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    Ken Jones (1950–2021): First Black President of SF Pride, Groundbreaking LGBTQ and Social Justice Activist

    A Castro icon self-described as the “father of diversity,” Ken Jones died of bladder cancer on January 13. He was 70. Many of us learned of Jones’ passing from fellow activist Cleve Jones, who wrote:

    “Ken Jones was a hero. He survived many struggles. He deeply loved his family and his community, and dedicated his entire life to the movement for peace and justice. He was very grateful to all of you who reached out to him with messages of encouragement and love during his illness. Today Ken lost his fight against cancer. A memorial will be arranged when it is safe once more for us to gather. Rest in Power, Ken. I love you.”

    Born in New Jersey, Ken served in Vietnam before settling in the Castro in 1973. An out and proud gay man, he helped make possible many gains for the LGBTQ community that occurred in the late 70s, such as the election of Supervisor Harvey Milk.

    Ken was the first Black president of SF Pride, organized boycotts against businesses with practices deemed to be discriminatory, promoted HIV/AIDS education during the heart of the pandemic, worked for decades on police reforms, and much more. As fellow SF Pride former president Gary Virginia wrote, in part: “He was a community icon, Navy veteran, pioneering activist & volunteer in the LGBTQIAA community & beyond.”

    LGBTQ activist Kelly Rivera Hart shared, “He was a constant positive force, a good friend, and hero to me and so many others.”

    The nonprofit Openhouse issued this statement: “Ken Jones’ contributions to the LGBTQ+ community extend far beyond his work in the San Francisco Bay Area. His heroism and civil rights leadership for the LGBTQ+ community has greatly influenced the foundation of our activism for peace and justice today. Our thoughts are with his family and those who knew him.”

    Ken was prominently memorialized at Hibernia Beach in the Castro, with just some of the tributes shown on the cover of this issue of the San Francisco Bay Times.

    Shortly after the news of his passing, SF Pride released the following:

    “We at San Francisco Pride are greatly saddened to learn of the passing of  Ken Jones.

    Ken’s years of service in the LGBTQ+ community date back to the late 1970s. He joined San Francisco Pride in 1980, initially serving as the first co-chair of outreach. Charged with bringing more ‘traditionally under/non/mis-represented segments of the lesbian and gay communities’ into the movement, he later became the first Black president of the Board of Directors, a position he held from 1985–90, overseeing SF Pride’s incorporation as a registered nonprofit.

    Ken’s involvement with the organization never waned, as he served as an informal adviser to many of his successors, and participated in our ‘Lavender Talks’ series in cooperation with the Commonwealth Club last May. Appropriately, that panel discussion looked back on the first 50 years of this organization’s history, and we were grateful to have his wise input.

    A veteran, a prolific officiator of weddings, and a guide on historical tours of the Castro, Ken fought tirelessly to ensure that Pride retained its solemn aspect as an occasion to honor and acknowledge everyone our communities have lost. In doing so, he was forced to deal with no small amount of entrenched white supremacy.

    ‘Ken was the first person to reach out to me when I was elected President, telling me how proud he was and how much faith he had in my leadership,’ said Carolyn Wysinger, President of SF Pride’s Board of Directors. ‘I am forever grateful not only to stand on his shoulders as a Black LGBTQ leader, but also to have experienced him as a wise elder who was always willing to pour in his wisdom and knowledge to make this community better.’

    ‘We are absolutely better as a community due to Ken’s contributions,’ said Fred Lopez, Executive Director of SF Pride. ‘Like he did with so many others, Ken made a personal impact on my growth as a leader, and he did so with warmth and generosity. We will miss Ken greatly.’

    One notable testament to Ken’s place in history was his inclusion in the 2017 historical re-enactment, When We Rise, in which he was played by actors Jonathan Majors and Michael K. Williams. Since the debut of that doc-drama about the early days of queer liberation, the Bay Area has lost a number of legendary activists and advocates. The links to the generation that fought for LGBTQ rights and visibility in the 1970s are fast disappearing, but the results of their hard work and dedication live on. We were very fortunate to have known and worked with Ken. Truly, San Francisco Pride would not have thrived for five decades as it has without him.

    Rest in power.”

    Published on January 28, 2021