Johnnie A. Jones Sr. was 24 years old, a future civil rights lawyer not yet graduated from college, when he landed on the beaches of Normandy in the D-Day invasion of 1944.
“I remember it all,” Mr. Jones told a Veterans Affairs publication last year. “Sometimes reminiscing is a terrible thing. … I lay down at night, and as soon as I close my eyes, I relive the whole D-Day invasion.”
When Mr. Jones returned home to Louisiana, he was greeted not with a hero’s welcome, but rather with all the indignities of segregation in the Jim Crow South.
Riding a bus with fellow U.S. service members, Mr. Jones, who was African American, was forced to sit in the back of the coach. He was driving to New Orleans to have shrapnel removed from his neck when a White police officer, entirely unprovoked, pulled him over and began assaulting him.
“He knocked me down and started kicking me,” Mr. Jones said. “Things weren’t right. ‘Separate but equal’ was unconstitutional, and I wanted to fight it and make it better.”
Mr. Jones did so by enrolling in law school and becoming a lawyer in the early years of the civil rights movement. He was 102 when he died on April 23 at a veterans’ home in Jackson, La. A goddaughter, Mada McDonald, confirmed his death but did not cite a cause.
Mr. Jones was credited with fighting legal battles on multiple fronts of the movement for racial equality.
He worked with voter leagues and with civil rights organizations, including the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). He assisted demonstrators who participated in lunch-counter sit-ins. Twice his car was bombed, he said.
After the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed segregation in public schools, he helped accompany about 30 Black children to a White elementary school in Baton Rouge, historian Adam Fairclough wrote in the volume “Race and Democracy: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana, 1915-1972.”
But Mr. Jones played perhaps his most significant role in the 1953 Baton Rouge bus boycott, a long-overlooked event that helped inspire the landmark boycott two years later in Montgomery, Ala., prompted by the arrest of Rosa Parks.
Mr. Jones was only two weeks out of law school in June 1953 when the Rev. T.J. Jemison, a founding member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, invited him to represent the organizers of the effort in Baton Rouge.
“I told him, ‘That’s an awfully big suit to fill,’” Mr. Jones recalled to a reporter in 2015. “But he said, ‘Nonsense, Brother Jones, you can do it.’”
The Baton Rouge demonstration was touched off when Martha White, an African American housekeeper, ignited a controversy by taking a seat in a section of a public bus reserved for White riders. During the eight-day boycott that followed, activists organized car pools that allowed participants to travel to and from work without riding city buses. Eighty percent of the city’s bus ridership at the time was African American.
The boycott ended with the partial desegregation of city buses, with the front two rows of seats reserved for White people and the last two rows for Black people. While some protesters had hoped for a more dramatic outcome, historians today describe the Baton Rouge boycott as a prototype of others to come.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. consulted with organizers in Baton Rouge before organizing the Montgomery boycott, which lasted 382 days and ended with a Supreme Court ruling desegregating the Montgomery transit system.
“Almost unnoticed at the time,” the Baton Rouge protest “was a direct precursor of the Montgomery bus boycott,” Fairclough wrote, “and an event of major significance in the evolution of the civil rights movement.”
Johnnie Anderson Jones was born Nov. 30, 1919, in Laurel Hill, La., and was raised on a plantation where his parents farmed. He attended a two-room schoolhouse and became interested in the law, he said, when a teacher gave him a book by Charles Evans Hughes, then the chief justice of the United States.
“While we were out in the fields picking cotton, I would be thinking about what I read in that book,” Mr. Jones told the Advocate of Baton Rouge. “I couldn’t stand the sight of people picking cotton. … Everything it represented.”
Mr. Jones enrolled at Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, planning to major in industrial education.
He was drafted into the Army during World War II and was tasked with unloading equipment during the Normandy invasion. He later served in Northern France, reaching the rank of warrant officer.
Upon his return to the United States, he resumed his studies and changed his major to psychology, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1949. He received a law degree, also from Southern University, in 1953.
Mr. Jones served briefly in the Louisiana House of Representatives in the 1970s.
He continued practicing law into his 90s. In 2012, the Associated Press reported that the Louisiana Supreme Court suspended him from the practice of law for one year after he refused to return $10,000 in legal fees from a client who had fired him.
Mr. Jones’s marriage to Sebell Chase ended in divorce. He was predeceased by his four children, Johnnie A. Jones Jr., Adal Jones, Adair Jones and Ann Jones. Survivors include many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
During his service in World War II, Mr. Jones sustained shrapnel wounds that he would bear for the rest of his life.
“The doctor told me it would really hurt in 75 years, but I wouldn’t have to worry about that,” he said in 2021. “I fooled him. It hurts, and I’m still picking it out of my head and arm. A piece came out just above my left eye yesterday.”
He waited nearly eight decades for his service to be recognized with a Purple Heart, receiving the award only last year. The long delay was symbolic of what he saw as the slow move toward justice in the civil rights movement.
“It’s going to take a while,” Mr. Jones told the Advocate. “You just need to be willing to take a stand.”