Published: 10 March, 2011
by DAN CARRIER
THEY were four words that were to change the course of American history.
When Doctor Martin Luther King Junior stood in front of 250,000 people on the steps of Washington’s Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, he told the crowd, famously: “I have a dream.” The phrase struck a firm blow against the rotten, racist edifice of segregation.
Professor Clarence B Jones was there to witness it, and played a part in shaping the day’s momentous events. The attorney and speech writer was one of the civil rights leader’s closest confidantes.
In a lecture this week at the British Library, Professor Jones, who has written a memoir about his relationship with Dr King, talked about how he wrote the first draft of the speech with other advisers. He revealed he was thrilled to hear Dr King start reading the words he had played a major part in drafting – and how the phrase “I have a dream” was very nearly left unuttered.
As Dr King began working his way through the day’s planned speech there was a pause: it was all part of Dr King’s delivery style, honed at the pulpit. And it was in this split-second break that Mahalia Jackson – the gospel singer and close friend of Dr King’s – shouted to him: “Tell ’em about the Dream, Martin! Tell ’em about the Dream!”
Professor Jones continued: “I watched Dr King push the prepared notes to the side of the lectern. He shifted gears in a heartbeat. I leant over to the person next to me and said: ‘The people out there do not know it yet, but they are about ready to go to church.’
“Then, honouring Mahalia’s request, he spoke out those words that, in retrospect, felt destined to ring out that day: I have a dream.”
From here on Dr King began to ad lib, drawing on his memory of a speech made a few months previously at a small church meeting, and history was made.
Professor Jones first met Dr King through a mutual friend, Judge Hubert Delaney, in 1960. Dr King had been indicted for tax evasion in Alabama and Delaney suggested Jones may help with his defence. “I had just finished law school and I got a call from Delaney, who was my mentor,” recalled Jones. “He said Dr King needed a law clerk.”
At first the civil rights leader’s problems were of no concern to Professor Jones: “I thought to myself, so what if some Negro preacher has been caught with his hand in the cookie jar?”
Then Delaney said Dr King would be in California the next day and had asked if he could pop by his home. Dr King appeared on his doorstep that Friday night.
“Dr King had been on the cover of Time magazine,” he explained. “My wife regarded him as a celebrity. He came in and got straight to the point. He said: ‘We have lots of white lawyers in the movement but we want young Negro lawyers.’
“I told him I would like to help, but couldn’t. I explained I was just starting out on my career in entertainment law, that my wife was pregnant.”
But his wife was not impressed by this decision: “It was a cold evening in the Jones household that night,” he said.
The following morning he received another call – this time from Dr King’s secretary, who invited him to hear him preach in LA:
“My wife was still angry with me and she said: You may not be going to Montgomery, but you are definitely going to church.”
It was this visit that was to change his life.
“The text of the sermon was the role and responsibility of the Negro professional,” Professor Jones said.
“Dr King spoke with detail and passion, and described in texture and colours what he wanted to do. Then he used me as an example.”
Without mentioning Professor Jones in person, Dr King used his life – his parents were in domestic service and had worked hard to get him through law school – as the basis for the sermon. He explained how the movement needed the help of black professionals.
It had the required effect: “At the end I went up to him and simply said: Dr King, when are we going to Alabama?”
It led to Professor Jones drafting many speeches, helping raise funds, and acting as a confidante to the Dr King as they took on the might of the white establishment.
His memory of his great friend, who he was close to right up to his assassination in 1968, is undiminished – as is his belief in Dr King’s unique gifts.
“I am sometimes asked if there is anyone like him around now,” he says. “The fact is he was sui generis: I ask is there anyone today like Michelangelo, Beethoven, Da Vinci, Shakespeare? With the exception of Abraham Lincoln, he achieved more than any other person in the 400-year history of modern America.”
• Behind The Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation. By Clarence B Jones and Stuart Connelly. Palgrave Macmillan £14.99