Clarence Jones Reflects On Martin Luther King Jr. Clarence Jones helped draft Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech and was a close personal adviser and lawyer to the civil rights leader. But he almost turned down the chance to work with King. He explains what changed his mind in his memoir, Behind the Dream.
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'Dream' Speech Writer Jones Reflects On King Jr.

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'Dream' Speech Writer Jones Reflects On King Jr.

'Dream' Speech Writer Jones Reflects On King Jr.

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in this week for Terry Gross.

The most enduring images and sounds of Martin Luther King's life come from his "I Have A Dream" speech, delivered at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28th, 1963. Our guest, Clarence Jones, helped draft the text King held that day, and he was standing a few feet away when King spoke. As he'll soon explain, the words I have a dream weren't originally part of the speech.

Jones was a young attorney and part of King's inner circle when the march on Washington was planned, and he tells his story in a new book called "Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation." 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.

I spoke to him about Martin Luther King and his historic speech last week. I asked him to read from the beginning of the book.

Mr. CLARENCE JONES (Author, "Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation"): (Reading) 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 wasnt hard to write about. With that many people in one place crying out for something so elemental, you dont 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, its 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.

DAVIES: Well, Clarence Jones, welcome to FRESH AIR. I thought we'd begin, before we talk about the march, I want you to tell us how you and Martin Luther King met, how he got you involved in the movement?

Mr. JONES: Well, it was - I was a 29-year-old lawyer, just a graduate of law schools since seven months previous. After that, I'd just moved to California. And I got a call in February of 1960 from Judge Hubert Delaney, was a well-known lawyer and judge here in New York.

And he said: Clarence, The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., you know, the preacher from Alabama, has been indicted for tax evasion and perjury, and I'm the head of the defense team.

But, he said, we need a law clerk. We need someone who can do all the legal research. But we need you to come to Montgomery, Alabama, and work with us. And I said: Judge, I'd like to, but, you know, I just got here, and I just can't do it.

And I could tell that he was disappointed with me, and he hung up the phone. The following morning, I get a call from Judge Delaney, and he said, you know, I didn't know it at the time that we had our conversation last night, but Dr. King, he is - he's on his way to California. He has a speaking engagement there on Saturday. And I suggested to him that he stop by and see you.

And so Friday evening, there's a knock on my door. Two gentlemen show up. One has a hat on, and he says: Mr. Jones, I'm Martin King, and this is my colleague, the Reverend Bernard Lee, so forth.

So he comes in, and to put it in historical context, he was then regarded as a celebrity, at least he was regarded as such by my wife, who thought that when Martin Luther King Jr. was coming to our home, it was a combination of Moses, Jesus, George Clooney, Sidney Poitier and whoever - Michael Jackson.

So in he comes, and he sits down, we have some pleasantries and so forth, and he gets right to the point. He says: You know, Mr. Jones, we have lots of white lawyers who help us in the movement. But what we need is that we need young Negro professionals, more Negro lawyers who can help us because every time we embark on something, we are being hit with some kind of legal action, and it's draining us.

And I listened very attentively, and I said: Dr. King, I admire you and what you are seeking to do, but as I said to Judge Delaney, you know, it's just really not possible for me at this time.

DAVIES: But, you know, as you describe this in the book, although you say you were respectful, and you were - you know, admired what he was doing, as you describe it, it sort of sounds like you were a little bit disdainful, some preacher...

Mr. JONES: Well, my wife thought I was. That's why I was going to continue because she said - as soon as he left, she turned to me, and she said to me: What are you doing that's so important that you can't help this man?

And so, she was angry at me, and then I began to be angry at Martin King, because I thought to myself, you know, 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.

So that was not a pleasant evening, and so the following morning, however, the telephone rings, and a woman on the phone says: Mr. Jones? I said: Yes. She says: My name is Dora McDonald. I'm Dr. King's secretary. Dr. King enjoyed so much his visit with you and Mrs. Jones. But he forgot to extend to you an invitation to be his guest tomorrow. He's preaching in Los Angeles, and he would like for you to attend as his guest.

So I listened, and I said: Well, thank you very much. My wife was standing nearby, and I told her verbatim the conversation I just had with Dora McDonald. And here again, she said: Well, you may not be going to Montgomery, Alabama, but you're going to that church.

So I go to the church. Now, this is a church in Baldwin Hills. Now, at that time, Baldwin Hills was, and still is but maybe to a lesser extent now, since blacks can move into Bel Air and Brentwood and other places, but at that time, Baldwin Hills was the section, neighborhood in Los Angeles where the black bourgeoisie, the so-called accomplished black professionals lived.

So I go into the church. Dr. King is introduced, and he gets up, and he says: Ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, the text of my sermon today is the role and the responsibility of the Negro professional to aid our less fortunate brothers and sisters who are struggling for freedom in the South.

So I thought to myself: This is one smart dude.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: This is actually - he's come right to the right church and the right pew. I had never heard anyone speak with such extraordinary eloquence and power.

And then during the course of this very eloquent description of what he was seeking to do through the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he pauses, and he says: And for example, there's a young man sitting in this church today. And he's not looking at me, he's just preaching.

There's a young man sitting in this church today, and my friends in New York, whom I have great respect, they tell me that this young man's brain has been touched by the Lord. They tell me that this young lawyer, when he does legal research, he can go into the books and go all the way back to the time of William the Conqueror, 1066, and the Magna Carta.

And then when he finds it and writes it down, my friends in New York, whom I have great respect for, tell me the words he writes are so compelling they just jump off the page.

DAVIES: Did you know he was talking about you?

Mr. JONES: No, so I have not the - I don't - he's not looking at me. I don't think he's talking about me at all, and if it - it could not have been me because it would have been an exaggerated description of me. So I actually -I'm thinking: I want to meet this dude he's talking about. I want to connect up, and, you know, see who this person...

And then he goes on. He says: But I had a chance to meet with this young man the other night. And he began to describe his coming to my home, and he described his meeting with me. He's not looking at me.

And he, then in the course of telling that, he says: But - and this young man has forgotten from whence he came. And he says: Like so many of you in this audience, in this church here today, somebody made it possible for you to be -have a measure of success.

And I got tearful. The sermon's over. As I said, he's like a rock star. So he's standing on the steps to the entrance to the pulpit outside the church, and I walk over to him, and as I walk over to him, he looks at me like a Cheshire cat who had swallowed the mouse. He never - he says: I never mentioned your name, Mr. Jones. I never mentioned your name.

And I walk over to him, and I put my hand in his hand, and I said: Dr. King, when do you want me to go to Montgomery, Alabama? Since then, that transformed my life.

DAVIES: So if we fast-forward then a few years, it's 1963, and, you know, the movement's rolling. You're at this point an attorney. You're working with Martin Luther King, part of his inner circle, traveling with him. And they begin to plan this march on Washington for jobs and freedom, kind of a revival of an idea that A. Philip Randolph had come up with in the '30s, as you mentioned.

Mr. JONES: That is correct.

DAVIES: And you said: King's life at that time was so frenetic that he needed a place to be a little more secluded so he could plan. So you gave him your house in Riverdale for that purpose.

And one of the interesting things about your description is that you were having all of these conversations about how to build a crowd, how to build a coalition of people, of speakers of interest, and the FBI was listening to all of it. Did you suspect that at the time?

Mr. JONES: No, we did not suspect it at that time. Every telephone conversation that took place from my home or my office, where Martin Luther King Jr. was on the other end of the phone, was wiretapped. I didn't have any suspicion.

But as it began to be like in '64 and '65, I began to have some suspicion. It was just a gut reaction. And at that time, our conference calls would frequently start around 10 or 11 o'clock at night, and I would have had maybe two or three martinis and maybe a little Jack Daniels before the conference call.

And I remember, just before we'd start the conference call, we'd get on the phone, and I would say: Hold on everybody. And I would say something like: Now, Mr. FBI Man, now are you ready? Do you have your pencil and paper? Now, I just want you to be sure you get this down accurately because we have a lot to talk about.

And Dr. King would say: All right, Clarence, you know, enough with the theatrics. I mean, they've got better things to do. He would say, they have better things to do than be listening to our conversations. I said: Yeah, yeah, Martin, but I'm sure they are.

DAVIES: Well, and you later learned that Robert Kennedy himself, the attorney general at the time, had personally authorized the tap on your phone.

Mr. JONES: That is correct.

DAVIES: I'm wondering, would you have behaved differently, would the conversations have been different if you'd known the FBI was listening?

Mr. JONES: Yes, I think we would have. We would have been less forthcoming.

DAVIES: Now, as you planned the march, the plan was that the march would end at the Capitol building and that Martin Luther King and the other leaders would speak on the top steps of the capital. And as we all know, it ended up being at the Lincoln Memorial. Why was that?

Mr. JONES: Well, initially, when it was - when the march was unfolding, the plans - it was planned to be on the steps of the Capitol building. But President Kennedy and the attorney general, particularly the president, there was a pending civil rights bill in Congress, and he very strongly said that it would be counterproductive, that the Congress would regard the demonstration at the Capitol steps as considering the civil rights bill with a gun pointed to its head.

And so we - when I say we, A. Philip Randolph, (unintelligible), and Dr. King, the other members of the several organizations, decided that yes it would - to make that question a non-issue, we moved it to the foot of the Lincoln Memorial.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Clarence Jones. He's the author, with Stuart Connelly, of the new book "Behind the Dream." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Clarence B. Jones. He was a close advisor and attorney with Martin Luther King in the 1960s. He's written a book about the "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered at the march on Washington. It's called "Behind the Dream."

So there was enormous planning building up to the march on Washington that August of 1963, and there was the matter of Martin Luther King's speech. There were going to be a lot of speakers. He would speak last. Was there ever any question that Martin Luther King would be the final speaker or that he would have more time than the others?

Mr. JONES: Oh, absolutely there was a question of that. During the week preceding that, there was the behind-the-scenes discussion among the big six, or their representatives, about who was going to be the last speaker.

A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin and Cleveland Robinson, (unintelligible) labor leader, myself, we felt - and Martin himself felt - that he should be the last speaker. But he felt - he certainly felt it was inappropriate for him to suggest that.

And so I had a discussion with A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin to join with Cleveland Robinson, and I said: Well, I think he should be the last speaker. I said: I believe that most people who are coming to this march, with all due respect to the other members of the big six organizations, they are really coming in anticipation of hearing Dr. King.

There was some resistance. So finally I remember saying: Let's think about it. Do you really want to follow Martin Luther King Jr.? Do you really want to follow him?

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. JONES: And there was dead silence, and that was it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: You know, I know that at this point, you know, this was 1963, and the movement had years of experience with the media, with local officials, with tactics of, you know, protest. And I know there was a lot of savvy consideration of how it would be perceived and how the message would be generated. Were people thinking about television then, about how it would look on television?

Mr. JONES: Yes, absolutely. In fact, the person among us who gave us an education on the power of television was really Harry Belafonte. He said: You have to look at this as a media event, not just as a march.

And so, for example, Harry was responsible for assembling what was called the celebrity delegation, a lot of celebrities from Hollywood and performing artists. And he was very firm that they should sit in a certain strategic part on the podium because he knew that the television cameras would pan to them, would look to them.

And so he wanted to be sure that they were strategically situated so that in looking at the celebrities, they'd also see a picture of the march and the other performers. Yes, we were very much concerned about that.

And then Martin King was, he was especially concerned about the white-black composition of the march. So we were hopeful that there would be, oh, like a minimum of 25 to 30 to 35 percent or more of white people who would attend the march.

In fact, the participation was somewhere between 20 and 25 percent maximum, and to that extent, he was disappointed.

DAVIES: So the day arrives. You wake up in the morning. You, Martin Luther King had stayed up working on his speech, and you write that you were relieved to see that it was finished, and copies were being mimeographed for distribution to the media that would be assembled.

And a concern occurred to you about whether it should be copyrighted. Tell us about that.

Mr. JONES: Well, when I learned that the speech was being mimeographed, I actually got over to the press tent, where all the media was assembled, and I saw them putting this copy into brown envelopes along with a lot of press materials, folders about the march.

And I cannot really say why I did it. Something occurred to me because I'd had the experience of so many people trying to rip off and take advantage of, use material that had either been written or spoken by Martin. And so I said to myself: I'm going to put a little circle with a C in on the mimeographed copies just to protect what is called the common law copyright.

Without getting into a lot of discussion, it's just that a lot of people may not know, is that anything, anytime a person creates a book or a writing, is that you have what is called a common law copyright. That's, you created it, it's yours.

But that common law copyright, if you distribute it over a wide audience, so it is not a limited distribution, you will extinguish your common law copyright. So putting a notice of the common law copyright was a way of protecting that. So that's what I did.

DAVIES: And what's been the impact of your having copyrighted that speech?

Mr. JONES: Well, the impact of that, you'd have to understand - after the march was over, okay, I'm in New York City, and I'm walking down the street. And I hear record stores playing a recording of the speech.

So I got back to my law office, and I checked the information in the record check, and I finally reach the offices of 20th Century Fox records, and I called them up.

And I said, you know, are you putting out this record? And they said: Oh, yes, of course. The speech is in the public domain. Anyone can - I said: No, it's not in the public domain.

We worked feverishly to bring an action in federal court, and in the hearing in federal court, the decision was rendered that this speech was not in the public domain, and little did I know that that single act of statutory copyright protection would protect one of the most invaluable pieces of intellectual property that the King estate currently has.

DAVIES: Yeah, how much has it been worth over the years? Any idea?

Mr. JONES: I have no idea, but it's been the principal source of revenue, I'm certainly of that.

DAVIES: Clarence Jones' book is called "Behind the Dream." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross, back with Clarence Jones. He was a young lawyer and adviser to Martin Luther King in 1963 and helped draft Kings I Have A Dream speech. He's written a new book about the experience called Behind the Dream.

Lets go back to the day of the speech. It's interesting that you tell us that the phrase I have the dream was not in the text that Martin Luther King took to the podium, but it was an idea he had spoken of before, right?

Mr. JONES: That is correct. He had used that phrase, I have a dream, in other speeches, and specifically, he had used it in a speech he had given in June in Detroit at, I think, at a place called Cobalt(ph) Hall. Martin Luther King, Jr. could speak in real time and he could cut and paste from speeches or articles or things that he said before. So the speech the so-called celebrated I Have A Dream speech was an entirely spontaneous and extemporaneous speech. He was not speaking from written context except for the first nine paragraphs of textural material, which I had contributed to, you know, for him to use after...

DAVIES: Right. Which is yeah, if I - I'm sorry to interrupt, which is really worth listening to, and folks can hear the whole thing. But you describe this incredible moment on stage at which you watch him decide to depart from the text and go on the I have a dream theme. Recreate that for us.

Mr. JONES: What happened is that as he is reading from the paragraphs which he had written, incorporating some of the language and material which I and others has contributed, Mahalia Jackson who was his favorite gospel singer, who had previously performed, she turns to him and she shouts to him, tell them about the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream. And he acknowledges her and momentarily pauses and he pushes the - I watched him push the text of the speech aside, grabbed the podium, lean back and look out at those 250,000 people or more assembled, and I leaned to somebody standing next to me, I said these people don't know it but they're about ready to go to church.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: And that's when he started this extraordinary extemporaneous proration and it was mesmerizing. It was something as I think I used the word it was like he had captured lightning in a bottle. I say that was Martin Luther King, Jr. What you saw you will never see again in a millennium.

DAVIES: You make the point in the book that you don't get the power of the words by reading them. You really have to hear them. So why don't we just listened to a bit of that improvised I Have A Dream speech.

(Soundbite of I Have A Dream speech)

Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING, Jr. (Reverend; Civil Rights Leader): I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

Unidentified Woman: Yeah.

(Soundbite of applause, cheering and whistles)

Dr. KING: I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

(Soundbite of applause)

Dr. KING: I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

Dr. KING: I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification - one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

DAVIES: After all these years does it still move you to hear that?

Mr. JONES: Oh it certainly does. It moves me and, you know, as I yes. The answer is yes. In fact, I in my lectures and teaching at Stanford University I say to students, the only speech historically that I think that has a comparison as Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

DAVIES: Did it feel at the time that you were experiencing something historic?

Mr. JONES: After the speech, I thought that I had witnessed and I had participated in a transcendental moment. Actually, I went up to him, as several people did, and pulled him on the shoulder and I said, you know, listening to you was like listening to Charlie Parker and John Coltrane and some of the great artists. He was, he had this ability to improvise. It was something so extraordinary that you have to see it and hear it to appreciate it and believe it.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Clarence B. Jones. He has written the book with Stuart Connelly Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation.

You know, you mention in the book that in a meeting, I believe I'm remembering this correctly, with Robert Kennedy in June of 1963, that he asserted that because of the, you know, progress that he and his brothers and others were making in the area of civil rights, that in 40 years a Negro could become president. Did you ever think you'd see an African-American president in your lifetime?

Mr. JONES: No I did not. And I think you're referring to a meeting that Robert Kennedy, I think, when he made that statement it was during a course of his meeting with James Baldwin, Lena Horne and Harry Belafonte.


Mr. JONES: No. The answer to your question, no I did not believe it would happen.

DAVIES: Last summer, Glenn Beck, the, you know, cable talk show host held a restore America's honor rally at the Lincoln Memorial, hearkening back to the, you know, the march in 1963 in Martin Luther King's speech. And many people were very critical. Al Sharpton accused him of hijacking a movement that had changed America. You see it differently, right?

Mr. JONES: I see it differently. The way I see it is that the rally that Glenn Beck held, first of all you have to just it was an extraordinary acknowledgment of the power of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. I mean he was seeking to make his rally relevant because of what took place on August 28th, 1963. There will always be efforts from persons who differ with what Martin King stood for, from those persons to appropriate him for their own purposes. This is one of the reasons that prompted me to write a earlier book called What Would Martin Say?, because I got sick and tired of having people pimp Martin King's legacy for their own personal political purposes.

And I watched the Glenn Beck rally from beginning to end and I thought that, while I disagreed with some of the ways in which he interpreted the prior rally of Martin King at the same place, nevertheless, he did give due deference and acknowledgment to the contribution of Martin Luther King, Jr. on that date and at that place.

DAVIES: I have to note that at the end of the book you take some stock of how far America has come since 1963. And you talk about the importance of redressing some of the economic inequalities that are the legacy of slavery and discrimination. This is a big question, but where are we on race in America today?

Mr. JONES: You'd have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to recognize that extraordinary progress has been made. But still, even with an African-American president, the question of race or race relations still remains what I call the 800 pound gorilla in the living room of all American households. It's still something that taunts us, that makes us uncomfortable, and I think that is largely because there's never been a sufficient reconciliation after slavery of the American psyche the American institutions.

Yes, there's been an apology for slavery. But the question is that institution, which was so searing and so extraordinarily deep in our national fiber, that we are still suffering from the consequences of that.

The principal issue today is one, not just for African-Americans, but really the income inequality. And then for the African-American community, I mean if Martin were alive today, I mean he would be appalled, as I am and I'm sure many other people of good will who are concerned about the progress of African-Americans, I mean, how can you not be concerned when you see the wanton violence that takes place, principally gun violence, the high incidence of out of wedlock children in the African-American community, the 45 percent or more incidence of HIV virus?

There are things which are occurring in the African-American community where African-American leaders have to be very candid and comfortable enough to say hey, these things are not because of what quote, the white man did to us, it's because of what we are doing to ourselves or what we are failing to take advantage of. So, even with the extraordinary achievement of an African-American president, yes, the glass is half-full, but we still have a way to go to fill the glass up to the top.

DAVIES: Well, Clarence Jones, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. JONES: Thank you.

DAVIES: Clarence Jones is Scholar in Residence and visiting professor at Stanford University's Martin Luther King, Jr., Research & Education Institute. He also writes regularly for the Huffington Post. His new book is called Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation.

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