FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
What if Dr. Martin King Jr. were alive today? Would he be proud of America's progress on civil rights? Maybe he'd say we let him down by allowing the activism that fueled his movement to die from neglect. And what would King think of Obama's historic White House bid? Can you tell us anything new about his own assassination?
In his new book, "What Would Martin Say?," Clarence B. Jones uses King's life and speeches to guess where the late reverend might stand on the Iraq war, affirmative action and black leadership. Jones knew King well. He was one of the reverend's closest advisers. Jones even helped write the famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
Clarence Jones, welcome to NEWS & NOTES.
Mr. CLARENCE JONES (Author, "What Would Martin Say?"): Hi, thank you so much. Glad to be here.
CHIDEYA: So, you open your book with a story and you talk about meeting with Dr. King, actually telling him no to something he was asking you to help him with. First, describe the meeting and then how did you have the guts to refuse Dr. King?
Mr. JONES: Well, you know, the meeting arose that as a fact that in February of 1960, Dr. King was indicted by the state of Alabama for perjury in state income tax. And he called me and said that they needed someone to essentially be a legal gofer. I just been in — I just gotten out of law school in 1959. In 1960, I was just starting out, and he wanted me just come to Montgomery, Alabama and help him. And as much respect as I had for him, I simply said I couldn't do it.
And one night, I opened my door and there is - there are two men standing at my door. One is a medium, tall man, and stocky with a hat on, white shirt, skinny tie, dark suit and he said, Mr. Jones, I'm Martin King and this is Reverend Bernard Lee. And I said, yes, I've been expecting you. So, we come into the house. And, you know, I was meeting this person for the first time. Now, my wife — God rest her soul, she's deceased — she was very enamored of him, and he said he wanted to stop by because Judge Lenny had told him so much about me, but more importantly, he wanted to be sure that I understood what the needs of the movement were.
The needs of movement were they needed young Negro professionals. And I said, Dr. King, I'd love to help you and pleased to help you but there's no way I can do that. I mean, I'd help you anyway I can from Los Angeles and so, I'm sorry, I can't. And so, he left. And my wife was somewhat enamored of him, and she turned to me and said but what are you doing that's so important that you can't go down there for a few weeks?
And so in my defense perhaps, you know, overly defensive, I said Anne(ph), just because some Negro preacher, got his hand caught in a cookie jar, that's not my problem. She said I can't believe you. I said, well, he wouldn't have been indicted if he wasn't guilty. She said, what?
CHIDEYA: So, how did it get to the point where you got on the bus, so to speak?
Mr. JONES: His secretary, Dora McDonald called back and said, oh, Mr. Jones — I never met her, I heard her over the phone — she says, you know, Dr. King, he enjoyed so much his visit with you. He's a guest preacher over in Los Angeles, and he wanted you to come and see him and hear him preach on Sunday. And so, after I got the message, I told my wife verbatim what the message was from Dora McDonald. And her reaction, again, she went on the offensive. She says, well, you may not be going to Montgomery, but you are going to that church.
So, I go this church of Reverend H.B. Charles, I think that's the name of the church, and I go into this church. I'm sitting there about the 25th row and so forth, and Dr. King gets up after he's introduced, and he gets up and he says, brothers and sisters, the text of my sermon today is the role and responsibility of a Negro professional to aid our less fortunate people who are struggling in the South.
And he was saying how we, you know, you here have been so fortunate. You've got to help. We need you. And then he pauses, and he says, for example, there's a young man sitting in this church today, my friends in New York, whom I respect. They tell me that this young man, his brain has been touched by God. But this young man told me something about himself, and I had the chance to meet him. His father was a chauffer and a gardener. His mother was a maid and a cook. And I said, oh, lord. I started, like, trying to hide in my seat. But he started really telling the story that was classic of many professionals. If somebody went and work for them, either their parents or grandparents that made it possible for them to have an education.
And then, he paused again. He said, you know, but he has forgotten from where he came. And I thought for a moment — because a - like a video of my mother, particularly when my father came up, and I started to cry. I mean, these tears came down. So I said this service is over. I didn't say a word, I just walked over and talked with my hand and I said, Dr. King, when do you want me to leave?
CHIDEYA: Mm-hmm. And then you went onto work on what is Reverend King's most famous or certainly most quoted speech, the "I Have a Dream" speech. Now, today you can hear that speech used in a lot of different contexts. It's, in some ways, become background music for Black History Month, you know?
Mr. JONES: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
CHIDEYA: And as someone who worked on the speech and saw the impact it had on America, what do you think when you hear the speech parsed out into little bits and used to justify any number of things, including things that Reverend King wouldn't have supported?
Mr. JONES: Okay, first, just very briefly. When I say worked on the speech, it was a collective effort in August, and I don't want to take too much time because of limitations of time. But on August 27th, 1968, the night before a group of us met sitting with Martin in a lobby as to what he was going to say. But its significance today is that that speech was a call-tomorrow-arms, like a call to arms for America. And isn't it almost pathetic that here we are today in a presidential campaign — and by the way, unless Senator Obama or Senator Hillary Clinton have any doubt, it was the transformative effect of Martin King that made it possible for a African-American man and a white woman to run, to be elected as president of the United States.
CHIDEYA: Mr. Jones…
Mr. JONES: Yes?
CHIDEYA: …when you think about the issues of justice and in - for so long, we as African-Americans have and many of us have debated what does justice mean in this life, what does justice mean in the next life, do you think that there is racial justice? Do you think that there will be racial justice on this Earth?
Mr. JONES: Yes, I do. I believe that we are at a profound transition point. Martin King would say today, there's no way we can make the transition to the 21st century unless we leave the baggage of slavery and racism behind.
And I think to talk about current events, I think that he would both be disappointed and appalled in what's going on in the political discourse. He would be disappointed because when the Senator Obama is criticized in the speech he gave in Philadelphia, Martin would say, well, hold on, America seems to be deeply afflicted by amnesia about how it cheated these African-American people over the past 20th century.
But I think he'd applaud the fact that Senator Obama did what should have been done earlier and needs to be done. You see what Senator Obama did, he walked into the national living room of America and acknowledged and then talked to the 800-pound gorilla of race relations that everybody knew was sitting in there for the 20th century.
Senator Obama says, hold on, Mr. Gorilla, we're talking about building a new house in this 21st century. And in this new house we're building, Mr. Gorilla, there ain't a room for you, so you've got to get out. We've got to put you behind because we cannot construct a new house and have you sit in the living room again.
CHIDEYA: On that note - and it's a hopeful note - Clarence Jones, thank you.
Mr. JONES: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: Clarence B. Jones is the author of "What Would Martin Say?" Jones was a principal adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from 1961 until King's death in 1968. Today, he's a scholar in residence at the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. And he joined me from our NPR studios in New York.
(Soundbite of music)
CHIDEYA: That's our show for today. Thank you for sharing your time with us. To listen to the show or subscribe to our podcast, visit our Web site, nprnewsandnotes.org. To join the conversation or sign up for our newsletter, visit our blog at nprnewsandviews.org. NEWS & NOTES is created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.
Tomorrow, show them the money and they'll show you salvation. We'll talk about the controversies surrounding posterity churches and their high-profiled pastors.
(Soundbite of music)
CHIDEYA: I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.