Dr. Clarence B. Jones is one of only 10 people alive who can speak of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy with first-hand accuracy. Jones helped draft King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” and he collaborated with other civil rights leaders to organize demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama. As King’s personal adviser, lawyer, draft speech writer and close friend, Jones — now 84 — is determined to carry on not only King’s legacy, but also his own memories of the civil rights movement.
On May 4, Jones will give a lecture titled “After the Civil Rights Movement: The Legacy of Dr. King — Today and Beyond” at the UC Santa Cruz Music Center Recital Hall at 7:30 p.m. Sponsored by the Chancellor’s Office and the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, the lecture is a response to a “very clear message that [America] needs more and deeper dialogue in issues regarding race and civil rights,” said the office’s Associate Chancellor Ashish Sahni.
After King’s assassination, Jones went on to become the first African American partner in a Wall Street investment banking firm. He has acquired a long list of titles and public service awards, including accolades from Time magazine and former President Bill Clinton. Now a professor, author, speaker and adviser, Jones currently resides in Palo Alto, where he continues to write and teach at the University of San Francisco and Stanford University.
“Ever since I have known Mr. Jones, I have always seen him as a man of sound judgment, deep insights and great dedication,” wrote King in a letter recommending Jones to the New York State Bar in 1962. “I am also convinced that he is a man of great integrity.”
Answers have been edited for concision.
City on a Hill Press: Are you working on any projects right now?
Jones: “I’ve taken a voluntary leave of absence from teaching at the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of San Francisco until August 25, when I will resume teaching. The reason I took a leave of absence was to concentrate on two projects. One is I’m writing my autobiography of memoirs covering some eight decades of my life, and the other is I am working with faculty and members of the University of San Francisco to ready a course called ‘From Slavery to Obama.’”
CHP: Why are you speaking in Santa Cruz specifically?
Jones: “The special reason [I was invited] is it is very difficult for me, as an 84-year-old surviving person, who worked seven and a half years very closely — 24/7 — with MLK, to turn down an opportunity to speak on MLK’s legacy. There are probably 10 people to this day including me, that means that there are only nine other people alive today who had close relationships with Dr. King during his leadership in the civil rights movement who could speak with any authenticity about what he did and didn’t do, what he believed and what he did not believe. I have a responsibility to honor his legacy whenever the opportunity is provided.”
CHP: Where do you see America’s racial climate today?
Jones: “The racial climate is one of expectations and disappointment. America’s racial climate is conditioned by two phenomena. The first is the current 21st century consequential impact of the institution of slavery, and its companion ideology of white supremacy on our day-to-day lives. The second is our nation collectively, at different stages, has gone through a combination of hypocrisy and denial. The 600-pound gorilla that sits in the living room of every American household of people of color or white people. The 600-pound gorilla is the issue of racial issues in the United States. People are embarrassed, unwilling or unable to have a frank discussion about that issue. Until we transition from this collective hypocrisy and denial about the current potency of racism in the 21st century, we are going to be prisoners. We are going to be forever trapped in a prison and a dungeon of our own making.
As I say, and I am sure I will say during my speech, you can avoid dealing with the so-called issue of playing the race cards [laughs] unless you deal with creating a whole new deck of cards. I quote an African proverb or fable that applies to the issue of race relations today and particularly applies to the understanding of the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. That fable is that if the surviving lions don’t tell their stories the hunters will get all the credit. See what I’m saying? I have been gratuitously blessed with longevity, I am a surviving lion and I had the opportunity to work with one of the greatest lions in our pride — Martin Luther King Jr. — but if I and those other nine surviving people don’t tell our stories accurately about his leadership, other people will interpret it for their own self-interest. The truth and the power of the legacy of what we achieved will be obscured. How many people can really say or understand that it was the nonviolent civil disobedience quest of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for social and political justice that transformed America in the 20th century? You can talk about technology all you want, about Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, but the person who fundamentally transformed the entire fabric of the U.S. and did it peacefully in the 20th century was a fourth-generation Baptist preacher from Georgia.”
CHP: Do you think Obama’s view of leadership encompasses anything from the civil rights movement?
Jones: “President Obama himself has said on more than one occasion that if it weren’t for the leadership and collective contributions of Martin Luther King Jr., Congressman John Lewis, James Bevel, Diane Nash, Ralph Abernathy — people who came together in the summer of ‘64 and ‘65 — he would have never been elected president of the United States.”
CHP: What can students learn and take away from the civil rights movement?
Jones: “Students should take away an understanding and interpretation of Dr. King’s legacy that they probably would not otherwise have or acquire, and I want to make sure that the students unambiguously and clearly, without any misunderstanding, understand that Martin Luther King Jr. was the preeminent apostle of nonviolent civil disobedience for social justice, love and the pursuit of excellence.
I also want them to understand that in 12 years and four months, from 1956 until April 4, 1968 — the date of Dr. King’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee — with the exception of President Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, that Martin Luther King Jr. may have done more to achieve political, social and racial justice and equality than any other person or event in the previous 400 years of the United States. I want to be sure they understand that.
I also want to warn them. I want to give them some benchmark to accurately look at third parties who interpret and apply Dr. King’s legacy to current events. In that connection I use three examples to describe and make my point.
The first event is the application of his legacy to the Black Lives Matter movement, and the response to the police shooting of young African men. The second event is the efforts by various state courts and the Supreme Court to limit or destroy the maximum opportunity for voting rights. The third case study is to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Those are the three case studies I am going to be talking about.”
CHP: There are current movements about minimum wage and police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. Do you see any major differences or similarities between those and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom?
Jones: “Dr. King was one of the first persons, other than the author Mike Harrington who booked ‘The Other America,’ that spoke about poverty in America. He talked about what we are saying multiplied by a factor of x — and that is income prosperity. He would put it in philosophical terms such as America is an island of affluence surrounded by a sea of poverty. He understood that the most important new chapter of civil rights was about staying in a hotel eating in a restaurant, going to a library or ballpark, sitting anywhere you want on an unsegregated basis, but the real new frontier was economic opportunity. There’s no sense to have the legal right to stay in a hotel if you don’t have the money to pay for the hotel room. There’s no sense in having the right to sit in a restaurant if you don’t have the money to pay for the meal or restaurant bill.”
CHP: Is there something that isn’t widely known about MLK that people should know?
Jones: “That, like President Obama, he had a constant battle trying to not smoke — sometimes it was a losing battle. Secondly, he had a great sense of humor. Third, he was fearless. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t afraid, he was fearless. No thing nor any man or person could cause fear in him. That is because he believed and was eternally protected by his lord savior Jesus Christ. He was a deeply religious person … and he had a good sense of humor and loved to eat fried chicken.”
On May 4, Dr. Clarence Jones will give a lecture titled “After the Civil Rights Movement: The Legacy of Dr. King — Today and Beyond” at the UC Santa Cruz Music Center Recital Hall at 7:30 p.m. The lecture will be free and open to the public.