DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Today, we're continuing to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington through our partnership with the Race Card Project. NPR's Michele Norris introduces us to a man who stayed in the background even though he was very much in the center of all the action.
MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: Ask 81-year-old Clarence B. Jones to identify himself, and he'll tick off a list of titles.
CLARENCE B. JONES: Dr. Clarence B. Jones. I live in Palo Alto, Calif., and I'm a visiting professor at the University of San Francisco and a scholar, writer-in-residence at Stanford University's Martin Luther King Jr. Institute.
NORRIS: Jones was also the first black man to make partner at a Wall Street investment bank, but he's leaving something out. Clarence B. Jones was also the personal attorney and adviser and speechwriter to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the height of the civil rights movement. That meant on this date 50 years ago, the eve of the March on Washington, Jones was working hard to make sure every detail went off without a hitch.
HINES: It was - it was a stressful day.
NORRIS: For all the reminiscing about Dr. King and his dream for a better America, the organizers of the march were not just stargazing about change. They had a long and highly specific set of demands. That 10-point list included, among other things, dignified jobs at decent wages, desegregation of all school districts, a ban on discrimination in all housing supported by federal funds.
Clarence B. Jones knew that Dr. King would need strong words and strong imagery to make that case, and so he suggested language based on a recent experience. When hundreds of children were arrested after the Children's March in Birmingham, the one where dogs and fire hoses were unleashed on youngsters, civil rights organizers needed cash to make bail.
HINES: And I got a call, an urgent call, from Harry Belafonte because we were getting enormous pressure from the parents of these kids to get them out of jail.
NORRIS: The Rockefeller family wanted to help, so Jones had to fly to New York, go to a bank vault, and sign a promissory note in exchange for $100,000 in cash. He explains how a promissory note works.
HINES: When the creditor calls you and says pay me, you pay that person.
NORRIS: When he was helping King draft talking points for his speech, Jones suggested that would make a powerful analogy.
HINES: And I said, you know, coming here to Washington - assemble - is like we are coming to our nation's capital and - asked to be repaid, or asked to be paid in full, on a promissory note. Well, there has to be sufficient funds in the vaults of justice in this country.
NORRIS: And indeed, Dr. King used the image of a bounced check, to assert that America had failed to live up to her promise.
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THE REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check; a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.
NORRIS: Clarence B. Jones has chronicled his work with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his book, called "Behind the Dream." [POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: Jones co-auhored "Behind the Dream" with Stuart Connelly.] When he worked on his memoir, he had some unlikely source material.
HINES: And little did we know until years later that every single conference call we had, every single telephone conversation related to the march and other matters, was wiretapped and the contents transcribed by the FBI. So while we would be having so-called confidential conference calls, there was another party that was also a part of everything we did.
You know, the march was on Aug. 28, 1963. From July 13 - July 13, 1963, until December, the end of December 1967, every single telephone conversation that occurred between me and Martin Luther King Jr., that occurred in conference calls - every single conversation - the contents were wire recorded, transcribed, and written into a daily running transcript. Wire-tapped.
NORRIS: And who approved or ordered these wiretaps?
HINES: Robert Kennedy.
NORRIS: They all had to be signed by him.
HINES: That's correct, as the attorney general.
NORRIS: And because of those wiretaps, Jones now knows how the FBI viewed Dr. King's performance at the Lincoln Memorial.
HINES: Subsequently, I learned in looking at an internal, top-secret communication from the second person in the FBI to Hoover, who was writing a memo to Hoover - he says, in effect - this is a paraphrase from yesterday - it is clear that Martin Luther King Jr. is the most powerful Negro in America and as such, he is dangerous.
NORRIS: Under a memo titled "Negro Question," the FBI actually said this about King. Quote: "He stands head and shoulders above all other Negro leaders put together, when it comes to influencing great masses of Negroes. We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation."
That memo was dated Aug. 30, 1963, two days after the March on Washington. All these years later, Clarence B. Jones is actually grateful for those wiretaps. Thanks to the FBI, he has a vast and accurate archive.
HINES: Because if I have a fuzzy memory or a hazy memory, I look at it, and there's a verbatim transcript of the conversations about a certain event, a certain person. or a certain problem we were discussing.
NORRIS: Jones always thought the government was listening. Dr. King didn't want to believe him.
HINES: In his harshest moments, he would - not accuse me, but he would characterize me as being a left-wing McCarthyite; that I was seeing FBI agents under the bed and all around, just like Joseph McCarthy saw communists. In fact, it would come up because often, we would have conference calls around 10:30, 11 o'clock at night, and that's after I had maybe two martinis and a shot of Jack Daniel's. I don't drink that heavily.
Anyway, so I would get on the phone, and I would say OK, is everybody ready now? This is Clarence. Dr. King would say, Clarence, what are you going to say? And I'd say, OK, Mr. FBI Man or FBI Woman, do you have your pencil ready? Do you have your pad ready now? Because we're gonna start this conference call.
And Dr. King would say, Clarence, why don't you stop that? He would say, They have much better things to do than to listen to our conversation. I said, oh, really? (Laughing) And I was proven right.
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GREENE: That's Clarence B. Jones, adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and author of the book "Behind the Dream." He spoke to NPR special correspondent Michele Norris. Tomorrow, more on his role in the March on Washington, and we will also hear his six words for the Race Card Project.
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