Alumna pushes for more investigation into death of civil rights leader

Alumna pushes for more investigation into death of civil rights leader

This portrait of Alberta O. Jones hangs in a hallway at Brandeis School of Law.

As a first-year student at the Brandeis School of Law, Lee Remington Williams was passing through a hallway featuring portraits of civil rights leaders when she was struck by one in particular: Alberta O. Jones.

Jones was the first black woman admitted to the bar and to be named a prosecuting attorney in Kentucky. She prosecuted domestic violence cases and organized for voting rights.

"I just remember being incredulous, almost," said Williams, a 2003 Brandeis graduate. "I had never heard of her. I started asking around, and a lot of people had never heard of her."

"(Brandeis) is the first entity to have her portrait hanging anywhere," she said "It was the Brandeis School of Law that recognized her accomplishments."

But another line in the placard under Jones' portrait stuck with Williams: "Ms. Jones' short but very productive life was ended by unknown assailants. The case of her murder remains open but unsolved."

Jones was murdered in August 1965, when she was beaten unconscious and thrown in the Ohio River. She was 34 years old.

After seeing Jones' portrait, Williams decided to write a book about her, with the idea to focus on her impressive career and role as a civil rights leader.

"She was a trailblazer," Williams said. "She was so good at crossing racial lines. I wish she was here today."

Jones was the first attorney for Cassius Clay, who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali. She negotiated his first boxing contract.

"Imagine a woman in 1965 getting on a plane with a client and flying out to California to negotiate a boxing contract," Williams said.

And when the 1964 Civil Rights Act was languishing in Congress, Jones and other Louisville civil rights leaders pushed for its passage, encouraging local blacks and whites to eat dinner together to get to know each other.

"She just touched so many people," Williams said. "She was a very transcending individual."

After graduating from Brandeis, Williams sat for the bar and then began graduate school to get her Ph.D. in judicial politics. That process took seven years, and she took a professor job at Bellarmine University during that time.

Williams, who now heads up Bellarmine's Pre-Law program, was at Bellarmine in 2012 when the university awarded an honorary degree to former Louisville mayor and Jefferson County judge-executive David Armstrong.

Williams and Armstrong went to lunch and she told him about her plans for the book about Jones. He encouraged her to pursue the book immediately, while witnesses from the murder case were still alive.

So Williams obtained a copy of the case file through an open-records request and started following up on leads and calling witnesses who are still alive. She's sent a letter to Louisville Metro Police Chief Steve Conrad encouraging him to reopen the case.

And Williams has become close with Jones' family, who encourage the case to be reopened as well.

"They really deserve to have justice," Williams said. "This has become more than a book project. If I never sell a copy but find her family some measure of justice, that would be fine with me."