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MLK Jr. speechwriter Clarence Jones, reflects on the March on Washington 60 years on

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

This weekend, we're reflecting on one of the most iconic speeches of the 20th century.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH, "I HAVE A DREAM")

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: 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.

(APPLAUSE)

DETROW: Monday will mark 60 years since Martin Luther King Jr. delivered those words from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. And to reflect on what that message means for us today, I spoke with one of the men who helped King write it.

CLARENCE JONES: I believe that good writers - I'm not saying that I'm a good writer, but I believe that...

DETROW: I think you can call yourself a good writer, Dr. Jones. I think you played a little bit of a part in a speech we're talking about 60 years later. I think you can claim that at this point in time.

JONES: All right. OK. Fine. OK. But I'm saying - but I love the use of words. I love words. Words are like musical notes to me.

DETROW: That is Clarence Jones. He was King's personal attorney, adviser and speechwriter. Jones was 32 years old in 1963 when he helped King draft the iconic speech. Though Jones did tell me that when King first asked him to come work with him, Jones said no. King responded by inviting Jones to attend an upcoming sermon.

JONES: I never heard him speak before, and he gives - the speech is so powerful. It was just mesmerizing. But then he pauses in the - in one of his speeches, he said - and, for example, there's a young man sitting in this church today. My friends in New York and in Georgia tell me this young man, a young lawyer, his brains have been touched by Jesus. And they tell me that when this young lawyer writes down what he finds, the words are so compelling, he says, jump off the page. Now, when he says that, I'm thinking to myself, when this church service is over, I'm going to find out who he is talking about.

DETROW: And King was, of course, talking about Clarence Jones. It was King's final plea asking for his assistance. And it worked.

JONES: I pulled him close to me, still tears running down my cheek. And I said, Dr. King, when do you want me to go to Montgomery, Ala.?

DETROW: You were in from that moment on.

JONES: In, in, in.

DETROW: I spoke with Clarence Jones, who's now 92 years old and recently published a memoir called "Last Of The Lions." We discussed his life's work and what he remembers about that pivotal day in American history.

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... know.

JONES: No. It wasn't like...

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 - I won't say problem, but challenge would be accurately, was always how to begin a speech. Just how do you start it, how to begin it? So in going up in the elevator - so I had sat down like the night before, like the day before, part of that same day, 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 here's - this is the text of something you might want to consider as you're considering your speech. You know, 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH, "I HAVE A DREAM")

KING: So we've come here today...

JONES: And I said, oh, my God, he's actually using what I had written down.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH, "I HAVE A DREAM")

KING: In a sense, we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check.

DETROW: And were you on the steps of the monument as well at this moment? Where were you?

JONES: No. I was standing behind him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH, "I HAVE A DREAM")

KING: Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.

(APPLAUSE)

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 time. Now, when you see particularly a Black preacher out of the Baptist church, particularly when it can be particularly - the Church of God, in Christ, what I call it, down home, you know, get down in preaching, you know, when you see a Black preacher start rubbing his - 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. It's - that's when you say the brother is going to take it away.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH, "I HAVE A DREAM")

KING: ...Sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners...

JONES: When I saw him do that, I leaned over to somebody - I don't even know whether - quite frankly, I don't now, in all these 60 years, I don't know whether - 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH, "I HAVE A DREAM")

KING: Because I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

(APPLAUSE)

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...

DETROW: Yeah.

JONES: ...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...

DETROW: For sure.

JONES: ...To non-slavery was a profound - OK?

DETROW: Yeah.

JONES: So progress is really a straight line, particularly in social movements, you know. 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.

JONES: Right.

DETROW: 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 - 93 - 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...

DETROW: Yeah.

JONES: ...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 say - 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.

DETROW: Dr. Clarence Jones, it is an honor to have you in the ALL THINGS CONSIDERED studio. Thank you for being here. Thank you for your work over the years. Thank you for coming back to talk about this story and talk about all the work you did.

JONES: Right. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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