Jones, William A., Jr.

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Jones, William A., Jr.


Minister, civil-rights leader

For more than four decades the Reverend William A. Jones Jr. was pastor of the 5,000-member Bethany Baptist Church in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. An internationally known religious and civil-rights leader, Jones preached racial harmony from pulpits around the world. His eloquent baritone and lyrical phrasing were heard every week on the Bethany Hour, broadcast on television and radio stations in 400 cities. His New York Times obituary quoted Jones as saying that good preaching is "a divine symphony played upon the instrument of a human tongue." In his fight for human rights and economic justice, Jones was outspoken, often controversial, and occasionally inflammatory.

Called to Preaching in the Army

William Augustus Jones Jr. was born on February 24, 1934, in Louisville, Kentucky, the son and grandson of Baptist ministers. It was a difficult birth and his mother, Mary E. Jones, did not expect her son to survive. Jones himself later described that he lived his life "with the feeling that divine providence has upheld, sustained, and directed my destiny," according to the New York Amsterdam News.

The family, including a number of siblings, moved to Lexington, Kentucky, in 1940 when Rev. W. A. Jones Sr. became pastor of the Historic Pleasant Green Missionary Baptist Church. It was the church in which William Jones Jr. would be ordained and begin his career as a preacher. Jones graduated from high school in Lexington and entered the University of Kentucky where, despite his six-foot-five frame, he was barred from college basketball because of his race.

Jones enlisted in the army in 1954, planning for a military career. However as a first lieutenant stationed at Fort Knox, Kentucky, he began to preach. He was quoted in the Washington Post: "I was down at the motor pool, actually preaching to the trucks. The trucks were my congregation." The Sunday after his discharge in 1956 Jones announced his calling from the pulpit of his father's church.

After earning his bachelor's degree with honors from the University of Kentucky, Jones began preaching around the state. The New York Amsterdam News, in its account of his funeral service, quoted Jones as having said, "The Black worship experience was to me a perfect marriage of sense and soul. I had no real choice. The order was clear. The compulsion was overwhelming."

Became an Activist

Jones's career as an activist began at the Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. There he teamed up with Leon Sullivan and his Opportunities Industrialization Center. At Jones's funeral, Rev. Johnny Ray Youngblood recalled their days as students, as quoted in the New York Amsterdam News: "When I first saw him I thought of Paul Bunyan, of Goliath…he was bigger than life itself, and could linguistically slay all of his enemies." Jones graduated with a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1961 and earned his doctorate in 1975. His doctoral thesis was entitled The Gospel and the Ghetto.

In 1961 Jones joined his friend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in splitting from conservative Baptists to form the Progressive National Baptist Convention, an organization that by 2006 included more than 2,000 churches with 2.5 million members. Its stated purpose was "To redeem the soul of America."

Within a few months of joining the Bethany Baptist Church in 1962, Jones led 75 other ministers in a protest against discriminatory union hiring practices at the State University of New York's Health Science Center in Brooklyn. More than 700 people were arrested in the protest, including Jones's children. The participation of blacks in the building trades increased as a result of the protest.

Jones opened a cafeteria and banquet hall to serve the residents of poverty-stricken Bedford-Stuyvesant. His New York Times obituary included a Jones quote from 1963: "You can't talk religion to a hungry man." Jones oversaw the construction of the new Bethany Baptist Church that opened in 1967. By the twenty-first century it had grown into a multi-faceted organization with a fulltime staff of 27. All of the funding for Jones's programs came from his church. He steadfastly refused to accept outside funding, viewing it as a corrupting influence.

Organized the A&P Boycott

Jones was the first chairman of the New York chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), co-founded by King. In the late 1960s Jones headed the New York office of Operation Breadbasket, the economic-development arm of the SCLC. Its goal was to bring jobs and economic opportunity to urban blacks. Jones led thousands of people in a boycott of the Atlantic & Pacific grocery-store chain, protesting racial discrimination. The boycott temporarily closed down stores and ultimately led to job opportunities for blacks at A&Ps and other supermarket chains.

Jones's determination to end discrimination remained consistent throughout his life. The Rev. Herb Daughtry, vice chair of the group, was quoted by the New York Amsterdam News as saying: "I remember the time we all went to jail together for demonstrations against injustices, particularly against the A&P Corporation for its discriminatory practices. Rev. Jones demonstrated the same defiance and fortitude when it came to fighting to end the draconian laws of apartheid in South Africa, or police brutality here at home." Jones also worked for jobs and racial equality in other sectors including the bread and bottling industries.

In 1969 Jones became the first black to run for Brooklyn borough president. He finished third in a field of four candidates. He became acting national chairman of the SCLC in 1972, following the resignation of Jesse Jackson.

At a Glance …

Born William Augustus Jones Jr. on February 24, 1934, in Louisville, KY; died February 4, 2006, in Brooklyn, NY; married Natalie Barkley Brown; children: William Augustus III, Elsa Elisabeth, Lesley-Diann, Jennifer. Education: University of Kentucky, BA, sociology, 1958; Crozer Theological Seminary, BD, 1961; Colgate Rochester-Bexley Hall-Crozer Theological Seminary, PhD, 1975; University of Lagos and University of Ghana, completed special studies. Military Service: U.S. Army, private, first lieutenant, 1954-56. Religion: Baptist. Politics: Democrat.


First Baptist Church, Philadelphia, PA, pastor, 1959-62; Bethany Baptist Church, Brooklyn, NY, pastor, 1962-2005; Colgate Rochester-Bexley Hall-Crozer Theological Seminary, Rochester, NY, professor of black church studies, 1972-76; Union Theological Seminary, New York, NY, visiting professor, 1975-76; NBC's Art of Living, preacher, 1977; visiting/adjunct professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, Wesley Theological Seminary, and United Theological Seminary; preacher at churches, conventions, conferences, and colleges and universities in the United States, England, Israel, India, Australia, and West Africa.

Selected memberships:

Colgate Rochester Divinity School, trustee; Kings County Hospital, board chairman; National Black Pastors Conference, cofounder; Progressive National Baptist Convention, president; SCLC, founder/chairman of Greater New York chapter, national chairman.

Selected awards:

Black Heritage Association Award, 1971; New York Urban League, Frederick Douglas Award, 1972; State of Kentucky, Kentucky Colonel Commission, 1976; Ebony Magazine, 100 Most Influential Black Americans, 1979; honorary doctorates from Benedict College, Campbell University, Cumberland College, Shaw University, Simmons University, and the University of Kentucky.

Led Boycott of the Daily News

In a 1980 interview with the New York Times Jones spoke of making his congregation aware of the meaning of Christmas: "With all the distractions, it's hard for the people to focus on the realities. Superficial things become so strong…the season is crowded by extraneous things, yet it represents the very warp and woof of the faith—it presents a real challenge to the preacher who wants to be creative and redemptive…The problems are growing at a geometric rather than arithmetic rate. Given the sweeping tide of conservatism, I have to do two things. I feel I must prepare my people for any eventuality and at the same time engender hope in them."

When Jones co-founded the National Black Pastors Conference, a coalition of 3,000 ministers and priests, in 1979, he hoped that it would become a strong political force. As quoted in his New York Times obituary: "We have our finger on all the black churches in this country. Just imagine 12,000 black churches saying, ‘Go out and vote.’ We could change the nation and change the world."

In 1984 Jones held a press conference at the Harvest Manor, a restaurant owned by Bethany Baptist in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. Speaking for the Organization of African American Clergy representing more than 350 congregations, he announced, as quoted in the New York Times, "Beginning Monday May 6, 1984, and continuing until justice is done, The New York Daily News, the nation's largest daily, is declared off limits to black consumer dollars." The boycott followed 16 months of unsuccessful negotiations between black ministers and the newspaper, which they accused of not adequately covering the black community. Jones complained that blacks constituted one-half of the paper's readership but only 5 percent of its employees. Black ministers throughout the metropolitan area were asked to inform their parishioners of the boycott.

Gained Notoriety

Jones had mentored the Reverend Al Sharpton since Sharpton had been the teenaged youth leader of Operation Breadbasket. As Sharpton's pastor and advisor, Jones allowed him to use Bethany Baptist as his headquarters during the 1988 Tawana Brawley affair. Brawley was a 15-year-old black girl who claimed to have been abducted and sexually assaulted by a white man who then wrote racial slurs on her body. Sharpton had publicized the incident, which was later determined to be a hoax. For 40 days Jones gave sanctuary to Brawley's mother so she could avoid testifying under oath. Sharpton was quoted in Jones's New Amsterdam obituary: "Rev. Jones refused to budge despite the threats. He risked his church, but that was the kind of man and spiritual leader he was." Jones also provided a platform for controversial speakers, such as Leonard Jeffries, a professor at the City College of New York who was widely criticized for making anti-Semitic statements.

While acting as spokesman for the Baptist Pastors Churches Union, a group of 64 churches in Brooklyn and Queens, Jones endorsed New York Mayor David N. Dinkins in his 1993 reelection campaign against Rudolph Guiliani. The New York Times quoted from Jones's speech: "Elements that can best be described as fascist seem to have grown up and flowered around Mr. Giuliani." Guiliani characterized the remark as an anti-Italian slur and a furor erupted. However Jones said his remark was not an ethnic slur because "Fascism philosophically transcends ethnicity."

After the 1999 fatal shooting of New York City resident Amadou Diallo, an immigrant from Guinea, by New York City police officers, Jones joined Sharpton and others to form the Amadou Diallo Coalition of more than 70 organizations and including religious leaders, elected officials, and grassroots activists. Their goal was to attack institutionalized racism in New York City through a comprehensive economic boycott.

Retired in 2005

Jones retired as pastor emeritus in September of 2005. He died of complications from kidney disease after a long illness on February 4, 2006, in his Brooklyn home. In Jones's obituary the Amsterdam News quoted the Rev. John Scott: "We worked together for decades as brothers in the ministry and in the struggle for justice. He was not afraid to speak up for what he believed was right, and he was jailed more than once for his efforts. Rev. Jones truly inhabited this world for the betterment of human kind."

In January of 2006, the school of theology at Simmons College in Louisville, which was co-founded by Jones' grandfather, the Rev. Henry Wise Jones, was renamed the William Augustus Jones, Jr. School of Preaching.

Selected works


(With others) The Black Church Looks at the Bicentennial, Progressive National Baptist Publishing House, 1976.

"Freedom of Conscience, the Black Experience in America," in Religious Liberty in the Crossfire of Creeds, Ecumenical Press, 1978.

God in the Ghetto, Progressive Baptist Publishing House, 1979.

Responsible Preaching, Aaron Press, 1989.

(With others) The African American Church: Past, Present and Future, Martin Luther King Fellows Press, 1991.

When God Says, ‘Let Me Alone,’ CSS, 1998.

Video recordings

(With others) Chapel Address, 1981, Nov. 17-20, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1981.

The Inseparable Love, Forum on Black Preaching, 1986.

Sound recordings

Antidote for Anxiety, Broadcasting and Film Commission, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., 1977.

When the Word Becomes Flesh, Colgate Rochester Divinity School/Bexley Hall/Crozer Theological Seminary, 1979.

Evening Addresses, Protestant Radio & TV Center, 1980.

Doorway to Destiny, Hampton University, 1985.

The Problem of the Present Past, Hampton University, 1985.



Lexington Herald-Leader (KY), February 6, 2006.

Los Angeles Times, February 10, 2006, p. B11.

New York Amsterdam News, February 9-15, 2006, p. 43; February 16-22, 2006, p. 6.

New York Beacon, February 16-22, 2006, p. 2.

New York Times, December 10, 1980, p. B1; May 3, 1984, p. B11; October 1, 1993, p. B4; February 8, 2006, p. C16.

Washington Post, February 8, 2006, p. B6.