EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the latest in a series of reflections on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. ahead of the dedication of a new memorial to the civil-rights leader on the National Mall. Clarence Jones, a member of King's "kitchen cabinet" and one of his closest advisers, helped draft the "I Have a Dream" speech. He recently published a book on the speech's composition and is currently a scholar in residence at Stanford University's Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute. Following are edited excerpts from the interview.
Where were you and what were you doing on August 28, 1963?
I was standing approximately 15 yards behind Dr. King when he delivered his speech.... A. Phillip Randolph, chairman of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, introduced Dr. King. He referred to him as “the undisputed great moral leader of our nation."
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When Dr. King stood up to make his way to the podium, the crowd tensed in unison. There was a thunderous sound of applause as Dr. King stepped up to replace Randolph at the podium. He offered a traditional ad hoc greeting to the vast crowd of people assembled, saying, “Brothers and Sisters, I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation."
As Dr. King was reading through the first 12 paragraphs of his speech ... [gospel singer] Mahalia Jackson, who had performed earlier in the program, shouted to him, “Tell ‘em about the ‘Dream,' Martin, tell ‘em about the ‘Dream.'"
I watched Dr. King push the text of his prepared remarks to one side of the lectern. He shifted gears, abandoning whatever final version of ... the text he’d prepared late the previous night, turning away from whatever notes he had scrawled in the margins. I watched this all occurring in real time.
I saw Dr. King’s body movement change: He seemed to assume the stance of the preacher in the pulpit of a church. I leaned over to the person standing next to me, and I said, "These people out there today don’t know it yet, but they are about ready to go to church." I knew Dr. King was about to transform himself into the superb Baptist preacher he was, like three generations of Baptist preachers before him in his family.
Honoring Mahalia Jackson’s request, Dr. King spoke the words, “I have a dream today ... " As he continued, extemporaneously speaking and repeating the phrase, “I have a dream," the crowd began shouting, “Amen!” “Preach, Dr. King, preach!” “Tell it like it is, Dr. King, tell it like it is," [and] “Make it plain, Doctor! Make it plain!” Watching Dr. King speak was like capturing lightning in a bottle.
After the crowd began leaving—most of the people could be seen walking away from the site of the vast area in front of the Lincoln Memorial—I observed A. Phillip Randolph, momentarily standing alone with tears running down his face.
What memories do you have of King’s assassination?
I was in [New York City] packing and preparing to go to the airport for Memphis. As I was about to leave my residence, the phone rang. It was [singer and activist] Harry Belafonte. He asked if I had my TV or radio on. I said [I didn't], was rushing to the airport, and didn’t have time to talk to him. Harry said, “Turn on your TV. Martin’s been shot!"
I learned from the TV, radio, and during a subsequent telephone conversation with Rev. Bernard Lee, a [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] staff member who was then in Memphis, that Dr. King was dead. My reaction was anger and shock.
I immediately thought, “They finally got him." I also reflected on the irony that I had been opposed to Dr. King going to Memphis in the first place. My opposition was not based on any political difference or opposition to the importance of [Dr. King's public support] for the garbage workers' strike in Memphis. In a meeting with other members of Dr. King’s “kitchen cabinet," I reminded everyone, especially Dr. King, that I had arranged ... for him to meet with potential donors in New York City.... Consequently, I wanted Dr. King to postpone his trip to Memphis.
The other memory I have is that I was the liaison point person who arranged for and accompanied [former first lady] Jacqueline Kennedy to the home of Coretta Scott King to personally express her condolences. I observed the two widowed women embrace in the living room of Dr. King’s home prior to his funeral ...
Has King—the man or the message—informed decisions in your career or personal life?
I met Dr. King for the first time in February of 1960 when he came to visit my home in Altadena, Calif., at the urging of Judge Hubert T. Delaney in [New York City], his chief defense lawyer in a pending criminal tax indictment of Dr. King by the state of Alabama. I was a 29-year-old Korean War veteran at the time, only seven months out of law school.
Judge Delaney [then] asked me to travel to Montgomery, Ala., to serve as his clerk in coordinating Dr. King’s defense with three other lawyers. I declined to do this, in spite of Dr. King’s personal appeal to me during his visit to my home ...
At Dr. King’s invitation, I attended a Sunday church service following his Friday evening visit to my home. He was the guest preacher at a church in the predominantly Negro community of Baldwin Hills ...
I had never, in person, seen or heard Dr. King preach before.... He [referred to me] in his sermon as a “Negro professional [who had refused] to aid and assist our brothers and sisters struggling for freedom in the South."
I [reversed] my earlier decision not to go to Montgomery.
Is there a song that for you evokes Dr. King’s legacy, or the civil-rights movement?
Blowin' in the Wind by Peter, Paul and Mary, and by Bob Dylan
We Shall Overcome
Is Dr. King’s message relevant to any contemporary civil-rights or equality issues?
Dr. King’s consistent message and commitment to nonviolent conflict resolution and encouraging the pursuit of personal and educational excellence is relevant to all contemporary civil rights and equality issues.
Interview conducted by Christopher Snow Hopkins.