RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This is the day that we've been hearing so much about. The day 50 years ago that one of the most important moments in the Civil Rights Movement took place. You've been hearing about it on MORNING EDITION. We've been hearing from people who witnessed the historic March on Washington. Through our partnership with the Race Card Project, we are also hearing their thoughts on what has happened to Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream for racial equality five decades after he delivered that famous speech.
NPR's Michele Norris spent time with one man who played a key role preparing Dr. King for that big day.
MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: August 28th, 1963 was a tense day for Clarence B. Jones. As the longtime attorney and adviser for Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jones had a long list of worries as people started to fill the streets around the National monuments. Were the right permits filed? Would the speakers veer off script? Would enough people show up?
CLARENCE B. JONES: I had this feeling that we were going to throw a big party and nobody comes.
NORRIS: Oh, they came, at least 250,000 of them. But Jones worried that the crowd might also include agitators.
JONES: I just wondered whether there would be some of what I called agent provocateurs, white as well as black. You know, I didn't know whether...
NORRIS: People who might try to make trouble for you.
JONES: Yeah, yeah. Some of the black nationalists who were opposed to Dr. King's non-violence, or whether some of the people from the right wing, the Klan, that they would provoke something.
NORRIS: And then there was the delicate and thorny issue of wrangling all those celebrities.
JONES: Marlon Brando, and Shelley Winters, and Sidney Poitier, and James Garner, and Paul Newman, and Joanne Woodward, and Anthony Franciosa and Steve McQueen...
NORRIS: A list that went on and on. In the end, things went smoothly - the singers, the speakers, big crowds, blue skies. After sleepless nights and fretful days, Jones was able to take his place on the stage at the Lincoln Memorial and take it all in. Among his most vivid memories, Mahalia Jackson at the microphones. The crowd couldn't get enough.
MAHALIA JACKSON: (Singing) The man that died for me. The man that lead us (unintelligible) you know he hung on Calvary. And I'm going to thank him for how he bought me and I'm going to thank God for how he taught me.
JONES: How could you not be moved by this woman's voice?
JACKSON: (Singing) I'm going to thank him for never left me. Yes, I'm going to thank him for old time religion.
JONES: You would have to be unfortunately afflicted with some type of muscular disease that would prevent your muscles reacting to what your ear brought to your body.
JACKSON: (Singing) Told you I never get tired. You know I'm going to shout (unintelligible) on the alter and I'm going to sing the word hallelujah.
NORRIS: Of all the entertainers that day, a list that included Joan Baez, Odetta and Bob Dylan, Mahalia Jackson was the singer who had a special hold on King.
JACKSON: (Singing) God be (unintelligible).
JONES: When he would be feeling particularly down, I guess you would put it now, as telephone gospel therapy. Because he would have his secretary, Dora McDonald, get on the phone. He would say to Dora McDonald, please get Mahalia, please. And he would speak to Mahalia Jackson and he would say, Mahalia, please sing to me. I'm having a rough day today. I'm having a rough day.
And she would sing one or more of his favorite songs, and he would close his eyes, at least the time I saw him, he would close his eyes listening to her. In some cases, tears would come down his face and then he would say, Mahalia, you are giving me the Lord's voice this morning. And he had enormous respect for her.
NORRIS: And because of that, Dr. King listened to Mahalia Jackson when she offered unsolicited advice on the day of the march.
JONES: When he was reading from the prepared text, and she shouted at him. This is after she had performed, of course. She's sitting down, and she just shouted across the bow of his speaking position, tell 'em about the dream, Martin. Tell 'em about the dream.
NORRIS: Mahalia Jackson knew Dr. King had delivered a rousing speech earlier that summer at Cobo Hall in Detroit, bringing the crowd to a feverish pitch when he preached about his dream for a better America. She encouraged him to remember that moment in Detroit despite the prepared script in front of him.
JONES: Now, most people probably didn't have the slightest idea what Mahalia was yelling to Dr. King. I was standing behind him, but to the side. And I saw him take the manuscript. What he did upon hearing that, he took the text of the speech, the written text that he was reading, and he moved it to the left side of the lectern, grabbed the lectern with both his hands.
As it's all happening in real time, in one motion, of course. And I see this and I turn to the person standing next to me, because he leaned back. And I said, These people don't know it, but they're about ready to go to church.
NORRIS: Jones is proud of his contribution to that moment in history, but he still wishes more of Dr. King's dream will be realized in his lifetime. That glass half empty view is reflected in the epilogue to his book.
JONES: Much progress has indeed been made. As an American and as a participant in the Civil Rights Movement, I'm tremendously proud of that progress. But as long as there's necessity for such a legal category as hate crime, the dream remains unfulfilled. As long as there are patrol cops pulling over African Americans because they're driving cars considered out of their financial reach, the dream remains diluted.
And as long as people are selling their houses because too many black families have moved in, the dream remains tarnished.
NORRIS: When asked about his thoughts on race today, Jones harkened back to his friend and mentor Dr. King and the letter he wrote inside the Birmingham jail. Dr. King scribbled out that letter on scraps of paper, and it was Jones who secreted those scraps out of the building during several jail visits.
Dr. King said complacency and hate were the enemies of progress in the letter published under the headline "Why We Can't Wait." And so Clarence B. Jones chose these six words on race.
JONES: Hate is why we cannot wait.
MONTAGNE: Clarence B. Jones is author of "Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech That Transformed a Nation." He spoke with NPR's Michele Norris, curator of the Race Card Project. Go to our website for full coverage of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and learn more about the Race Card Project. This is NPR News.