Dillard speaker helped make history at Martin Luther King Jr.’s side

MLK speechwriter to speak Tuesday at Dillard

Clarence B. Jones, who will speak Tuesday night at Dillard University as part of its annual “Brain Food” lecture series, is a well-known scholar and lawyer. He was the first African-American to become a partner in a Wall Street investment-banking firm.

But what Jones, 82, is likely to be best remembered for is six paragraphs he wrote 50 years ago.

Those paragraphs began the celebrated “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington in August 1963.

At the time, Jones was King’s personal attorney and one of his closest advisers. Speechwriting was just one of his duties, he said in a recent phone interview. Because of the importance of the march and his address to it, King had invited several key labor and civil-rights advocates to give him input on the speech.

During those meetings, Jones was the appointed note-taker and synthesizer. Afterward, he incorporated everyone’s suggestions, wrote a draft of the speech in longhand on yellow legal paper, and gave it to King. He expected his friend to change the text significantly, as he recounted in his 2011 book “Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation,” which he wrote with Stuart Connelly.

But the next day, as he listened to King deliver the speech to a crowd of more than 250,000 in front of the Lincoln Memorial, the words were very familiar. “A pleasant shock came over me as I realized that he seemed to be essentially reciting those suggested opening paragraphs I had scrawled down the night before in my hotel room,” Jones wrote.

In fact, it was exactly Jones’ words. “He hadn’t changed a sentence or even a comma,” Jones said last week, in a strong voice that makes him sound like a man half his age.

Then, in what is now a well-known part of history, King’s good friend, New Orleans-born gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, yelled out, “Martin — tell them about the dream.” Jones saw King shift the prepared notes aside, grab the lectern and deliver the rest of the famous speech extemporaneously.

“The effect was nothing short of soul-stirring,” Jones wrote.

Jones, whose specialty was intellectual property, also penned a small copyright symbol on the copies of King’s speech given to reporters before the speech.

The handwritten symbol, he said, became a key part of legal opinions that have kept the speech out of the public domain; its proceeds have provided King’s estate with a consistent source of income.

Jones relied upon his personal experience for the speech’s fourth and fifth paragraphs, which compare America’s promise with a defaulted promissory note.

Instead of fulfilling its promise, Jones wrote — and King read — “America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”

They’re now famous words. But they were written about a moment when Jones thought he himself might default on a debt he couldn’t repay.

Financial dilemma

Four months before the March on Washington, Jones had signed such a note for $100,000 to Chase Manhattan Bank in exchange for cash that he used to bail out nearly 600 children who had been arrested with King during demonstrations in Birmingham, Ala.

A shocked nation had seen images of Birmingham police bringing out billy clubs and turning police dogs and high-pressure fire hoses onto nearly a thousand young black children as they marched in opposition to racial segregation. Immediately, the children’s parents wanted them out of jail.

But King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, had no money for that.

Even a half-century afterward, Jones has a keen memory for details and dates, as he recalls what happened in Birmingham. “Dr. King was arrested on Good Friday, May 12 — no I’m sorry — April 12, 1963,” Jones said. “Parents were yelling at me,” he said. They wanted their children home.

Jones got a phone message marked “urgent” from entertainer and civil rights supporter Harry Belafonte, who told him that New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller wanted to help and that he should catch the next plane to New York.

So Jones ended up the next morning at the headquarters of the bank owned by the Rockefeller family, Chase Manhattan.

It was a Saturday and the bank wasn’t open, but a member of the Rockefeller family walked in and handed Jones $100,000 in cash. “This should be a help,” he said. A man at a typewriter handed Jones a demand-promissory note for $100,000, which Jones signed, wondering how he’d ever come up with the money when the note came due.

Cash in hand, Jones then flew to Birmingham and bailed out everyone.

For the next four days, as he visited King in jail, he smuggled out what would become King’s famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” first scribbled onto pieces of toilet paper and other scraps of paper, then on pieces of a legal tablet that Jones sneaked in. “I played a very minor role in bringing out one of the most profound moral, religious documents of the 20th century,” Jones said.

Exhausted, he returned to his home in New York and was met by a messenger from the bank, who handed him an envelope. Nervously, he opened it, and found the promissory note he’d signed. On the back, it read, “Paid in full.”

Confronting a Kennedy

Jones has vivid memories of one New Orleanian.

On May 24, 1963, Jones was invited to a meeting in New York City, called by author James Baldwin on behalf of Robert F. Kennedy, who was then the United States attorney general. Baldwin had just published in The New Yorker magazine a version of “The Fire Next Time,” his book about race and civil rights, which had caused what Jones recalls as “a literary firestorm.”

The idea behind the meeting was to give Kennedy a sense of “what the principal black intellectuals on civil rights were thinking,” Jones said. It was held at a Kennedy brother-in-law’s apartment on Central Park South and was attended by Baldwin along with Belafonte, singer Lena Horne, writer Lorraine Hansberry, the white actor Rip Torn, sociologist Kenneth Clark, Ed Berry of the Chicago Urban League, and New Orleanian Jerome Smith, a “Freedom Rider” who had been badly beaten in McComb, Miss., as he challenged the segregation policies of a bus station there.

“I remember Jerome Smith very well,” Jones said. “He was one of the more courageous young civil rights workers. He had several confrontations with the law in his efforts to fight racial segregation.”

At the meeting, Smith “sharply confronted” the attorney general, Jones said. Kennedy’s face turned a deep red in response. “The atmosphere was electrified,” Jones said.

Others present supported Smith’s statements, especially Hansberry and Horne, he said. In Baldwin’s written account of the meeting, he quotes Hansberry as saying, “You have a great many accomplished people in this room, Mr. Attorney General, but the only man you should be listening to is that man over there,” meaning Smith. “That is the voice of 22 million people.”

Horne also criticized the government for not wanting to put federal employees or soldiers in harm’s way to protect civil rights workers, saying, “If you are so proud of your record, Mr. Attorney General, you go up to Harlem into those churches and barber shops and pool halls and you tell the people, ‘We ain’t going to do it, because we don’t want to get shot.’”

Kennedy maintained that the government was doing everything it could to protect civil rights workers in the field.

“But Jerome Smith, who had literally come from the front lines, right after having his head beaten, was in no mood to hear a statement by the attorney general that contradicted his own recent experience in the South,” Jones said. “And so he was very angry. So much so that he was speaking in anger through tears coming down his face.”

As Jones looks back at that meeting now, he sees an attorney general who, like his brother the president, was struggling to come to terms with his role in the civil rights movement. “They were works in progress,” Jones said, adding that Robert Kennedy had a “transformative trajectory” in terms of understanding civil rights and related issues. By the time he was assassinated in 1968, Kennedy was “a very different person” in his approaches to race, fairness and equality, Jones said.

A request to help MLK

Jones, now a scholar in residence at the Martin Luther King Jr. Institute at Stanford University, was born in Philadelphia. His mother was a maid and a cook, his father a chauffeur and a gardener. As a boy, he lived in foster homes and then was sent away to a Catholic boarding school in rural Pennsylvania. He studied clarinet at the Juilliard School, graduated from Columbia University and from Boston University School of Law, got married and moved to suburban Los Angeles to practice entertainment law.

Then in 1960, he got a call from a mutual friend, suggesting he help defend King against trumped-up charges of tax evasion. Jones said no, saying he couldn’t leave his wife and young family.

He said he told King himself the same thing when King visited Jones at his home. But the next day, Jones attended Sunday services at a church where King was preaching. The church was in the upscale, heavily black Los Angeles suburb of Baldwin Hills — “like the black Beverly Hills,” he said, recalling a parking lot full of expensive cars.

King preached about the responsibility of black professionals to “the masses of our brothers and sisters who are struggling for civil rights in the South.” A perfect message for this church, Jones thought, as he listened, transfixed, to King’s powerful phrasing and inflection.

He later would find that his training as a musician gave him an advantage in writing King’s speeches. “I could hear the rhythmic pattern of his speeches in my ear,” he said.

He sat up straight as King began talking about a “highly gifted attorney,” the child of domestic servants working in a white woman’s house who had sent him away as a child so that his life would be easier than theirs. “I’m afraid that this gifted young man has forgotten from whence he came,” King preached.

“I was not called to the movement at all,” Jones said. Instead, he was personally recruited. “I’m proud of it,” he said. “I’m proud that.

I had the good sense to abandon my self-centeredness.”