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In 'Chairman Jones,' A Look At Leadership Amid Struggle For Integration

A video still of James Henry Jones, the focus of the documentary "Chairman Jones: An Improbable Leader."
Anna Jones
A video still of James Henry Jones, the focus of the documentary "Chairman Jones: An Improbable Leader."

James Henry Jones, a self-educated farmer in northeastern North Carolina, emerged as a trailblazer in the effort to integrate schools and address inequality in education in the late 1960s. Along the way, Jones became the state's first black school board chairman. The story of his impact on the civil rights movement is told in the 2015 documentary film, "Chairman Jones: An Improbable Leader."

The film's creator and director, Anna Jones, is the daughter of James Henry Jones who died in 1984. She joined All Things Considered host Mark Rumsey to discuss the impact her father had on education and the film.

Mark Rumsey: How did events in Northampton County, North Carolina, fit into the larger picture of what was happening in other regions and school districts during this era in terms of desegregation efforts?

Anna Jones: Well this is not a replay of Birmingham or Little Rock or even Charlotte for that matter. This is a unique Northampton County story. This is the rural perspective on the civil rights movement in terms of education. Northampton County refused to file a Brown vs. Board (suit) to integrate the schools. It took them 15 years before they made any movement toward integration. And Northampton is a county that's predominantly black county. It has been that way since the 18th century when the plantation system was introduced there. So it was a different kind of integration issue for them. How do you integrate the schools' system when you have the predominant percentage of blacks in that county?

Mark Rumsey: Your father James Henry Jones did become the first black school board chairman in the state of North Carolina. When did that happen and what was the significance of that? How did it impact things?

Anna Jones: OK, that happened in 1980. So once he became chairman of the board and then he brought in their first black school board — I'm sorry — their first black school superintendent. And together they were able to pull blacks and whites together, dismantle all the vestiges of segregation ... work together in a coalition of blacks and whites to get the schools accredited, and move forward so that everybody could have an opportunity for quality education in Northampton County. It took some doing and it took some time, but under my father's leadership, this is what happened. He was the leader of this coalition of people, blacks and whites, who worked together to get all of those schools funded and accredited.

Mark Rumsey: Well Ms. Jones, the film "Chairman Jones: An Improbable Leader" has garnered audiences and acclaim at festivals and events far and wide from North Carolina to Europe. I'm wondering what impact has the film had on the conversation about school integration and equality in this country in recent years?

Anna Jones: Some of the conversations that take place following these screenings have to do with what is going on in society today about school integration and resegregation and those kinds of things. But we're also talking about leadership. We talk about the character of the man, the leadership, and what we need today to help us with the issues that we're dealing with and how to go about developing that kind of leadership.

Mark Rumsey: Anna Jones is the daughter of James Henry Jones and she's also director of the documentary film, "Chairman Jones: An Improbable Leader." And Ms. Jones, thanks very much for your conversation with us.

Anna Jones: Thank you very much. It's a pleasure.