Lessons from the past by a man who lived it

Former 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Nathaniel Jones

On Friday, October 29, I had the privilege of serving as keynote speaker for the conference titled From Redlining to White Flight: The History of Housing Segregation & The Importance of Regionalism.” The conference was a partnership between the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion and Cooley Law School.

The purpose of the program was to educate attendees about past practices and decisions that have led to the segregated housing patterns that we see in metropolitan Detroit today.  One of historic turning points for the region was the 1974 case of Milliken v. Bradley. In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a plan for cross-district busing in metropolitan Detroit. The morning portion of the conference included a re-enactment of the Supreme Court oral arguments in Milliken v Bradley.

The cast of re-life justices who participated in the re-enactment included Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Marilyn Kelly, U.S. District Judges David Lawson and Denise Page Hood, 40th District Court Judge Joseph Oster, and retired Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge James L. Ryan. Attendees, comprised mostly of Cooley law students and high school students from Macomb and Oakland Counties and the City of Detroit, were able to sit in a crowded courtroom and experience the case as it was presented back in the early1970s. 

I attended the conference to talk about historical population and housing trends in Southeast Michigan. It is impossible to look at federal housing and transportation policies and the long-term effects of Milliken v. Bradley without having a deeper understanding of why metro Detroit remains so racially polarized. Housing redlining kept neighborhoods segregated, federal mortgage policies and the building of the freeways subsidized suburban sprawl, and the prohibition of forced busing encouraged white flight.   

During the conference, I was able to sit beside someone who fought in the trenches to insure that Detroit’s children had an opportunity to live in a diverse world—an opportunity that was squandered by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Milliken case. The person sitting next to me on the panel[1] was Nathaniel R. Jones, retired judge for the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals and current Senior Counsel and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer for the firm Blank Rome LLP. 

His bio reads like a history of the Civil Rights Movement.  He started his career in Youngstown, Ohio in 1956 as executive director of its Employment Practices Commission.  In 1960, President Kennedy appointed him assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio.  He went on to serve as deputy general counsel to the Kerner Commission on Civil Disorders which investigated the race riots that occurred across the country in 1967; general counsel of the NAACP, a position formerly held by Justice Thurgood Marshall; played an important role in furthering the abolition of apartheid in South Africa; and was consulted by the drafters of South Africa’s new constitution.

As general counsel for the NAACP, Judge Jones argued Milliken v. Bradley in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, and shared with the audience many little-known facts about the case and the participants – facts that will play a prominent role in his upcoming memoir.

Listening to Judge Jones, it is abundantly clear how Detroit’s past still profoundly influences us today. It was especially gratifying that young people were in the audience, people who will blaze our path to the future now armed with the lessons of the past. How fortunate we are to have people like Judge Jones to help show us the way.

[1] The other panel members brought a great deal of experience as well and included Clifford Shrupp, Executive Director (since its creation in 1977) of the Fair Housing Center of Metropolitan Detroit; Assistant U.S. Attorney and Chief of the Civil Rights Unit (in the Eastern District of Michigan) Judy Levy, and Elliott S. Hall, a Partner of Dykema Gossett and long time fixture in the Detroit legal community.