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He helped write MLK's 'I Have a Dream' speech. Now he reflects on change in the U.S.

Martin Luther King Jr. waves to the crowd during the "March on Washington" in 1963.
AFP via Getty Images
Martin Luther King Jr. waves to the crowd during the "March on Washington" in 1963.

Monday, Aug. 28, marked 60 years since Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

To reflect on what that message means today, All Things Considered's Scott Detrow spoke with one of the men who helped King write it: Clarence B. Jones.

Jones was King's personal attorney, adviser and speechwriter. He was 32 years old in 1963 when he helped King draft the iconic speech, and now, at 92, has recently published a memoir called Last Of The Lions.

Jones discusses his life's work, what he remembers about that pivotal day in American history, and racial relations in the United States today.

Clarence B. Jones in 2021.
Kimberly White / Getty Images
Getty Images
Clarence B. Jones in 2021.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Scott Detrow: Can you tell us what the process was like leading up to that day: What you and Dr. King talked about when you talked about what he wanted to say in the Mall; that process, the two of you working on the speech in the Willard Hotel and thinking through what he wanted to...

Clarence Jones: No, it wasn't like that.

Detrow: No? What was it like?

Jones: What it was like is that Dr. King and his wife, Coretta, had a suite at the Willard Hotel. He was exasperated. I knew from working with him that his ... challenge was always how to begin a speech. Just how do you start it, how to begin it. So I had sat down the night before, like the day before, and I had wrote out on yellow sheets of paper a text of how he might open a speech. It was given to him as a reference, not for him to use, but [more like] "This is the text of something you might want to consider as you're considering your speech." Now, I'm listening to the speech, and lo and behold, I'm listening to it and the first thing I say when I hear it, I say to myself, "Oh my God. He must have really been tired." And I say, "Oh my God, he's using what I had written."

Detrow: Did you, and did he, and everyone you were with, know in that moment, this is something that stood out? Of all the speeches, of all the things Dr. King has done, this stands out, this is going to leave a mark, this is going to be memorable? Did you know that in the moment?

Jones: I did. I actually did. The reason I did was that I was standing behind him. And I had seen Dr. King speak a lot of times. And I've seen other preachers speak a lot of times. Now, when you see, particularly a Black preacher out of the Baptist church ... start take his foot and start going behind his left ankle and moving his right foot from his left ankle up to the bottom of his left knee — when you see a Black Baptist preacher started rubbing his feet up and down slowly and you see him do that while he's preaching, you translate that the music — that's like watching Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie — that's when you say, "The brother is going to take it away."

When I saw him do that, I leaned over to somebody — quite frankly, I don't know, in all these 60 years, I don't know the gender of the person, I don't know the race of the person — but I said to the person, "These people out there don't know it, but they're about ready to go to church." Because I knew, like the great musician, that Dr. King was going to knock it out of the ballpark.

Detrow: Here we are 60 years later. Do you feel like, in the grand scheme of things, America has gone forward, has gone backwards? What do you make of the moment we're in right now in 2023 when it comes to racial relations in the United States?

Jones: Oh, I think it's indisputable that we've made extraordinary strides. I'll use 1863 as my benchmark. Slavery, OK? I mean, you'd have to be just not understanding the most elementary facts of history to not know that the transition from the institution of slavery to non-slavery was profound, OK?

So, progress is rarely a straight line, particularly in social movements, you know. The line is zig zag. Sometimes one step forward, two steps backward, two steps forward, one step backward. The arc of the universe is long, to paraphrase Martin, but it bends towards justice. It's a little Pollyannic to think that the progress of the issue of race is going to be one straight line, all right? You measure the progress incrementally.

Detrow: You've returned to the site many times before.

Jones: Yeah.

Detrow: It's now the 60th anniversary. A lot of your contemporaries are no longer with us. Do you feel an extra responsibility? What do you feel when there's fewer of you to gather, but you're still here, you're still experiencing this moment?

Jones: You know how to make me cry, right? You know what I feel?

Detrow: What's that?

Jones: I feel that I am the beneficiary of some of the best medicine in the world. That's the reason — I'm going to be 93 — but I have an obligation. As long as I have any breath in my body, I have an obligation to carry on the work of Fannie Lou Hamer, Harry Belafonte, all of those people, like Fred Shuttlesworth, and the legacy of those four beautiful girls that were murdered on September 15. I mean, what's the sense of being gifted with a certain amount of longevity if I want to sit on my butt and do nothing, OK? I'm not about sitting on my behind when I know the legacy of all that's gone before. I cannot do that. And so I want to leave every breath in my body and I want to say to Martin, Harry, Fannie Lou Hamer: "I carried on for you as best as I could. And I'm going to do that until the day I die."
Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
Gabriel J. Sánchez
Gabriel J. Sánchez is a producer for NPR's All Things Considered. Sánchez identifies stories, books guests, and produces what you hear on air. Sánchez also directs All Things Considered on Saturdays and Sundays.
Adam Raney

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