After ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech, ‘A Shudder Went Through Me’ — and Through the Nation

Civil rights figures gather on the National Mall in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2008, to see the future site of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial. From left are Rose Sanders, Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles, Clarence Jones, Rev. Otis Moss, Jr., and Xernona Clayton, foreground. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
National Journal
Mike Magner
Aug. 26, 2013, 3:30 p.m.

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.’ “

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