But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free.
And thus began a speech, delivered 50 years ago today, that helped transform our nation.
Standing just a few yards from Martin Luther King Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial was his lawyer, adviser and speechwriter, Clarence Jones, who had written those words.
“I listened to him, remembering the draft text which I had written (the night before), I said, ‘Oh my God!’” Jones told me in an interview back in 2009. “He was adopting my draft, using the first six or seven paragraphs as a lead-in to the rest of his speech. He hardly changed a word.”
At age 82, Jones is one of the last living participants from King’s inner circle involved in the March on Washington, which happened 50 years ago today. He lives in California where he is a scholar-inresidence at Stanford’s Martin Luther King Jr. Institute.
The process of creating the speech, Jones said, had begun three weeks earlier when King and Jones began to talk about what he would say. But the real work on the speech didn’t begin until the night before. King met with a half-dozen advisers and confidantes in the lobby of Washington, D.C.’s, Willard Hotel.
“After having a lot of people give him a lot of ideas, he said, ‘Clarence, are you taking notes?’ I said ‘I will if you want me to.’
He at some point said, ‘Clarence, maybe you ought to go upstairs and try to summarize this so everybody will be on the same page.’” Ninety minutes later, Jones reappeared with the summary, along with draft language for beginning the speech. The debate continued over key points of emphasis without any consensus developing. King finally ended the meeting, took the notes and went to his room.
“The next time I paid any attention to it was when he was giving it,” said Jones, who was some 15 yards away as King began to deliver his speech. It was only then that Jones realized that words he had written were being delivered to a massive crowd exceeding 250,000 people.
“Then, past the seven paragraphs I had written, Mahalia Jackson (the legendary gospel singer) turned to Dr. King, who was speaking from the written text. She said, ‘Tell them about the dream, Martin, tell them about the dream!’ “Martin smiled, acknowledged what she said, and at that point he turned the written text that he had at the podium ... upside down. When I saw this from a distance, I said to whomever was standing next to me something like,
‘These people may not know it, but they’re about ready to go to church today,’ because I could sense that he was getting ready to transit into a form of Baptist oratory.
“And he did.” Jones said King was “like an artist with a paintbrush” when he spoke, capable of creating powerful imagery with his words.
“In current parlance,” Jones said, “Dr. King could mentally cut-and-paste better than anyone I’ve ever known. While he was speaking, he could selectively take from his memory bank pieces of speeches — articles that he had written in the past — and put them together, reconfigure them. And that’s exactly what he did in the March on Washington. I had heard him speak about the dream in earlier speeches. But he reconfigured in a way that was different, that had not been done before. It was very, very powerful.”
Forty-five years later, a concert was held on those same steps of the Lincoln Memorial to celebrate the presidential inauguration the following day of Barack Obama. For Jones, the symbolism was powerful. It brought home to Jones how their small group had helped change America.
“It had a profound emotional psychic consequence,” he said.“There was no question in my mind that without the struggle and the leadership and the transformative effect of Dr. King in dismantling segregation, institutional racism, the election of Barack Obama would not have been possible at the time it occurred. To the extent that I ever thought about it, I thought that sometime in the indefinite future there might be an African-American president, but I certainly didn’t think it would be in my lifetime.”
Walt Sorg’s full interview with Clarence Jones airs on “City Pulse on the Air” at 7 tonight on 88.9 FM The Impact.