Former counsel to Dr. King Clarence B. Jones

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Tavis: Clarence B. Jones served as a longtime 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. His forthcoming text is called “Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation.” Clarence Jones, as always, good to […]

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 longtime 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. His forthcoming text is called “Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation.” Clarence Jones, as always, good to have you on this program, sir.
Clarence B. Jones: It’s always good to see you, my friend. Good to see you.
Tavis: We have you back in January when the book drops. We can talk about this speech when we get to Dr. King’s actual birthday and the holiday in January.
Jones: Which is the 25th holiday, I understand, right.
Tavis: Absolutely, 25th year, so it’s going to be a great conversation in January.
Jones: Right, right.
Tavis: But I wanted you on tonight because of the furor that you unleashed this week with this piece on the Huffington Post. Let me just say if you have not seen Clarence’s piece on the Huffington Post, you’ve got to go and you have to read it. It’s too long to get into all the details tonight. But essentially what you do is to say, I think lovingly and with regard to accountability, that progressives might have to consider running a candidate in the primary against President Obama in 2012.
Now, as you well know, the last time something like this happened Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy. But what did you think was going to happen when you wrote this piece?
Jones: First of all, it was a very difficult piece to write. I actually drafted it on a Saturday evening – last Saturday evening – and I thought about it and I read it and I said, I don’t know that I want to post this. So I’m going to let it sit for a while. So I got up the next morning and I listened to a couple of talk shows and I read Frank Rich and some other people and I said, “No, you have to post this,” and let me tell you, among other things.
First of all, the piece is not about being a super-critic or, quote, “punishing Obama.” It’s about accountability. The reason I was prompted to write it, among other things, is that I thought back on the night when he was elected, okay, and I remembered being in the faculty, in the home of actually Dr. Clayborne Carson at Stanford University, and several people were very moved and so forth. They panned Grant Park, and so forth.
People were crying, and I was crying a little bit. Someone, I think – I don’t know who asked me, he said, “Well, you’re crying. Did you ever think you’d live long enough to see an African American president?” “No.” But I said, “I’m not crying for Obama’s victory.” Everybody was crying. I said, “No, I’m not crying for Obama’s victory. I’m crying for those people who are not alive to see his victory, because I know the road that so many people have traveled, that made his election as the 44th president, an African American, possible.”
So I was crying for Fannie Lou Hamer, I was crying for Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney. I was crying for Jimmie Lee Jackson. I was crying for all of those people we can talk about – some known, and some unknown, but who made it possible – excuse me – who made it possible for you, my brother, and for me, to be where we are today. There was a road, there’s a connection.
So I’m thinking that yes, Obama ran as a – he didn’t run as an African American, okay? He wasn’t saying, “I want you to elect me because I’m Black.” He ran because a very capable person who was Black. But you know what? There is an indisputable fact that he cannot deny and that I cannot deny, and that while I did not vote for him, and many people – maybe some people did vote him because he was Black.
I voted for him because I thought he was good. But as a result of being president, then I hated to put it on the brother, as they say, and I see that he – when I see shots of him in his Oval Office, I see a bust of Dr. King in his office, he carries – I don’t know whether I want to use the word “burden,” but he carries a responsibility different than many any other president would have.
It’s because he has that responsibility – it’s like when you have a good friend of yours, a member of your family, may be addicted or have a problem with drugs, just got off the track. You’ve got to shake him and say, “You’ve got to.” I just think Obama needs some tough love right now. He needs people to talk to him and to write about him out of tough love.
Tavis: But saying that he deserves – let me jump in, though.
Jones: Yeah.
Tavis: Saying, though, respectfully, Clarence Jones, that he needs tough love is a very different thing than saying right now that there ought to be a primary challenge against him in two years. Those are two different things, yes?
Jones: I understand, I understand, but let me finish.
Tavis: Okay.
Jones: Part of that tough love is that since he is maybe reluctant to have drawn some lines in the sand, although he responded; I don’t think he has, then I think those people who elected him and who love him have to draw a line in the sand. What I was seeking to do in that article is to say we have to think the unthinkable.
That’s what it was called – “Thinking the Unthinkable.” Mounting a Democratic challenge to Obama, not as a form of punishment to him but as a form of accountability, as a form of marshalling those forces, those coalition of forces that enabled him to be elected, to get him to pay attention, to get him to understand that he has got to address their concerns. It was very painful for me to see him on television.
Tavis: But here’s the thing, though. Everybody who supported him, who voted for him, who campaigned for him, to your point earlier, two years ago, said they were doing so not because he was Black but because he was the better man.
Jones: That is correct.
Tavis: He was the better candidate.
Jones: That is correct.
Tavis: He was capable.
Jones: He was capable.
Tavis: He didn’t have a lot of experience, but he had good judgment.
Jones: That’s correct.
Tavis: That debate between he and Hillary, Hillary kept saying experience, he kept saying judgment.
Jones: Judgment, right.
Tavis: So everybody gives this candidate, this young individual out of Illinois, the young senator, Barack Obama, a chance to be president, with all these hopes and aspirations placed upon him.
Jones: Right.
Tavis: But the argument was then that he’s so smart, he’s so erudite – Oprah Winfrey and everybody else kept saying, I’m supporting him not because he’s Black, but because he’s brilliant. They made that a mantra – not because he’s Black, but because he’s brilliant.
So here’s my question: How can you be that brilliant, be that smart, and not understand that he is decimating his base? You can’t think that you’re the first person to bring to his attention that his base is being decimated by the things he’s doing or not doing. How does he not get that?
Jones: You can be smart and you can be brilliant, but if you don’t have a clear understanding of the components of political power and how you use and respond to political power, you can be the brightest person there is. Obama is only as good as a – he can only be as capable a president as he is, no matter how smart he is, if he has a connection to the base, the largest part of the segment of the election that elected him.
To be smart and brilliant in the abstract is irrelevant, okay? Governing is about political leadership. Governing this country is about political leadership based on a base of power. Now, this gets us – we don’t have time. I think that the progressives, progressive movements, I think we were asleep at the switch before the midterm elections, okay?
I’m surprised that a part of the political process that I’m so familiar with and I’ve come out of, I never thought that something called the Tea Party would out-organize and out-maneuver the progressive forces. But my friend, that’s exactly what happened, all right? That is exactly what happened.
So that someone – I realize that for me to complain about Obama after a large part of the people who should have been elected didn’t get elected, someone could say, “Well, look, he doesn’t have the political power that he once had because he lost this, he lost the House and members of the Senate.
You act on the basis – you make an assessment on the reality of the power that you have at a given moment, and I think – just Clarence Jones – there’s certainly people around him, advisers that are as smart as or smarter than I am, okay. So the question is, if you’re talking about – if you’re really talking about being more than just a one-term president, then you really have to decide that you’re going to take some political risk in order to consolidate your base and to amass your power.
Otherwise, you may be – maybe he’s made a decision that he only wants to run for one term, okay? But if he really wants to run for two terms, then there’s certain things he must do to make that possible.
Tavis: Before my time runs out here, one of the things that got so much attention with this piece that you wrote suggesting that a line in the sand has to be drawn and that the time might be now to consider a third-party candidate against him, a progressive candidate, part of what got this thing ratcheted up is the fact that you were part of Dr. King’s inner circle, because there is this bust of Dr. King in the White House, in the Oval Office.
Jones: That’s correct, right.
Tavis: Because Obama quotes Dr. King so often. So I say all that to ask what kind of response have you gotten from other folk inside of King’s circle for you calling the first Black president to task?
Jones: I haven’t yet had any response. Maybe I will; I haven’t yet. But you know, as I said in the article, Lyndon Johnson, on many social justice and economic matters, was one of the greatest presidents we ever had, okay? It was not easy in 1968 for those of us around Dr. King, for Dr. King himself, to literally break with Johnson, okay? We knew that once he publicly opposed Johnson, it would create a firestorm.
Tavis: On the Vietnam question.
Jones: On the Vietnam question, okay? But there comes a point where if it’s right – not expedient or popular or plays to one’s vanity, but if it’s right, you have to do it.
Now, maybe someone will say, “Well, Mr. Jones, being president, you’ve got to be – politics is about the (sounds like) art of the possible. You’ve got to be pragmatic.” Pragmatism has some limits. You know what those limits are? Morality.
Tavis: Good place to close the conversation. I could do this for hours. I still feel like I haven’t done justice to the article. You get some sense of it now, but if you go to Huffington Post you can read the article that Clarence Jones wrote that kicked up this firestorm, found its way from the Internet onto the pages of “The New York Times,” so everybody’s talking now, and Clarence Jones isn’t the only one saying this.
A lot of folk talking now about what’s going to happen with progressives come 2012, given, again, the disappointment that so many people have, particularly in this week, with the president caving in on these Bush-era tax cuts. But we’ll talk more about this, I suspect, in the coming days and weeks. For now, Clarence Jones, good to have you on.
Jones: Thank you, my friend.
Tavis: Thank you.
Jones: It’s about accountability. It’s not about anger, it’s not about punishing, it’s not about trying to make a major political statement. It was really about when you love and you care about someone, you speak to them, you speak truthfully.
Tavis: You hold them accountable.
Jones: Okay?
Tavis: Fair enough.
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Last modified: August 26, 2013 at 1:29 pm