Like most people in SNCC, Charles Jones was deeply rooted in a direct action past. A divinity student and student body president at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina, he was driving in his car when news came on the radio about the sit-ins in nearby Greensboro, North Carolina. “Yes. This is our handle! Let’s rock and roll,” he thought. The very next day, Jones started organizing Johnson C. Smith students for sit-ins in Charlotte. He attended SNCC’s inaugural conference at Shaw University in April 1960 and never looked back.
A year later, Charles Jones, accompanied by SNCC’s Diane Nash, Charles Sherrod, and Ruby Doris Smith, traveled to Rock Hill, South Carolina to join sit-ins there. Fourteen Rock Hill students had been arrested for sitting in at a lunch counter. The students refused to pay bail and contribute to an unjust system. The Rock Hill students inspired SNCC’s “Jail No Bail” policy. Jones, Nash, Sherrod, and Smith were arrested, and this was the first time SNCC students served out their full sentences. The four brought their books to jail with them, but the guard took them away, exclaiming “This is a prison–not a damned school.”
During that year, the Freedom Rides helped the Movement gain national attention. The Kennedy Administration tried to rein in the young organizers and dissuade SNCC from using direct action. They pressed SNCC to engage in voter registration work and offered protection to those that did. SNCC fiercely debated whether or not to do it. Some worried that the Kennedys were trying to co-opt the Movement. Others thought that SNCC should pursue voter registration in order to gain meaningful Black power. During a heated meeting at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, Ella Baker, who rarely intervened in SNCC’s arguments, suggested the formation of two wings: a voter registration wing and a direct action wing. Charles Jones became the head of the voter registration wing, and Diane Nash the head of the direct action wing.
In August 1961, Jones was among the core group of SNCC people who decided not to return to school and to commit themselves full-time to the Movement. He joined Charles Sherrod, Cordell Reagon, and Bernice Johnson in Albany, a college town in Southwest Georgia. In that city, voter registration and direct action protest blurred.
The same was true in SNCC’s efforts in McComb, Mississippi. Jones left Georgia to organize there, and it became increasingly clear that the Kennedy Administration could not offer the protection they promised. After the McComb student walkout, Jones asked the administration to protect the organizers who were being beaten in jail. The administration sent the John Doar, Assistant Attorney General, to Mississippi. When Doar arrived in Mississippi, he told Jones, “I’m just as frightened as you are right now.”
After the McComb student walked out, several organizers were arrested for “contributing to the delinquency of a minor.” The police were looking for Jones and tracked him to a local grocery store. They busted into the store and announced that they were looking for Charles Jones. Jones turned his back to the police, put on an apron, and started cutting meat. The police came and asked if he had seen Charles Jones. He kept his head low, and said, “I don’t know no Charles Jones… but if I see him I’ll let you know.”
Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981).
Wesley Hogan, Many Minds, One Heart: SNCC’s Dream for a New America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007).
Howard Zinn, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964).
Charles Jones [26:00], Tape 8, SNCC 40th Anniversary Conference, Shaw University, 2000, SNCC 40th Anniversary Tapes, Duke University Libraries.
Interview with Charles Jones, 2013, Johnson C. Smith University.
Interview with Charles Jones, 2011, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission.