is a writer and pastor in Charlotte who leads the nonprofit QC Family tree. Reach him through his website, gregjarrell.com.