Sometimes destiny reaches out and touches you. Sometimes you just happen to be there and it takes you on a special ride.
Fifty years ago, Dr Martin Luther King Jr—on the Washington Mall, with the Capitol building as his backdrop and 200,000 people in front of him—gave the speech which effectively destroyed the anti-Civil Rights movement.
The battles struggled on for a while, and black-white economic disparity is still very much there, but things were never the same after that speech on 28 August 1963; and winning itself came along soon enough.
Clarence B Jones was there at that moment, at King’s shoulder, touched by destiny. He was close enough to see King’s notes and to see that they were pretty much what he had written the night before.
There had been a preparatory meeting in the Willard Hotel, just a couple of blocks from both the White House and the Mall.
King’s advisers had gathered to discuss his scheduled speech, in the fading (but since-restored) grand, columned luxe of the lobby.
“I suggested to Martin that he come down and sit with us and hear their last-minute thoughts.”
Some said King should preach. Some said he should lay out a future course for the Movement. After a fractious discussion, King asked Jones to go back to his room and write up a summary.
When Jones came back, he says, “I hadn’t hardly been speaking for a minute but they all started disagreeing with what I said they’d said.”
King stood up and said he was going to his room. Taking the sheets of paper on which Jones had written his summary, he announced: “I’m going to counsel with the Lord.”
‘Tell them about the dream, Martin!’
The next Jones saw of his notes was the following day, over King’s shoulder.
“As he was speaking, I was listening carefully and I said to myself: ‘Oh my God, he’s using the exact language of the first seven paragraphs of what I’ve written’.”
Not the ‘I have a dream’ section, but the setting-out that led up to it. The actual peroration came when gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who was nearby on the podium, called out: “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”
Which King did: “From Jackson’s call to the end of the speech. it was all spontaneous and extemporaneous,” says Jones.
It was epochal, too; though it did re-use thoughts and phrases he’d used twice before, if not to such effect.
“That was because of setting,’” says Jones. ‘There were 200,0000 people, 25 per cent of them white, at the foot of Lincoln Memorial in Washington, at three in the afternoon, with the sun shining.
“Everyone knew they were participating in something that had never been seen before in the history of the United States. It was an electrifying moment.
“It was the most moving place he himself had ever spoken in America. It was as if his body had been taken over by some cosmic force. I never heard him speak like that before or again.”
It was a high holy day during Jones’ eight years as King’s lawyer and adviser, from 1960 until the assassination in Memphis.
There were others, though. In April 1963, when King was imprisoned in Alabama, Jones smuggled in some paper for him to write on.
Then he smuggled it out again, to be published as what became known as The Letter from Birmingham Jail, a document that was central in both establishing King’s ascendancy in the movement and pushing the government towards the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
‘You’ve come a long way, baby’
Fifty years later, Jones returned to Birmingham to mark the letter’s anniversary. He was interviewed for TV in King’s jail cell and was the keynote speaker at a bar association dinner. Seven hundred people, sit-down, black tie, and half the crowd was black.
Called to speak, he paraphrased a 1970s quasi-feminist ad for Virginia Slims cigarettes: “Birmingham,” he told them,. “you’ve come a long way, baby…”
The same could be said of Clarence Jones himself.
He was born poor as poor, in New Jersey, the only child of a pair of domestic housekeepers. Times were tough. He was raised first in friends’ homes; then, aged six, he was sent to a Catholic boarding school for ‘indigent coloured orphans, foster children and native Americans’.
(‘Coloured’, ‘black’, ‘negro’, ‘African-American’: Jones uses all those words during our conversation, each in its own historical place.)
When Jones moved to high school, he was “exempt from Latin because I’d learned so much from the nuns”. He graduated at the top of his class: “I had been the beneficiary of a better education.”
In a school that was only 30 per cent black, he was voted ‘most likely to succeed’. He was as popular with white kids as with ‘negroes’, he says.
But why him? What made that possible?
“I was friendly. I was a clarinettist. They respected me because I was as academically as good or better than them.”
These were the skills and personal qualities that enabled Jones to swoosh through life: scholarship to Columbia; law degree; entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles; investment adviser in New York, and later the first African-American allied member of the New York Stock Exchange.
But his cellphone ringtone still echoes his history. It’s Muddy Waters’ ‘I’m A Man’, a 1950s blues beat, with a proto-Civil Rights undertow: “Just because I’m black, don’t think you can call me ‘boy’.”
So how, I ask him, should we judge the years since King’s speech? Its results, if you like.
“The speech carefully described the possible. Dr King was speaking in the future tense, ” says Jones. “He had a profound, prophetic sense of what America could be.
“Well, you’d have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to know there have been some substantial changes for African-Americans. Some in absolute terms and some in relative terms, which are not so positive.
“If you look at income equality on graphs, you’ll see there is great disparity between what Dr King looked to provide and what is. Also a great disparity in terms of the criminal justice system.
“I don’t exempt the responsibility of the African-American community but it does constitute 37 per cent of the prison population.”
He acknowledges slavery’s impact but says: ‘That doesn’t exclude personal conduct. I don’t accept that it is inevitable consequence of slavery that 73 per cent of African-American children are born out of wedlock.
“It is behaviour you can stop. These are self-inflicted wounds.”
‘Obama needs to kick butt’
Jones now teaches, at the University of San Francisco, and lives with his wife Lin in Palo Alto. He is well-off, educated and powerful. He is a significant member of the segment of black America that has done very well these past 50 post-segregation years.
His own children—there are five of them, most over 50—move in a quite different world from the one of his childhood. He says race isn’t even an issue in their circles, “and that is an achievement.”
But how does he, personally, attend to the disparity that has emerged—even grown—between his old world and his children’s, that of a small elite and the rest of black America’s?
“Let me quote Dr King’s speech in San Francisco in 1965: ‘But for the grace of God, there go I’.”
There, too, goes the first black US president. As an academic, how would Jones mark Obama’s report card?
“I would give him a B+ or a B. My principal, loving—and I use that word—criticism of him is: too little, too late.
“He should have a better appreciation of the use of political power. He has not exercised power.
“He believes you can govern by being Mr Nice Guy. Your enemies must take measure of how you will use your power.”
A pause. A lawyerly pause.
Then: “He needs to take names and kick butt.”