There is no greater authority on the emblematic speech of the civil-rights movement than Clarence B. Jones, a top adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s who laid the foundation for King’s “I Have a Dream” address delivered 50 years ago Wednesday.
Jones, 82, has been in great demand for interviews in recent weeks as the anniversary of the historic speech at the March on Washington draws near. “You have no idea,” Jones said last week from his office at Stanford University, where he is scholar-in-residence at the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute.
By now it is well known that Jones did not include the words “I have a dream” in the “suggested textual material” he drafted for King before the speech. King had used the phrase earlier in speeches in Detroit and Rocky Mount, N.C., Jones said, and it was singer Mahalia Jackson who encouraged King to go back to it when she called out to him in mid-speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial: “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin, tell ‘em about the dream!”
Jones said he didn’t realize at the time that history was about to be made, but he did understand that something very special was going to happen as King paused and pushed aside his prepared text. “These people out there today don’t know it yet, but they’re about ready to go to church,” Jones said he told the person standing next to him, about 50 feet behind King and looking out at a crowd of more than 250,000 people gathered on the National Mall.
“He, in response to Mahalia, began to speak extemporaneously,” Jones said. And the now-famous refrain of “I have a dream” electrified the millions who watched in person or on live television or in rebroadcasts later in a way it had not done in Detroit and Rocky Mount, “because those prior speeches did not involve the confluence of tangible events which only existed at the March on Washington,” Jones said. “Those events were as follows:
“One, it was at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial.
“Two, it was before the largest assemblage of people assembled anywhere in the United States for any purpose at any time, between 250,000 and 300,000 people.
“Three, 25 percent of the people assembled were white.
“Four, it was at the seat of the government of the United States.
“Five, it was 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
“And six, it was after a culmination of protests and events in our country, precipitated by Birmingham in April 1963.”
Jones explained that scenes on the evening news in the spring of 1963, in which police in Birmingham, Ala., blasted black protesters with fire hoses and unleashed dogs on them, resulted in more than 1,200 demonstrations across the country in the months before the March on Washington. “And this raised the question to the nation as a whole: What kind of nation are we that we would permit this to happen?” he said. “Dr. King’s speech was a summons to the conscience of America. That’s what it was.”
In his 2011 book Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech That Transformed the Nation, Jones described how he felt in the moments after King’s address on Aug. 28, 1963.
“A shudder went through me as Martin finished,” he wrote. “I now knew that I had witnessed something beyond my wildest expectations. In truth, I know it was far beyond Martin’s expectations as well.
“Everyone on the Mall and a whole lot of people watching on their tiny television sets were aware that they had just experienced something transcendent. The ‘I Have a Dream’ speech was less than a minute old, yet it already felt timeless. Martin had reached deep, and, with a prod in the right direction from the angelic Mahalia Jackson, come up with a way to paint a portrait of how it felt to be black in America. He had riffed like a masterful jazz soloist. During the second half of the speech, he was like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Freddie Hubbard, Sonny Stitt, and Lionel Hampton rolled into one. Martin’s words seemed to ignite the spark Mahalia had struck.”
Asked if things might be different in the nation today if King were still alive, Jones responded affirmatively.
“If he were still here today, he would in my opinion have emerged as the preeminent moral spokesperson for America. Not the preeminent spokesperson for black America, but for America,” Jones said.
“Yes, I have to believe that he was such a unique person in the history of our country that I think things would have been different. I think he would have continued to challenge the conscience of America,” he said. “Not only on its foreign policy, but remember, he was unalterably committed to nonviolence. Unalterably. His position was either it’s nonviolence or non-existence, nonviolence or co-annihilation. There was no middle ground for him. There was no compromise on this issue.”
Jones added: “If he were alive today, he would say, ‘Stop the violence.’ None of the issues affecting African-Americans principally and the country at large can be adequately addressed in an environment of 24-7 gun violence. Anybody who wants to honor the commemoration, the legacy of Martin King, it’s very simple, just get up from the rooftop and shout, ‘Stop the violence, stop the violence.’ “