Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Career: Early Development

BOND: I've read that you decided at age eight to become a lawyer.

JONES: I did, I did.

BOND: What did you know about lawyers?

JONES: Well, it was unusual. It was an interesting story. I was, I think it was something -- well, precocious, I guess, or brazen, as my parents would call it. And I had a toothache. And one day coming home from school, I stopped at the dentist's office, an African American dentist's office, en route. I go in the office and he gives me a full set of x-rays and the whole treatment. I'm in there for almost two hours and I come home late and that's the end of that. And my parents don't ask anything about where I had been, or they assumed I had been over at a friend's house or something. The bill came from the dentist. I mean, it was some huge sum, something like a hundred dollars. Back then, it was big money. And so when my parents saw that, they said, "What is this? You didn't have any permission to go to the dentist. That's supposed to be discussed with us," you know. And it was --

My father was on the railroad. He said, "Look," – there was a court, you know, have to appear in court on a certain date because they didn't pay the bill, and they taped the notice up on the door. "You have to go to court." And so, the parents, my mother said, "I'm going to school." And my father said, "I'm not going to miss the trip on the railroad because of you and I'll have, you know, one of the family friends to go with you down to the court, but you're going to have to go down there." And I was petrified. I'm about eight, nine years old.

BOND: Really?

JONES: And so he had the family friend, an older gentleman, and we go to the court that morning. I never will forget it. The judge, the lawyers. The dentist didn't show up, but the dentist's lawyer is there. They called the case, and I go up with the family friend. And the judge looks at me and asks me -- they read out what had happened and the judge asked me, leaned over and asked me -- now I was very intimidated, this was the court house -- he said, "Young lady." I said, "Yes sir." He said, "Did you have your parent's permission to go to the dentist?"

Julian, that was a quandary for me. Because if I said no, I didn't have permission, it made me look as if I were a disobedient child, you know. If I said yes, it made me look as if I were, you know, doing what children ordinarily do with the parents, acting according to the way you're supposed to act. And something told me to tell the truth. It said, "Look, if you -- just tell the truth." And I said, "No, your Honor, I didn't." And he then turned to the lawyer for the dentist and said, "Well, then, does your client have the practice of doing full-mouth x-rays on eight year olds when they walk into the office with no slip, no call to the parents, nothing? Case dismissed."

And then I -- you know, I stood there. Now had I said, "Yes, I had permission," my folks would have had to pay that money. And so then – I always knew something about truth – but the power of truth came through to me then. That's the power of truth. Do not lie. My mama would say, "Elaine, I hate a liar." She would say, "I hate a liar. Tell the truth." And so when I got home, I was able to celebrate at that moment. But then all of the segregated water signs I would see when I'm going to church, in the bus – you know, we all had to sit in the back of the bus – to see in the neighborhood when the police came through, you know with their guns on their hips, they were all white. You know, just the impact of racism on the African American community was pervasive. It was profound and it was never ending. You always saw it. And so, then I made the connection between law and change.