Clarence Jones gave a riveting interview on NPR‘s Fresh Air, offering a vivid and personal glimpse into life with Martin Luther King, Jr. I wanted to hear more and am looking forward to reading his book, Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation. The program aired on January 17, 2011.
Click on the audio player below to hear the thirty-four-minute interview.
The most enduring images and sounds of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life come from his “I Have A Dream” speech, delivered at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963.
Clarence Jones helped draft the speech that day, and he was standing a few feet away when King spoke.
He was a young attorney and part of King’s inner circle when the March on Washington was planned. He tells his story in his new book Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation.
But it almost wasn’t to be.
As Jones recalls in a conversation with Fresh Air’s Dave Davies, he initially turned down the opportunity to meet King, because it would have meant moving from his home in California, where he was a newly married lawyer, to Alabama, where a legal team was preparing to defend King on charges of tax evasion and perjury.
But a visit by King to his home in the winter of 1960 changed his life.
“To put it in historical context, he was then a celebrity,” Jones says. “At least, he was regarded as such by my wife, who thought when Martin Luther King Jr. was coming to our home, it was a combination of Moses, Jesus, George Clooney, Sidney Poitier and Michael Jackson. So in he comes and we have some pleasantries and he gets down right to the point. He said, ‘You know, Mr. Jones, we have lots of white lawyers who help us in the movement. But what we need are more young Negro professionals because every time we embark on something, we are being hit with some form of legal action.’ ”
Jones turned him down — until King left the house and Jones’ wife stepped in.
“Soon after he left, she turned to me and said, ‘What are you doing that’s so important that you can’t help this man?’ She was angry at me and then I began to be angry at Martin King. Because I thought to myself that like all young couples, we were living in domestic tranquility, and here this total stranger comes into my house and gets my wife angry at me over something I had nothing to do with.”
The following morning, Jones received a phone call inviting him to be the special guest of King at a speech he was giving in a California church.
“My wife was standing nearby and I told her verbatim the conversation I just had. And she said, ‘Well, you may not be going to Montgomery, Ala., but you’re going to that church,’ ” he says. “So I go to the church. … And I had never heard anyone speak with such extraordinary eloquence and power.”
By the end of the sermon, Jones had made up his mind.
“I walked over to him and put my hand in his hand and I said, ‘Dr. King, when do you want me to go to Montgomery, Ala.?’ Since then, that transformed my life.”
Clarence Jones is currently a scholar in residence and visiting professor at Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute. He also writes regularly for the Huffington Post and is the author of What Would Martin Say?
Here is an adapted excerpt from the book, Behind the Dream by Clarence B. Jones and Stuart Connelly.
A quarter of a million people, human beings who generally had spent their lives treated as something less, stood shoulder to shoulder across that vast lawn, their hearts beating as one. Hope on the line. When hope was an increasingly scarce resource.
There is no dearth of prose describing the mass of humanity that made its way to the feet of the Great Emancipator that day; no metaphor that has slipped through the cracks waiting to be discovered, dusted off, and injected into the discourse a half century on. The March on Washington has been compared to a tsunami, a shockwave, a wall, a living monument, a human mosaic, an outright miracle.
It was all of those things, and if you saw it with your own eyes, it wasn’t hard to write about. With that many people in one place crying out for something so elemental, you don’t have to be Robert Frost to offer some profound eloquence.
Still, I can say to those who know the event only as a steely black-and-white television image, it’s a shame that the colors of that day — the blue sky, the vibrant green life, the golden sun everywhere — are not part of our national memory. There is something heart wrenching about the widely shown images and film clips of the event that belies the joy of the day. But it could be worse. We could have been marching in an era before cameras and recording devices; then the specifics of the event would eventually fade out of living memory and the world would be left only with the mythology and the text. Text without context, in this case especially, would be quite a loss. One might imagine standing before an audience and read ing Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech verbatim, but it is a stretch to believe that any such per formance would sow the seeds of change with, as Dr. King put it that day in Washington, the “fierce urgency of now.” The vast crowd, the great speaker, the words that shook the world — it all comes as a package deal. We are truly fortunate to have a record. Yet what the television cameras and radio microphones captured that August day is but a sliver of the vibrancy of the event. When a .lm adaptation of a beloved novel premieres, the people who say “Oh, but you’ve got to read the book” are inevitably right. The density of the written word makes the .at motion picture a pale artifact in comparison. In a similar fashion, although watching the black-and-white news footage of Dr. King’s historic call to action is stirring to almost everyone who sees it, learning about the work that went into The March and the speech — the discussions and debates behind closed doors — offers a unique context that magnifies the resonance of hearing those famous words “I have a dream” in that phenomenal, inimitable cadence.
If, taken together, the images and recordings of Martin make up that “movie” of the 1963 March on Washington in our collective consciousness, and if it’s true, as people often say, that “If you loved the movie, you’ve got to read the book,” Behind the Dream is that book. It is a story not known to the general public or disclosed to participants in The March — or, in fact, to many of its organizers. I acquired private truths and quiet insights during the months leading up to this historic event. For the most part, I’ve kept them to myself. But as this book is published, I will be entering my eighth decade on this Earth, and as I move closer to the final horizon, I realize the time has come to share what I know. The experiences cannot die with me; the full truth is simply too important to history.
For those of us who put The March together, several aspects of that day struck a chord and went on to have a profound ef fect on us. First was the most obvious — the size of the crowd. It was truly staggering. Estimates vary widely, depending on the agenda of who was keeping count, but those of us who were involved in planning The March put the number at a minimum of 250,000. They showed up to connect with The Movement, to draw strength from the speakers and from each other. This was perhaps not so surprising, since the under pinning of the Civil Rights Movement had always been our sense of communal strength. It is in part why the Black Church was a focal point for The Movement; it allowed in dividuals to see that they were not alone in their suffering, their loss of dignity, their humiliation. But congregations were measured in the hundreds of families, not hundreds of thousands. The March was an especially important milestone for African Americans because it allowed many who suffered the degradation and sometimes physical abuse of racism in relative isolation to share with a vast number of people their pain as well as their hope and optimism for a better day.
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