Into “I Have a Dream”
Martin Luther King Jr.: I do feel that if we are to be truly Americans and citizens of this nation, then we must not have any barrier standing before us on the basis of race.
Trymaine Lee: 57 years ago this week, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. went on NBC's Meet the Press to talk about the event that he and other activists had been planning for months, the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Archival Recording: Dr. King, we often hear it said here that while the Negro drive for equality is a justifiable movement, in the last year, the Negros have been pushing too hard and too fast. Do you find any substantial reaction among white people to this effect? Or does it affect you in any way in the conduct of your movement?
King: There may be this reaction among many whites in this country. I'm sure that many whites, both North and South, have the feeling that we are pushing things too fast and that we should cool off awhile, slow up for a period. I cannot agree with this at all, for I think there can be no gainsaying of the fact that the Negro has been extremely patient. We have waited for well now 345 years for our basic constitutional and God-given rights.
And I think instead of slowing up, we must push at this point and we must continue to move on. And I'm convinced that our moving on will not only help the Negro cause so to speak but the cause of the whole of America because the shape of the world today just doesn't permit our nation the luxury of an anemic democracy.
Lee: Three days later, Dr. King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and looked out on a crowd of 250,000 people, and began to speak.
King: 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. (APPLAUSE)
Lee: His words would become etched into the collective consciousness of a nation.
King: Five score years ago...
Dr. Clarence Jones: Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves, who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. But 100 years later, the Negro still is not free.
Lee: Over time, his refrain from that day would prove to be the most enduring words of the Civil Rights Movement, "I have a dream."
King: I have a dream...
Jones: I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal."
Lee: Tomorrow, on August 28th, the country will once again gather both virtually and in Washington to march again and to commemorate the famous words that Dr. King spoke 57 years ago. I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. I talk with Dr. Clarence Jones, who was legal counsel, strategic advisor, and draft speechwriter to Dr. King from 1960 until his assassination on April 4th, 1968. Dr. Jones is the last surviving member of the planning committee for the 1963 March on Washington, and he helped to write the speech that Dr. King gave that day.
Jones: I can remember it like yesterday.
Lee: Dr. Jones, how are you doing, sir?
Jones: How are you doing, sir?
Lee: Thank you so much for joining us. I really do appreciate it.
Jones: No. No, my honor.
Lee: And so I've talked to you a number of times in the past, but I don't know if I got the story of how you actually met Dr. King for the first time. How did y'all meet?
Jones: Oh, please. Trymaine, I'll tell you the short version. (LAUGH) The short version, I was minding my own business in the second week of 1960. He was indicted by the State of Alabama for (UNINTEL) lying on his state income tax return. And I got a call from his chief defense counsel.
And he called me because he had developed a respect for me as a young lawyer. I had just graduated law school in 1959 and moved out to Los Angeles to pursue a career in copyright law in 1960. So I got a call from Judge Delany in 1960 to support him in doing the research for the defense of Dr. King.
Lee: Obviously your relationship grew from just being, you know, a lawyer, just representation, to being there for many years.
Jones: Oh no, no, no. No, we grew into a very personal relationship. The next seven and a half years, I ended up first being a political advisor, then his personal lawyer and draft speechwriter, along with Stanley David Levison. We became very close.
Lee: What was it about your dynamics, the two of your together, that created that great energy and that friendship?
Jones: Trust and the fact that I was so different. You know, I was not a Baptist preacher. I was Northern educated lawyer, businessperson who didn't need anything from him, who didn't want anything from him and had been very well recommended by people whom he had a high opinion of.
Lee: So he was a young man. How old would you have been? When y'all met, you were just outta law school. How old were you?
Jones: I was 29 and he was 31.
Lee: Whew. How did it feel to be so young in the midst of that historic moment? I mean, and did you recognize that it was a historic moment when y'all were going through it?
Jones: Well, we did as it began to occur. But, you know, a certain amount of youthfulness had a certain amount of ignorance. From his standpoint, I mean, he was a deeply committed religious person. I was a religious person, raised as a Catholic actually, but I had a much more pragmatic attitude. I mean, I tried to understand power at an early stage. And so I had no illusions. You know, you had to understand and respect power.
Lee: So Dr. King was a deeply faithful man, and you were more pragmatic. But how did he rub off on you, and how did you rub off on him you think over the years?
Jones: Well, I'm not sure how I rubbed off on him, but I can tell you how he rubbed off on me. You know, when we met, I let him know very clearly that I had profound admiration for him but I was not committed to nonviolence. This is after I had been in the Korean War for two years in the infantry and special forces training on how to kill people.
And I had been active in sports. And it was inconceivable to me that I would not respond to somebody that assaulted me personally. That was inconceivable to me. So my shorthand statement to Dr. King, I said, "I'm sorry, Martin." I said, "White cop hits me, he's goin' down." He says, "Clarence, you know, I can't have you." I said, "Well, that's why I'm not gonna be in your demonstrations."
But then there came a point about a year, a year and a half before his assassination where I really came to understand that he was right and I was wrong, that he was in fact the baddest, bravest dude walking the Earth. His sheer courage. What converted me was watching him, you know, when he's surrounded by violence and his sheer determination. No matter what we may say to him, if he's gonna do it, he's gonna do it because he believed it was right.
Lee: You know, so obviously Dr. King and his legacy and all of you who were kinda feedin' into that moment are more than just the March on Washington, right? But the March on Washington stands out. One: the images, the sheer mass. And then we heard Dr. King's speech. And you played such an important role in crafting that speech. And I want to know: When did Dr. King come to you and say, "I need your help on this"? How did it go down?
Jones: He didn't do that. We were both staying at the Willard Hotel, and the March on the Washington was on a Wednesday, August 28th. And on Tuesday evening a group of his closest political advisors, people who were very close to him, came to him and said, "We need to talk to you, Martin. We want to know what you're gonna say."
He resisted, and I said, "Martin, they're downstairs. You know you got to." And I remember sitting there, listening to him as he's listening to the group of advisors. One of the first persons who raised their voice was Ralph Abernathy. He says, "Martin, you know these people are coming from all over the country. They're not comin' here to hear you preach."
And Professor Lewis from Morgan State, he says, "No, Martin, I don't think so. These people have heard you preach before. I think they're looking for direction." And Cleveland Robinson, a booming labor leader, says, "Yes, Martin, I think they want to hear you give some direction."
So after all of that, I mean, he was genuine in listening to them but somewhat a little exasperated. But he loved them and respected them. So when we were going up in the elevator and knowing how his mind works, I had crafted on a yellow sheet of paper in my longhand and I said, "You know, you can use this or not." I mean, I know how his mind worked.
It's only when he gave the speech, when I'm listening to the speech and I'm saying to myself, just to myself I'm saying, "Well, you know, he must have really been tired." And I guess it was easy for him to just use my suggested text as a point of initial departure.
So the first seven and a half paragraphs of the speech, just the seven and a half paragraphs, were exactly as I wrote them. He didn't change one word. As he got to the eighth paragraph where he talked about "the fierce urgency of now" and so forth, then he started adding his own material. And then he was speaking to that.
And then as I was listening to him speak, I heard Mahalia Jackson shout out to him, "Tell 'em about the dream, Martin. Tell 'em about your dream." And he's reading from the written text on the lectern. And I turned to somebody, but I said to them instinctively. I said, "These people out there, they don't know it, but they're about ready to go to church."
Because I was looking at Dr. King from the rear. I had been around him and a lot of Baptist preachers for a lot of time, lots of time. And I saw him take his right foot and start rubbing it up against his lower left leg. Now, those of you who have been around preachers, preachers, it's like a jazz musician. When getting started to get it on, that's when you're knowing they are about ready to riff. And that's when I said, "These people out there don't know it, but they're about ready to go to church."
Lee: How different was the speech than the final draft? Is there anything that was left out that you think shoulda been there?
Jones: What most people don't know, it was likely maybe he got 20%, maybe 25% of the speech. That was all extemporaneous after that. So the balance of the speech, including the, "I have a dream," and all those magnificent things he spoke, except the last paragraph when he looks down at a card and he starts quoting, "Free at last! Free at last!" everything from the time Mahalia Jackson interrupted him until the time, that was extemporaneous.
Lee: All these years later, there are so many things from that speech that still connect to today. But there's also a call to end police brutality.
Jones: That's right. Very upfront in the speech. Right.
Lee: So what do you make of either our failure to rectify those things or just how prescient Dr. King's speech was?
Jones: First of all, let's look at the dialectic. The positive feature is that the so-called (I mean that in a positive way) Black Lives Matter Movement was able to take the cumulative deaths of George Floyd and several deaths before that going back to Trayvon Martin and saying to our country, "Just what kinda country are we? Here we are, what is it? 57 years later? Whatever years later, March on Washington. Can you believe It?"
Just as the March on Washington followed four months after Birmingham, which awakened the conscience of the country when the country saw police dogs biting at little boys and girls and adults and saw high-powered fire hoses. And people saw all that for the first time on the evening news, and that raised the question: What kind of country permits this to happen?
So what the Black Lives Matter Movement is saying: "Just who are we as a nation?" A tipping point has occurred and come and gone. There was an America before George Floyd, and now there's an America after George Floyd. You cannot put it back in the bottle. I'm saying you know how to commemorate the March on Washington? You have to shut this country down.
Listen to me. Shut it down. America has to stop. No NBA playoffs. I mean, the trains shouldn't run. The buses shouldn't run. Everything should come to a standstill. Otherwise, we are going to be known as a nation that permits the institutionalization of killing.
Now, I know that's what America is not. I'll say it and I'll say it. America is the greatest country in the world. But America is a work in progress, okay? When you say "the greatest country in the world," that means that, hey, it's still searching for its soul. Those in political leadership and those in the media don't understand that. They think, "Oh, we're just gonna have another discussion of this. We're gonna get this." Oh no, no, no, no, no, no. You have to understand this is different.
Lee: After the break, I talk with Dr. Jones about what's changed since the first March on Washington and his take on today's protest movements. Stick with us.
Lee: You know, I remember being in Selma for one of the anniversaries for Bloody Sunday.
Jones: I was there. I saw you there.
Lee: That's right. And President Obama said that, you know, "For those young people who think there hasn't been progress, you know, talk to someone who had to sit at a segregated lunch counter." And that clicked and made sense. But then when all these years later we're still fighting those same fights and we're still waiting for America the great to progress to who it says it is, who it swears it is, have we actually made any progress though?
Jones: Now, Trymaine, of course we've made progress. But progress has to be measured. Progress has to be measured by how we treat the least of these. Not how they treat an African American who's the president of some corporation. Progress is measured by how they treat a George Floyd. Progress is measured on how we treat this young man who was shot seven times. That's how you measure progress. That's the index.
We're at a crossroads in America. And you cannot just go on and have another newscast, go on and have another sporting event, go on and have another whatever it is. Now, I should say to you I speak for myself. But now, I'm gonna go out on a limb. I think that I speak for the heart of the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
I want to make it very clear. When I talk about closing the country down, I'm talking about nonviolently. I want everybody to understand me. We didn't come this far and want to go further to have the murder of Black, brown people by police and other people, to have it misunderstood or besmirched by some nonsense of violence. We've gone that far.
Their death is so powerful and so pure in its pain that we owe them, those of us who want to go and do crazy things and break a window, stop for a moment. We don't want to do that. We don't do that because that tarnishes. That doesn't pay respect to the beauty and the power of what has occurred. So I say to my friends who say, "Well, I want to go out and do this," no, you don't. What you want to do is you want to go out and register to vote. That's what you want to do. 'Cause voting is power. Just go and use the power that you have.
Lee: You were right there during the first March on Washington. And this year's commemoration march is called the Get Your Knee Off Our Necks March. What's your reaction to the current march, and how do you plan on commemorating the anniversary, if at all?
Jones: Well, first of all, I like the Get Your Knee Off Our Necks March.
Jones: Well, you know, I'm under COVID restrictions physically. And as I say, January I'll be 90 years of age. Under normal circumstances if there were not a COVID, I'd put my butt on a plane and I'd be right there marching on that march that says, "Get your knee off my neck."
Somebody says, "Well, you know, you put your health in danger," well, that's the way it is. Fine. I came this far. Nothing would be more glorious. I mean, I'm not suicidal, but I feel so strong about this, that every person that has an ounce of strength in their body.
I don't care what they are doing. Don't tell me that you got to watch Netflix. Don't tell me that you got to have this one last workout. I don't want to hear any of that. You have to pause. You want to pay memory and tribute to the March on Washington and get your knee off our neck, stop whatever you are doing and pause for a moment.
If the NBA players can do it, then I say every damn other person in America can do it. And certainly those of us who have been blessed with limited longevity. You know, if I hear any older person denigrating and talking down to young people, I'll tell 'em to shut their mouth.
They oughta get down, and kiss the ground, and thank their Lord or whatever they thank, religion, that there are young people today who say, "No, no, no. Get your knee off my neck." "Get their knee off our neck" is a symbolic way of saying what I said. We've come too far. Because not going forward without addressing this issue means that you are implicitly confirming that nothing can be done or that the status quo is okay. So we need to have a kind of electroshock treatment or something to shake us up.
Lee: Dr. Jones, you know, reflecting back all these years and thinking about the great names that we mentioned earlier, some of them, and that you are the last one standing, how do you sum up the movement? How do you sum up the years? Give me a sense of things?
Jones: I was privileged every single one I mentioned I knew personally. Met and in some ways many not just meet but worked with. I am humbled, and I am humbled with a degree of admiration. I mean, I don't want to embarrass you, brother, but I've seen you.
Lee: (LAUGH) Thank you, sir.
Jones: No. No, just keep your mouth shut now. I've seen you grow over a period of time, you know? And you've got the same name, but you're not the same person that you were several years ago. I've seen that. And I've seen that with other Blacks in the media. And I hope you will pass on to other people that I've watched in the media. I've watched you grow, you know? Sometimes I want to throw a shoe at some of you 'cause I don't think you get what you should be saying. But in the end, you're beautiful.
Lee: Dr. Jones, I want to thank you for your time. And in all sincerity, I have a deep respect for you. And I really, really do appreciate it.
Jones: Oh no. You want to be--
Lee: And I've said it before, but we--
Jones: Stop, stop, stop.
Lee: Nah, I gotta--
Jones: God bless you.
Lee: Gotta give you your flowers now--
Lee: And so I thank you.
Jones: You're doing work that's much more important than I am.
Lee: Thank you, sir. I really appreciate it. You have a good day.
Jones: Thank you so much, sir. Thank you.
Lee: (MUSIC) Dr. Clarence Jones was legal counsel, strategic advisor, and draft speechwriter to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
King: Free at last. Free at last. Thanks great God Almighty. Free at last.
Lee: Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back on Monday.