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'Dream' Speech Writer Jones Reflects On King Jr.

Jan 17, 2011 (Fresh Air from WHYY)

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The most enduring images and sounds of Martin Luther King Jr.'s life come from his "I Have A Dream" speech, delivered at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963.

Clarence Jones helped draft the speech that day, and he was standing a few feet away when King spoke.

He was a young attorney and part of King's inner circle when the March on Washington was planned. He tells his story in his new book Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation.

But it almost wasn't to be.

As Jones recalls in a conversation with Fresh Air's Dave Davies, he initially turned down the opportunity to meet King, because it would have meant moving from his home in California, where he was a newly married lawyer, to Alabama, where a legal team was preparing to defend King on charges of tax evasion and perjury.

But a visit by King to his home in the winter of 1960 changed his life.

"To put it in historical context, he was then a celebrity," Jones says. "At least, he was regarded as such by my wife, who thought when Martin Luther King Jr. was coming to our home, it was a combination of Moses, Jesus, George Clooney, Sidney Poitier and Michael Jackson. So in he comes and we have some pleasantries and he gets down right to the point. He said, 'You know, Mr. Jones, we have lots of white lawyers who help us in the movement. But what we need are more young Negro professionals because every time we embark on something, we are being hit with some form of legal action.' "

Jones turned him down — until King left the house and Jones' wife stepped in.

"Soon after he left, she turned to me and said, 'What are you doing that's so important that you can't help this man?' She was angry at me and then I began to be angry at Martin King. Because I thought to myself that like all young couples, we were living in domestic tranquility, and here this total stranger comes into my house and gets my wife angry at me over something I had nothing to do with."

The following morning, Jones received a phone call inviting him to be the special guest of King at a speech he was giving in a California church.

"My wife was standing nearby and I told her verbatim the conversation I just had. And she said, 'Well, you may not be going to Montgomery, Ala., but you're going to that church,' " he says. "So I go to the church. ... And I had never heard anyone speak with such extraordinary eloquence and power."

By the end of the sermon, Jones had made up his mind.

"I walked over to him and put my hand in his hand and I said, 'Dr. King, when do you want me to go to Montgomery, Ala.?' Since then, that transformed my life."

Clarence Jones is currently a scholar in residence and visiting professor at Stanford University's Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute. He also writes regularly for the Huffington Post and is the author of What Would Martin Say?

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