John C. Walter, the Harlem Fox: J. Raymond Jones and Tammany, 1920-1970

Article excerpt

John C. Walter, The Harlem Fox: J. Raymond Jones and Tammany, 1920-1970

The author of this fascinating biography retells an anecdote which captures the reason why Jones received the sobriquet "The Fox". During Harry S. Truman's campaign for the presidency in 1948 Jones had come to Truman's attention as a person on the rise in the Democratic Party. Truman inquired of a knowledgeable person about Jones' abilities and character. "Is he honest," Truman is reported to have asked. This is the reply Truman received, "Well, Mr. President, I can tell you one thing. J. Raymond Jones could steal the Brooklyn Bridge and no one would ever find out."

The remark suggests something about both the character and political skills of J. Raymond Jones. Over the course of half a century, Jones managed both to survive with his integrity intact while pulling off some of the most stunning political victories in memory in the rough and tumble club house politics of New York City. Twice he flew in the face of overwhelming odds set by the powerful machinery of Tammany Hall to engineer electoral victories for Adam Clayton Powell in 1958 and Mayor Robert Wagner in 1962. Eventually in 1964 Jones himself would become Tammany leader, thus becoming the most prominent Democratic Party official of his time. These achievements would make him appear the possessor of extraordinary political skills that few could match.

Jones was, in fact, one of the first authentic African-American power brokers in Democratic Party politics, preceding figures such as Richard Hatcher, former mayor of Gary, Indiana; Andrew Young, former Mayor of Atlanta; Ronald Brown, current chair of the Democratic National Committee; Charles Rangle of New York; William Gray of Philadelphia; and of course Jesse Jackson. In fact, one might make the claim that the recent coming of age of Black Politics in New York, signaled by the election of David Dinkins as Mayor is the legacy of J. Raymond Jones' own extraordinary achievements in city politics. Charles Rangle and David Dinkins were two of Jones' successful proteges. And the recent accomplishments of these individuals would therefore make a biography of a pioneer in the field all the more timely and instructive.

This biography paints a clear portrait of Jones' multifaceted character. He is seen plying his political skills in the ever shifting alliance of New York City club house politics, planning the electoral strategies of underdog candidates Powell and Wagner, and articulating a vision of African-American advancement through conventional electoral politics.

It is perhaps the exposition of his vision of politics and the revealing glimpses of his character as he reflects on his victories and defeats that constitute the most compelling parts of his biography. It shows in bold relief just how deftly Jones balanced being a person of the system while allowing himself to remain open to the charismatic influences of protest politics. Jones makes frequent explicit reference to the way events such as the Montgomery bus boycott affected the morale of his own career. …