At 92, MLK’s Speechwriter Is Still Defending His Mission

From a Washington Post story by Timothy Bella headlined “At 92, MLK’s speechwriter is still defending his mission”:

For nearly a century, the life of Clarence B. Jones had felt limitless. As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s trusted counsel, he smuggled out the civil rights leader’s scathing critique of White moderates in “Letter From Birmingham Jail” and helped write the first seven-plus paragraphs of what became King’s most famous speech, the “I Have a Dream” address delivered at the 1963 March on Washington.

Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president, once lauded Jones as “the ultimate inspiration” who helped “bend the arc of history toward justice and freedom.”

But on a May morning inside his sleepy apartment building in Northern California, one of the most influential surviving members of King’s inner circle was feeling vulnerable. He was a 92-year-old Black man crying in his favorite chair in the living room. He was mourning Harry Belafonte — the singer and activist who helped bankroll the civil rights movement — who had died weeks earlier of congestive heart failure at 96 years old. Jones knew for months that Belafonte wasn’t well, but the reality of another death of a friend and brother from the movement that largely defined his life still hadn’t sunk in.

And it still hurt like hell.

“They don’t make them like him anymore,” Jones said, wiping away a tear running down his cheek. “I guess we have to move on and try to recover if we can.”

Belafonte’s death and Saturday’s 60th-anniversary March on Washington have become moments of self-reflection for Jones. As a 20-something New York entertainment lawyer, he had no interest in working with a then-unknown preacher from Alabama named King. But Jones morphed into a steadfast behind-the-scenes adviser, mega-fundraiser and keeper of secrets. In photos from nonviolent protests in Birmingham, Ala.; the 1963 March on Washington; and other pivotal moments in the civil rights movement, Jones is usually somewhere in the background — a sharp-dressed figure present for some of the most pivotal moments in the nation’s history.

“I am the last of the lions,” Jones said, referring to an African proverb. “If the surviving lions don’t tell their stories, the hunters will get all the credit. So I’m a surviving lion, trying to tell my story.”

Jones recognizes that the anniversary march could be one of the last major celebrations witnessed by someone from the original march with a direct connection to King. Ralph Abernathy, Stanley Levison, John Lewis and Wyatt Tee Walker, other major figures from King’s inner circle, all have passed away.

This year’s March on Washington has taken on special meaning for organizers as conservative school boards strip libraries of books on race and the LGBTQ+ community. It also comes as the country’s racial history is being rewritten and under attack, organizers have said.

“It’s insane,” Jones said. “I’m saying to myself, ‘Are we so crazy? What is going on in our country? Are we going to deny the reality that slavery existed?’ Give me a break.”

The 60th anniversary of the march, he said, “allows us to hit the timeout button, to say, ‘Let’s get real. Let’s stop this nonsense.’”

Jones’s life before and after King’s assassination has put Jones in the middle of history: He successfully defended the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the landmark Supreme Court libel case New York Times v. Sullivan, became the first Black person appointed as an allied member of the New York Stock Exchange and was one of the lead negotiators in the infamous Attica prison riot.

“The legacy of Clarence Jones is he was there for Dr. King as a legal mind and a fundraiser and a bridge to other communities and the leaders that are here today, especially me,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights leader and one of the organizers of this year’s March on Washington.

“He’s been everywhere, but it’s never been about him,” said Stuart Connelly, co-author of “Last of the Lions,” Jones’s new memoir that was released this month.

But Lin Walters, Jones’s wife, sees how events in recent years have weighed on him.

“Once in a while when he’s having a day when everything is stacked against this country and all the bad things come to the surface, he says, ‘I know I don’t have a lot of time, because I see the horizon,’” Walters said. “That’s when I give him the pep talk about sticking around and still fighting.”

Have you ever heard of Martin Luther King Jr.?

When the phone rang one evening in February 1960, New York Judge Hubert Delany had a question for Jones:

Have you ever heard of Martin Luther King Jr.

“I was minding my own … business when I got this call,” Jones said with a laugh.

Jones was a 29-year-old rising legal star in Southern California who had already worked with actor Sidney Poitier and singer Nat King Cole. Now, Delany wanted him to go to Alabama to represent King, after the state had indicted the preacher for perjury on a tax return. Jones declined. “Just because some Negro preacher got caught with his hand in the cookie jar, it’s not my problem,” he recalled thinking.

But there was a problem: King already was flying to California to meet Jones. King invited Jones to see him as the guest preacher at Friendship Baptist Church in Los Angeles, and Jones watched as King spoke before a standing-room-only crowd and called for Black professionals to support the civil rights movement. He then spoke about a gifted, wealthy Black man in their community who was selfish and had lost his way — and Jones realized that the Alabama preacher was playfully roasting him, without ever looking in his direction.

Jones said he was rocked by the sermon, but he was on board, much to King’s delight.

“Mr. Jones, I’d like to point out that I didn’t use your name,” King said, according to “Last of the Lions.” Jones joked, “You don’t need another lawsuit.”

After King was acquitted by an all-White jury in the income-tax trial, Jones became a mainstay among his team of lawyers, activists and business executives. The friendship between the two men stretched into King’s personal life — and rumors of affairs — with Jones seen as one of the few who could tell the preacher things he didn’t always want to hear.

“Clarence never hesitated to speak up,” said Andrew Young, 91, who was King’s chief strategist in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “He was the voice of law and reason.”

‘Martin must have really been tired’

When the topic of King and the March on Washington came up in May, Jones closed his eyes and transported himself back to the 1960s, back before his friend was gunned down in Memphis.

King was exasperated and losing patience as Black leaders from around the country asked him what he would say at the March on Washington, Jones says. Some wanted direction and leadership; others wanted him to preach and inspire. And King? Well, he wanted Jones to start writing.

“He turned to me and said, ‘Clarence, are you taking notes?’ I said, ‘I wasn’t, but I will,’” Jones recalled.

A prominent fundraiser and moneyman for the civil rights movement, Jones had been behind King’s effort to confront President John F. Kennedy about the Cuban missile crisis. Jones had visited King twice a day in his Birmingham jail cell, where he was locked up for organizing nonviolent protests pushing for desegregation.

And he had helped King write speeches.

Preparing for the March on Washington, King asked Jones to go to his room in the Willard Hotel and write a summary of what everyone wanted him to say at the march. By this point, Jones had King’s voice and cadence in his head, which allowed him to draft more than seven paragraphs on yellow sheets of paper that Jones thought was a suggested outline for how King might open the speech.

“Knowing how his mind worked, it was more like an insurance policy,” Jones said. “It was more like, if all else fails, I know I’ve got this.”

Young was skeptical that Jones or anyone else could be much use in giving King speechwriting tips.

“I’ve never said this to Clarence, but it’s almost impossible being a speechwriter for Martin Luther King Jr.,” Young said.

So it was a surprise to Jones, as well as King’s other advisers, when the civil rights leader started off his address in August 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial with his attorney’s first seven-plus paragraphs about how Black people still were not free in America.

“My first reaction when I heard him speak was, ‘He must have really been tired. Martin must have really been tired,’” Jones said. “He didn’t change one word, period, nothing. He just used it verbatim.”

King’s speech has lived on not only because of the “I Have a Dream” portion of the address, which Jones didn’t write, but also for how it captured the shift of civil rights from a local cause in Southern communities to a national movement, said Jonathan Greenberg, a friend who co-founded with Jones the University of San Francisco Institute for Nonviolence and Social Justice.

“And that’s in the portion that Clarence wrote,” Greenberg said. “He’s modest about that, but it’s the truth.”

In all the times he listened to King speak, Jones, who was standing about 50 feet behind him during the address, said he had never heard King deliver a speech like that.

But Jones said he has felt conflicted about the upcoming march and whether it would properly reflect King’s legacy and mission.

Months after Jones’s interview with The Post, Sharpton reached out to Jones to ease his concerns. Jones had helped organize a fundraiser for Sharpton when the civil rights advocate was only 16 years old and establishing the National Youth Movement to raise resources for impoverished youths.

“He has no problem reprimanding me, and I honorably take it, because he’s earned that respect,” Sharpton said.

After receiving a personal invitation to the march from Sharpton, Jones said he planned to attend. “Al Sharpton is like one of my children,” Jones said. “And just because you may have differences with one of your sons, you don’t stop loving them.”

‘The best of us’

Jones’s Palo Alto home is a time capsule of a big life, with books, jazz and classical music, and framed photos of family, King and even the Dalai Lama. He reminds visitors that he simultaneously advised King and Malcolm X, two leaders who were seen as rivals but who both earned his trust. There is a handwritten letter from Obama during his presidency: “I wanted you to know just how inspired I am by your life work.”

Each memory that hangs in the home is a reminder both of how far Jones has come and how much work is left to inch closer to King’s mission, which, he said, sometimes still feels further than a dream. He still sometimes imagines what he would say to King today about Black people beaten and killed by police in the era of Black Lives Matter.

In the days leading up to the anniversary march, Jones had a new outlook on it. He was reinvigorated, he said, by people in their 20s and 30s who were telling him they will be in Washington on Saturday.

It reminded him, in fact, of all the calls he and King got six decades ago, about buses spotted in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio on their way to march for change, too.

“People can get angry all they want at America, and believe me, I can be one of America’s greatest critics. But I criticize my country because I love it so much,” Jones said. “We’re coming together again to pause and commemorate the best of us.”

Timothy Bella is a staff writer and editor for the Post’s General Assignment team, focusing on national news. His work has appeared in outlets such as Esquire, the Atlantic, New York magazine and the Undefeated.

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