Former counsel to Dr. King Clarence B. Jones

Speechwriter for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and author of Behind the Dream explains why Dr. King’s “Dream” speech served as a beacon light that revealed who King was.

Clarence B. Jones' career spans several decades. A former counsel and speechwriter for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Jones helped negotiate a settlement of the civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, AL and coordinated the legal defense of SCLC leaders. He went on to become the first African American partner in a Wall Street firm and founded several successful ventures. A scholar-in-residence and visiting professor at Stanford University's Martin Luther King, Jr. Institute, his new text is Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation.


Tavis: Clarence B. Jones served as a long-time counsel and part-time speechwriter for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He is now a scholar in residence at Stanford’s MLK Research and Education Institute. The new book from Clarence Jones is called “Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation.” Clarence Jones, good to have you back on this program, sir.
Clarence B. Jones: Thank you, sir. Thank you.
Tavis: What is it about this speech that we seem to think we know everything about, have heard over and over and over again, that you can tell us?
Jones: Well, I think the most important thing I can tell you about the speech is that many people believe that Dr. King gave this speech as a prepared address from beginning to end. As a matter of fact, the part of the speech that has become such a celebrated part of history was totally spontaneous and extemporaneous, and it was not something that he had prepared for in advance.
I was standing just a few feet behind him when he was speaking, and he was reading the prepared text of his speech, which I’m proud to say I worked with him in providing some of the draft material that he would use, and that’s not just me but Andy Young and Stanley Levison and others would provide him some material that he could think about as he drafted his speech.
As he was speaking, Mahalia Jackson turned to him and said, “Tell them about the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream.” And he – by the way, Mahalia was his favorite gospel singer. Mahalia was his (unintelligible).
And he paused a moment, took the prepared text, pushed it aside, grabbed the podium, looked out over the crowd, and I said to the person who was standing next to me, whoever that was, and I said – because I read his body language – I said, “These people out there,” meaning the some 250,000 people at the March on Washington, “They don’t know it yet, but they’re about ready to go to church.”
That’s when he did the (unintelligible) of “I Have a Dream.” There have been very few references to that, and I was riding in a car with a business colleague of mine in Silicon Valley, and she said – Ms. Carol Sands – and she said to me, “I just have this audio book of Ted Kennedy’s book, ‘The Compass,’ and you’ve been talking about this book you’re working on, and in the audio book Ted Kennedy says the exact same thing that you say. Have you read it?”
I went out and got the book that day. So I was amazed that Kennedy confirmed the very thing which I had said.
Tavis: Well, if you listen to, for those of us who have studied this speech as you have, when you listen to the audio version of that tape of the speech and you listen carefully, you can hear Haley, as she was – as y’all called her; Mahalia, Haley – you can hear Haley on the tape saying, “Tell them about the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream.”
Jones: Tell them about the dream, dream, right.
Tavis: You know it’s Haley because you were there. There weren’t but two women on the podium that day.
Jones: Right, that’s correct.
Tavis: None of them got to speak.
Jones: Right, that’s correct.
Tavis: One of the big six was Dorothy Height.
Jones: Right, right.
Tavis: I’m going to come to this in a second. Because of the sexism that even you admit was in existence then –
Jones: Right, that’s correct.
Tavis: – no women could speak at the March on Washington, even though Dorothy Height helped to organize it. The only woman that mounted the podium that day was Mahalia.
Jones: That’s correct.
Tavis: And only because she was singing.
Jones: That’s correct.
Tavis: So you know it’s Mahalia yelling, “Tell them about the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream.”
Jones: Yeah, but let me just say something about the speech and about Martin, is that using references of current technology, Martin Luther King Jr. could mentally cut and paste better than any individual I have ever known (unintelligible).
Tavis: On the spot.
Jones: On the spot. In other words, he could speak in real time and as he’s speaking in real time he could draw from instances and paragraphs and sentences from other speeches he has given, and he could insert them as he’s talking in real time, and that’s what happened.
That wasn’t the first time he ever used the phrase, “I have a dream.” He used it six months earlier. He used it in June in Detroit.
Tavis: In Detroit, exactly.
Jones: At Cobo Hall. He used it – it wasn’t the first time. But it’s the first time he reconfigured it this way, because when he used it in Cobo Hall in Detroit, he didn’t have that kind of reaction, not at all.
Tavis: But there had to be something about what happened in Detroit, something that happened at Cobo, that gave him reason to believe that he could or should take Mahalia’s advice and make that U-turn to start talking about the dream.
Jones: Yes, yes, yes.
Tavis: He thought something was going to resonate.
Jones: Yes. That, I don’t know, but he did. He did. I think that first of all, it was an extraordinary experience. If it was an extraordinary experience for me and others who we could just sit up there and look at all of those people out there.
One other little vignette there is that while the proceedings were going on, a Reuters newspaper reporter, a newspaper person came over to me, because they recognized that I was Dr. King’s lawyer, and they said, “We just got word that Dr. Du Bois had just died in Ghana, and I think the people there should know about it.”
So I took a program, the March on Washington program, and I wrote a note to Dr. King and I said, “We just got word that Dr. Du Bois has died in Ghana, and I think you should -” I passed it up ahead and passed it and so forth. Finally he turned, he got it, and I think Roy Wilkins or something made the announcement.
Tavis: Serendipity is the wrong word, but what did you make of the fact, because I’ve always been stunned by that reality, that Du Bois, the first noted Black intellectual in this country, who at a certain point gets so fed up with America that he goes to Ghana, he dies in Ghana, and the announcement of his death is made live during the March on Washington. What do you make of that moment?
Jones: It was – I guess it’s serendipity. There was something symbolic, there was something almost not political, but spiritually symbolic. It was as if not that Dr. Du Bois dying was meant to be, but it was if there was going to be, if he was going to pass, and if there was going to be a public acknowledgement of his passing, what better place for that acknowledgement to take place than assemblage of the largest number of African American and white people in the country that had ever occurred up until that time? What better place than the March on Washington?
Remember, it was a March on Washington for jobs and freedom. This was a march to get America to reclaim its conscience. That’s what this march was about. There’s something in the book in which I talk about – there’s some little background about who’s going to be speaking before the actual speakers occur, there’s a lot of background discussion about who was going to speak first.
There was a – I can say it – there were some people who did not want Martin King to be the last speaker, for a combination of reasons that can best be described as ego. (Laughter)
Tavis: Envy.
Jones: Okay? Had very little to do with politics. So my effort to negotiate that strategy behind the scenes, finally the only thing that seemed to work in talking with Bayard Rustin and Cleveland Robinson and A. Philip Randolph and others, the only thing that seemed to work in talking to some of the other preachers and other representative organizations who felt that he should not be the last speaker is simply to ask the question, “You don’t really want to follow Dr. King, do you?” (Laughter)
Tavis: Yeah, who wants –
Jones: And that ended it.
Tavis: Who wanted to do that?
Jones: I said, “You don’t -” I said – no, what I actually said, I said, “Have you heard Dr. King speak?” “Oh, yeah.” I said, “Do you really want to follow him? I don’t think so.” (Laughs)
Tavis: As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the King holiday this year, with all due respect to the wonderful text you’ve written about this particular speech, what is the danger – because I think there is a danger; I’m curious as to your take – what’s the danger in defining King vis-à-vis this one speech? What is the danger in seeing him singularly as a dreamer? You see what I’m getting at here?
Jones: Yes, I do, I do. I think there is a – clearly, this was a dimension, a political, spiritual and oratorical dimension of Martin King and it also had some substantive content. But it’s like a beacon light of who he was, but who he was consisted of his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.”
Who he was consisted of his speech he gave, “Time to Break the Silence,” the opposition to the war in Vietnam. Who he was was his Poor People’s Campaign in Washington. Who he was was dealing with poverty. Who he was was taking an implacable position, committed to nonviolent social change.
His commitment to nonviolent civil disobedience, it wasn’t a theatrical tactic. It was something he deeply, genuinely, politically and philosophically believed in because he was a student and a scholar of Gandhi in addition to being a minister of the gospel.
Tavis: What do you make of the fact that A. Philip Randolph – of course, the March on Washington is the place where this “I Have a Dream” speech is delivered – but Randolph had called for that march 20, 25 years earlier. It took all that time to get the march on Washington. I believe that, as Victor Hugo once said, there’s nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come.
Jones: As an idea whose time has come.
Tavis: But what do you make of the fact that they had tried to do this for a couple of decades before it finally happened, but when it did happen Martin was there, the time was right? Because if it had been 20 years earlier, King wouldn’t have spoken at that march.
But what do you make of the fact that the timing of when this march happened and that King was in that space, in that place, in that moment and out of it comes this “I Have a Dream” speech?
Jones: I think that arose because of the particular historical circumstances of where the country was at that time in 1963. Remember, just a few months earlier in April they had the Birmingham, and in Birmingham the country was faced on seeing on television screens and on front pages of the newspapers water hoses and water cannons, police dogs biting young African American boys and girls who were trying to peacefully demonstrate to end segregation.
I also think there was something semi-divine, maybe. Just remember it was A. Philip Randolph; just remember it was A. Philip Randolph who was the titular chairman of this march, all right? One of the most poignant moments I remember at the march is after it was over and there was A. Philip Randolph standing there after Dr. King had spoken and the crowd were beginning to move, and you could see tears coming down his face.
I thought, oh, my God, what it must have been for this man, for all the years and roads that he traveled, to see this happen. Because this March on Washington was really a reflection and a testament to him as much as anybody else in this country at the time.
Tavis: You mentioned a moment ago, Clarence, the pictures of these dogs being unleashed on these Black babies, the water hoses being turned on these Black babies in the South. Those pictures were streaming out to America prior to the March on Washington.
Jones: Right.
Tavis: But lest we forget, and I want to give you a chance to just kind of unpack this for us, I think the sense that many people have is that Negroes were catching hell, Martin King shows up in Washington, gives a great speech called “I Have a Dream,” we pass the Voting Rights and the Civil Rights Acts and it’s all good and end of story.
But when you look at the story line and the through line of Black history, you get reminded that that 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham happens after the march.
Jones: You know what I said to Dr. King? You know what I said to Dr. King when that bombing occurred on September 15th, 1963? Know what I said to him? I said, “That was the Klan’s answer to the march.” I was wondering what the response was going to be.
Tavis: Not even a full month later –
Jones: Not a full month later.
Tavis: – they’re blowing up a church.
Jones: That was the Klan – and of course, the day after the march there’s some internal memos which we’ve now been able to see under the Freedom of Information Act, in which the FBI sends a memo to John F. Kennedy, and which in effect they say as a result of what happened yesterday, meaning the March on Washington, that Martin Luther King Jr. is the most dangerous Negro in America. If we haven’t been able to do so before – this is a paraphrase – he must be stopped. He must be stopped. He is the most dangerous Negro in America.
Tavis: That’s what they say about him the day after –
Jones: Hello, the March on Washington.
Tavis: – this nonviolent march in Washington.
Jones: That’s correct. That’s correct.
Tavis: Did Dr. King think that even though he went off-script that day, did he think that he had accomplished what he set out to do with whatever remarks he was going to give that day? Was he comfortable, was he happy with what he accomplished in that moment at the march?
Jones: I think so. I think the practical answer to that question is that immediately after the march, the march leaders were invited to the White House and I wasn’t with them, but I remember Martin saying when he first walked in, the first thing that President Kennedy says, “I have a dream,” trying to – so forth.
I think that he felt that one, the march had been successful because it was the largest nonviolent assemblage of people that had ever taken place in the District of Columbia, and that it did and it had had a powerful effect on the country and on the Congress, and I think on the president.
Whether he felt – clearly, he felt it was a success. Clearly, he felt that it had been a public validation, quasi-celebration of the movement, celebration of the goals and objectives, celebration of bringing, of enabling America to reclaim its conscience.
That’s what his speech was about. His speech – you notice in the “I Have a Dream,” it’s all in the future tense. It’s all in the future tense. I say that he had greater confidence in America than America had in itself, because he’s speaking prophetically about a vision he had of America in the future.
Tavis: The new book raising our consciousness, brothers or sisters, whatever we might be, is called “Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation,” written by Dr. King’s attorney, Clarence B. Jones. Clarence Jones, congrats on the book.
Jones: And my collaborator, Stuart Connelly.
Tavis: Stuart Connelly, indeed.
Jones: Right.
Tavis: Good to have you on the program.
Jones: Thank you.
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Last modified: August 26, 2013 at 1:29 pm