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Stanford scholar Clarence Jones provides glimpse at words behind Martin Luther King's dream

The key speechwriter and counsel to Martin Luther King Jr. says his training in music and study of historic speeches helped him draft some of the most important speeches of all time. 

Veronica Marian Clarence Jones discusses how he writes

Clarence Jones (right), a speechwriter, lawyer and adviser for Martin Luther King Jr., spoke on the art of persuasive writing as part of the "How I Write" series at Stanford.

Nearly 50 years ago Clarence Jones stood behind Dr. Martin Luther King as he told over 250,000 civil rights supporters about his dream. As King's adviser, lawyer and speechwriter from 1960 until King's assassination in 1968, Jones had the unique opportunity to influence the course of American history. 

Today, Jones is a writer in residence at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, a Stanford institute dedicated to illuminating the Nobel Peace laureate's life and the movements he inspired. As co-author of three books about his experiences in the civil rights movement, Jones has devoted his life to the power of words. 

Jones, who is currently working on his autobiography and co-writing Where Were You? for the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, spoke recently about his dedication to the beautiful art of persuasion, as a part of the "How I Write" series at Stanford.  

"I have a profound respect and admiration for words," said Jones. "I look at words like an artist with a canvas looks at their paints."

Jones described how his study of historically powerful works and speeches, formal musical training and the careful blend of artistic words have enabled him to craft convincing arguments.

Two questions

According to Jones, before embarking on any piece of writing, "One must first answer two questions: for whom and for what purpose are you writing?"

Jones, a fan of argumentative writing, has dedicated his life to carefully choosing which combination of words will best persuade the particular audience he is writing for – a task he says is particularly daunting in the English language.  

"The greatest repertoire of words for a writer in the English language comes from two sources – the King James version of the Bible and works of William Shakespeare," said Jones. "Those two books fundamentally transform the magnitude and the options for writers to use."

Beyond those two sources, Jones believes that one of the best ways one can learn how to write or get a sense of writing is to look at some of the great speeches. Quoting speeches from Pericles, Emile Zola and Mark Antony, among others, Jones showed how historic speeches teach not only the importance of persuasive content, but also the impact of cadence and rhythm.

According to Jones, speechwriters face the unique dilemma of writing for someone else. "I think that someone is better equipped to do that if they have a trained background in music," he said. 

A Juilliard-trained clarinetist, Jones spent many years training his ear to listen to a note and immediately recognize it: "Till this day, I can listen to a piece of music differently than most people." According to Jones, it is this training that positioned him to become a speechwriter. "If your ear is sensitive to the sound, to the cadence of somebody you are writing for, you will write much better," he said.

Keeping up with King's radical courage

From smuggling King's drafts for "A Letter from Birmingham Jail" out from his cell to helping to negotiate an end to the historic Attica prison inmate rebellion of 1971, Jones played a crucial role in the civil rights movement.

As the March on Washington quickly approached in 1963, Jones and King, who was living in Jones' house at the time, began to talk about what King would say. According to Jones, while some believed that people were coming to hear King preach, others thought this was the time to make a declarative statement on the direction of the civil rights movement.

On Aug. 27, the night before the speech, Jones wrote "a summary of the things which we had discussed, but I put them in a form that he could possibly use as spoken in a speech."

The only part of his draft that was not drawn from the previous night's discussion was about 10 to 12 paragraphs based on King's reflections about the 1963 Birmingham Campaign. The direct action campaign, which aimed to attack the city's segregation system, resulted in the arrest of close to 1,000 protestors. Jones recalled a tense situation when there just wasn't enough money to bail out close to that many people. 

According to Jones, he received an envelope from Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York containing a promissory note from a bank for $100,000, with a handwritten inscription on the back that said, "Paid in full."

"That experience was so powerful that I suggested Martin use the words, 'We 've come to redeem this promissory note,' because black Americans have received notes before that have been unpaid – marked insufficient funds," said Jones. "We can't believe that there are not sufficient funds in the vault of justice to redeem promise for full equality."

The speech

Looking back on his unique position at the height of the civil rights movements, Jones said, "I was blessed. I did not fully appreciate it at the time.  I just thought he was a gifted Baptist preacher."  That was until Jones heard King speak at the March on Washington.

While Jones had heard King speak many times before, he had never witnessed the oratorical power that was evident at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial that day. 

Midway through his speech, as King segued from Jones' drafted words into his own, his favorite gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, who had performed earlier at the march, yelled out "Tell them about the dream, Martin, tell them about the dream!" 

At that moment, Dr. King moved his speech to the left side of the lectern, grabbed the podium and relaxed his stance. Jones turned to the person next to him and said, "These people don't know, but they are about ready to go to church," and, sure enough, from then on, the speech was completely extemporaneous.   

"I have never seen him speak the way I saw him on that day. It was as if some cosmic transcendental force came down and occupied his body," said Jones. "It was the same body, the same voice, but the voice had something I had never heard before. It was so powerful, it was spellbinding."

Kelsey Geiser is an intern with the Human Experience, the Humanities web portal for Stanford University.