For Black History month, it makes sense to honor a First Amendment hero of the highest order. Roscoe Jones certainly qualifies. This African-American Jehovah Witness preacher had the temerity to travel all across the Southeast promoting his religious faith even in all-white areas.
Courage apparently came naturally for Jones, who was born in 1895 in Raleigh, North Carolina. He saw heavy combat duty in World War I. Facing German bombardments in France, Jones recounted the German bombing in his 1968 Watchtower article “Putting Kingdom Interests First”:
At first it was frightening. Many of the men passed out from shell shock. After the first fifteen minutes I became calm and began to think of the many Bible topics my father had discussed with me. I recalled how God protected those who served him, and I made a sincere vow to God that night. If I ever lived through this nightmare and was permitted to learn more about His ways, I would devote myself to telling others the truth about him and his purposes.
Jones, who later became a battalion scout, survived the war and held true to his vows – he spent the remainder of his life with his wife Thelma preaching the Bible. Initially a member of the Baptist church, he briefly served as a Methodist before converting to the Jehovah Witness faith in the 1920s.
His calling as a Jehovah Witness sent him to Opelika, Alabama, where he was charged with selling books without a license. He took his fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where he lost by a single vote, 5-4. In Jones v. City of Opelika I (1942), the Supreme Court majority upheld the ordinance, emphasizing that it did not discriminate among different religions. Justice Harlan Fiske Stone wrote a dissenting opinion, comparing the Opelika tax to the infamous Stamp Act that led to the American Revolution. Justice Frank Murphy also dissented, writing that the taxes imposed “are in reality taxes upon the dissemination of religious ideas.”
It seemed as if Jones lost his case, as the U.S. Surpeme Court ruled against him. However, the Supreme Court took a similar case the next year, Murdock v. Pennsylvania (1943) and the Court heard re-argument in Jones’ case. In Jones v. City of Opelika II (1943), the Court vacated its previous decision.
Alabama wasn’t the only state where Jones faced abject discrimination. In La Grange, Georgia, a group of policeman beat Jones, as he later wrote, “without mercy” in a court basement. One policeman took out his pistol and told Jones if he didn’t leave town, he would shoot him.
Perhaps because he faced even greater danger from German bombing in World War I or purely from his devout religious convictions, Jones was not kowtowed. He stayed in La Grange and left on his own accord.
Roscoe Jones was a First Amendment hero and a man of astonishing courage.
David L. Hudson, Jr., a Visiting Associate Professor of Legal Practice at Belmont University College of Law, is a First Amendment attorney and author who has written, co-written, or co-edited more than 40 books, including First Amendment: Freedom of Speech (Thomson Reuters, 2012) and Documents Decoded: Freedom of Speech (ABC-CLIO, 2017).