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The Trials of Jones

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Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean somebody isn't out to get you. That pretty well sums up the personal philosophy of Andrew D. Jones. "Oh yes," he says, "when I start explaining my ideas, people look at me kind of funny, like I been shooting up some of that brown Mexican heroin. But you know, injustices have been done, and I gotta speak the truth even if nobody's paying attention. I'm like a stoplight that keeps flashing green, yellow, red--whether there's any cars on the street or not. That's what it does. That's its job. I do what I have to."

If you listen to late-night radio call-in shows, you may have heard some of Jones's opinions--at least until he got cut off, which happens regularly. If you're a preacher at a black church, chances are you've been buttonholed after a Sunday service by Jones, who explained how churches ought to unite for an all-out war on gangs, drugs, and AIDS. If you're an elected official, you've probably received a string of letters from him, studded with scriptural quotes and illustrated with photos of various leaders and celebrities. The problem is determining what Jones is writing about, because in his mind politics, religion, race relations, and his own injuries tend to become intertwined.

The world is full of angry, hostile people, quietly nurturing old wrongs while lashing out at anyone who gets too close. Not Andrew Jones. He's anything but quiet, especially about the "terrible things" that were done to him some 22 years ago, but he seems devoid of hostility. It's not revenge he wants, only a restoration of balance. It's as if he thinks the whole moral order was thrown off by the injustice he endured, and attention must be paid.

Today Jones is sitting in the bright living room of the flat he shares with a friend in the South Shore neighborhood. It's difficult to believe he's 77 years old, for he stands well over six feet and has huge hamlike hands, broad shoulders, and powerful arms. "Physically, I'm doing fine," he says. "I believe the Lord's taking care of me." He rubs his hand over the short crop of black hair on the top of his head. "Used to be bald up here," he grins. "But my hair seems to be coming back." There's a kind of infectious cheerfulness about him--he has a ready smile and scatters good-natured quips through his nonstop observations on many subjects.

Jones's misfortunes began in 1970. He has been fired from jobs. He's seen his business ventures collapse or never get off the ground. His wife divorced him, and he has little contact with his children. He was even "defellowshiped" by the Jehovah's Witnesses--an ironic development given that his passionate devotion to the group's principles is at the root of a lot of his troubles. "I believe God will return to destroy wickedness," he says. "Maybe not tomorrow, but justice will be done." Meanwhile, he believes, it's his duty to denounce injustice wherever he sees it.

Jones was born in Jackson, Tennessee, but spent most of his early years in Indiana Harbor, Indiana. His father, a part-time inventor who developed an innovative shock absorber for automobiles for which he never received a patent, worked in the steel mills to provide his family with a modest income. After high school, where Jones displayed artistic ability, the family moved to Chicago's south side. Jones held a series of jobs in grocery stores and other small enterprises owned and operated by his mother and sister, then served in the U.S. Army as a radio operator during World War II. In 1953 he married, and he and his wife had four children.

Perhaps the most significant event in his life was his entry into the Jehovah's Witnesses in 1956. "As a young man I never had much to do with religion," he says. "I'd seen some ministers playing around with the women, and taking all the money they could get from their people." But when a friend introduced him to the Witnesses and their strict, no-nonsense, unorthodox interpretation of scripture, he was intrigued. "I studied, read the books, and attended services on Sunday and twice on week nights." And like most good Witnesses, he knocked on doors and handed out copies of the Watchtower. "I'm glad I joined," he says. "But you know, I've been subjected to so much adversity I believe I'm being tested to see if I can stand by myself without wavering."

The first and greatest "test" involved his job as a laborer in the main post office, where he started working in 1958, maintaining a flawless record for ten years. On April 4, 1968, Jones called in sick with flulike symptoms. The next day, he says, was his day off, so he stayed in bed. On April 6 he was so sick he visited his doctor, who said he had the Asian flu. For the next nine days Jones was on medication and home in bed. When he returned to work on April 14, he brought along a statement from the doctor certifying that he had been to the doctor's office and was seriously ill. But his superiors noted that the certificate explained only his absence from April 6 on--not the two previous days.

Jones says that when he protested, one foreman suggested he have the doctor rewrite the date on the certificate to say Jones visited him on April 4 instead of April 6. Jones became adamant. "I would never ask anyone to falsify a statement for me or anyone else," he insisted. That would make a mockery of his beliefs. But he returned to the doctor, who agreed to alter the certificate to say that though he had seen him on April 6, Jones's symptoms were serious enough that he must have been incapacitated for at least the two previous days. Not good enough, ruled postal officials. Jones was charged with being AWOL, suspended without pay for three days, and warned he would be summarily fired if he had another such violation in the next two years. Jones appealed through his unions, the National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees and the Mail Handlers Union, to no effect.

In 1969, before two years had passed, Jones took several days off because his wife was away on business and he didn't want to leave their children unattended. He believed he was entitled to take the time off as unpaid personal business days. The postal authorities disagreed and fired him. Appeals were filed and hearings held, but union representatives and private attorneys couldn't alter the decision. Jones insists their efforts were feeble and perfunctory.

I first met Jones in 1973, more than three years after his dismissal, when I was working as a reporter for the Chicago Daily Defender. I was impressed with his sincerity and sheer persistence. He had no bitterness or animosity, only a burning conviction that an enormous wrong had to be righted. I wrote several stories about him and his cause. William Lewis Jr., president of the Chicago local of the National Alliance, said everyone was sorry about what had happened. "Jones was a victim of a rigid and unfair leave program," he told me at the time. "But he clearly ran afoul of the strict agreement, and they dumped him."

Jones charged from the beginning that his religion was a major factor in his firing. "It wasn't that I was going around preaching or trying to make converts," he says. "I just used to mention religious subjects once in a while." Because the Witnesses' beliefs can appear strange--the ban on blood transfusions, for example--Jones says he was sometimes ridiculed by superiors and fellow workers. He still believes this intolerance, along with his refusal to take the easy way out, was the reason no one would give him a break.

The height of Jones's letter-writing campaign was in 1973. He hit almost everyone with influence, including Jesse Jackson, Mayor Richard J. Daley, Representative Ralph Metcalfe, President Richard Nixon, countless Chicago aldermen, Cook County board members, judges, and lawyers. A few wrote back, expressing vague concern. Most did not. "What better stand could I take to be a good worker...than to follow all the postal laws and regulations, the code of ethics and the rules that came though the general orders?" he declared in one widely distributed missive on which he included pictures of himself, then-postmaster Henry McGee, and National Alliance president Lewis.

Nineteen years later he has slowed down a bit, but his troubles only seem to mount. His break with the Witnesses occurred in 1980, after he began urging leaders at his south-side Kingdom Hall to expand their evangelistic campaign. "I told them that Jesus wanted us to go into the whole world, not just into individual homes. I wanted to know why we didn't personally go to leaders in politics and finance and religion and spread the word of the Lord there. They need to hear it more than anybody." His insistence led to his being "defellowshiped"--a kind of excommunication. Persistent as ever, he returned to services for a time, until, he says, church elders called the police and ordered him off the premises. He still regards himself as a Witness and attends services in other Kingdom Halls from time to time. "Funny thing, isn't it?" he laughs. "I get kicked out for being a prophet in my own religion."

Until 1979 Jones operated the Arena Driving School (whose colorful advertising posters, designed by Jones, can still be seen on the walls of abandoned south-side buildings). The school failed because customers were scarce and, he admits, he had shortcomings when it came to managing funds. His marriage came apart in the mid-1970s. His wife twice attempted to divorce him, but the proceedings were unsuccessful because Jones contested her charges of desertion. "I had to," he says. "I was living in my own house. To go along with her claim would have been a lie." She finally won her case, charging mental cruelty. "How can you contest mental cruelty?" he asks. "It's whatever a person thinks it is." His children, all of whom have gone to college (one recently returned from the Peace Corps), have no regular contact with him. Jones says they sided with their mother, who never understood his tenacious devotion to fundamentalist principles.

He worked for three years in the 1980s as a school-bus driver, only to be fired after being accused of striking a child. Jones denied the charge, claiming that as a Witness, he was totally opposed to violence, and the company received a dozen letters from parents who called Jones "patient," "understanding," "reasonable," "dedicated," and "a man for whom safety is a first concern." The company declined to reconsider.

"I imagine you can see there's a kind of pattern in all this," says Jones. "Don't you think?"

As a crusading Jehovah's Witness, he still tries to spread the word in areas he feels his former colleagues are ignoring. On the subject of street crime, he's a hard-liner. He would like to see a war on drug dealers, with SWAT teams patrolling neighborhoods armed with guns and hoses that would spray nonremovable dye on anyone spotted in the vicinity of a drug deal. He wants martial law in the streets and quick, nonappealable convictions. "I'd make it real convenient for the gangbangers to get out of town," he says. He also wants continuous antidrug and antigang education on television (possibly replacing the afternoon soap operas).

Many of his ideas are far from irrational, and he would probably get a longer hearing on the talk shows he frequently calls--WLS, WGCI, and WVON--if he could refrain from mixing in quotes from Ezekiel, Daniel, Jeremiah, and other Old Testament hell-raisers.

He gets an especially unfriendly reception on the air when he presents his suggestions for stemming the AIDS epidemic. "I looked up the word masturbation in a concordance of the Bible," he explains. "And the word isn't in there. So, as Saint Paul says, if there's no law against something, there's no transgression. I believe people who are drawn to excesses of sex should be encouraged to masturbate. I think it's the best antidote."

To further some of his views, Jones has created a line of colorful T-shirts bearing mottoes like "Swap black on black hate for black on black love" and "I am living proof that black is beautiful."

He gets occasional interviews with public figures. Recently he met with Cook County commissioner Maria Pappas , showing her some of the documents he has amassed concerning his ouster from the Postal Service and explaining his views on gangs and drugs. She was cordial, he says, but somehow seemed "distracted" by other matters.

According to his younger sister, Jacquevella Grammer, Jones is something of a mystery. "Whatever gets into his mind stays for the longest time. He's a very forceful man with his own opinions, and he's determined to be heard." Like his inventor father, she believes, Jones had a supply of raw creative talent that never had much opportunity to develop. Throughout most of this century, she says, "if you were a black man, your potential was pretty limited."

Jones interprets his experience in more colorful terms. "I feel like Joseph in the Bible," he says with obvious pride. "You remember he was cast off by his brothers, sold into slavery, distanced from his homeland. But he held steadfast. And as it turned out he was the chosen one. I like to think through all this that I've been chosen."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.

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