In the pantheon of the greatest American speeches, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech stands alongside the best of Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Kennedy and Reagan — the only non-president to reach such rarified air.
Clarence B. Jones was present at the creation, playing a unique role as its initial drafter, the last living participant in the speech’s inception and liftoff into legend, 60 years ago this month.
Jones was a young aide to King, a lawyer who doubled as speechwriter. Now 92, he is the author of a new memoir called “Last of the Lions: An African American Journey in Memoir.” A few weeks ago, I spoke with Jones — sharp and full of surprising asides — to get his eyewitness account of how the “I Have a Dream” speech came about.
The plans for the March on Washington began with a meeting of civil rights leaders at the Kennedy White House in June 1963. But as the August 28 date for the event drew near, King’s relentless schedule cut short formal preparation for what would be the culminating speech of the day.
To give King something to work with, Jones prepared an initial draft as an “insurance policy,” based on his current thinking and recent speeches. “He struggled with opening things,” Jones said, noting that beginnings and endings of addresses are often the most challenging for any speaker.
But this draft was supplementary, designed to spark the civil rights leader’s own prodigious skills. King “didn’t need anybody to write any goddamn speeches for him,” Jones said. “He was fully capable of writing his own speeches.”
The night before the March on Washington, Jones handed several pages written longhand on legal paper to King, wrapped up in a magazine for discretion in the elevator of the Willard Hotel. He assumed that few, if any, of those pages would make the final cut.
But the next morning, standing behind King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Jones was surprised to hear the words he drafted begin to come out of the reverend’s mouth. “It really shocked me,” Jones recalled. “When he started to speak, I could see that he was speaking from the text that I had given him. … My immediate response was, ‘Oh, my God, Martin must have really been tired,’ ” to rely on the written remarks for such an important event.
Looking back, even a casual listener recognizes the opening paragraphs of the speech as being an inspired invocation of American history, and the persistent failures to live up to the full promise of the Declaration of Independence — “that all men are created equal.”
The lines of the speech that draw on Lincoln – “in whose symbolic shadow we stand” — are a powerful call to action. “One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. … But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”
These are a textbook example of how to challenge a nation to live up to its patriotic self-conception by pursuing progressive policies. But the real music of the speech was about to begin.
Around the seventh prepared paragraph, as King declared, “We have also come to his hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now,” a change began to come over him, transforming the speech and making it an indelible part of American history.
The shift toward elevated improvisation was brought on by encouragement by the legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who was standing close by.
“Mahalia Jackson was his favorite gospel singer,” Jones recalled. “When Dr. King was in his most depressed moods, he would ask his secretary, Dora McDonald, to get Mahalia on the phone, and he would ask Mahalia to sing to him.” On some of these occasions, Jones saw that her voice could bring tears to King’s eyes.
Under the beating sun that day beside the podium, Jackson called on King, saying, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin! Tell ‘em about the dream!” It was a reference to a riff he had used in a Detroit speech some months earlier, which hadn’t gotten much attention at the time.
Her urging spurred King to new oratorical heights. “He took the written text … and shoved it to the side of the podium,” Jones recalled. “Now I’m standing behind him, and I noticed that when he pushed the text to the side, he took his right foot and started rubbing it up and down the back of his left leg, up to the bottom of his knee.”
To Jones, this was “a telltale sign” that he’d seen Baptist preachers make, coaxing themselves to new heights of inspiration.
He knew then that King was about to bring the heat and the light. But Jones was still stunned by what he heard over the next few mesmerizing minutes. “It was to me as if something had taken over him … not by his substance, not by the words, but by the manner of the delivery.” King seemed transformed by some higher power.
Toward the speech’s closing crescendo, Jones saw King glance over at handwritten notes, a soaring tour of the American landscape where freedom would ring from “the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire” to “Stone Mountain of Georgia” – culminating in the final lines: “When we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, Black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.”
As the thunderous applause passed, “Martin looked at me and said, ‘How do you think I did?’ ” Jones recalled. “And I was speechless.”
In the wake of the civil rights leader’s assassination five years later, Jones went on to serve at the highest levels of civic and business organizations while doing his part to keep King’s legacy alive. Even into his 90s, he remains active in select causes beyond his work as a scholar in residence at the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. He is particularly dedicated to serving as chairman of an organization called Spill the Honey — combating antisemitism and telling the story of the historic Black-Jewish alliance that took form during the Civil Rights Movement.
This work, too, is an extension of his years with King. Jones recalls the words of Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who spoke before King at the March on Washington, reflecting on his time as a rabbi in Hitler’s Germany, saying, “A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder. America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent. Not merely black America, but all of America.”
Jones also recalls King’s deep friendship with the legendary Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and how on the rabbi’s birthday, King joined him at a celebration in the Catskill Mountains, where the assembled rabbis locked hands and began singing, “We Shall Overcome,” in Hebrew.
“Dr. King and Rabbi Abraham Heschel standing in the middle room, they’re both sobbing,” Jones recalled. Afterward, King said to him, “Should you ever be in a situation and you’re listening to some of our Black brothers and sisters, and you hear them mouthing antisemitism and hatred against Jews, Clarence, I want you to tell them that story. I want you to promise me that you will do this for me.”
Clarence Jones has kept the faith, and he remains a vital voice for our nation, a witness to living history that echoes on to this day, 60 years since the March on Washington, a reminder that we Americans should never stop pursuing the fullest expression of our founding ideals, all part of the never-ending effort to form a more perfect union.