Martin Luther King: Behind the Dream
January 21, 2013
“There was a kill switch and an administration official’s thumb had been on it the entire time,” remembers Clarence Jones. The John F. Kennedy justice department run by Bobby Kennedy stood ready to take over the speaker system with a flip of that switch. Had that happened, the world would not have heard Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech that day. The situation could have quickly gotten out of hand with over a hundred thousand marchers on the mall.
Although Clarence B. Jones was African American and Stanley Levison was Jewish, they had significant interests in common. They were both New Yorkers and they were both in the most inner circle of advisors to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Jones was one of King’s attorneys as well as a speech writer (primarily drafts that King would later edit). Jones clarifies a point with which King’s estate has expressed concern regarding authorship and “ownership” of the speeches. “We (Jones and Levison) did so out of our love, respect, and devotion to Martin and his extraordinary leadership. It is important for posterity that the record is clear on Dr. King’s reliance on draft speechwriters.” Jones’s points are documented by transcripts of federal wiretaps.
Planning and organizing the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” had its roots in a similar event planned in 1941 by A. Philip Randolph, the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Randolph was successful in pressuring FDR (with his plans for a march) to sign the first Presidential Executive Order since the Emancipation Proclamation protecting African American rights. The Kennedy administration did not yield to pressure, the march was on, so JFK jumped on the bandwagon; but his support was lukewarm.
At least five major civil rights organizations (including the NAACP, CORE, and SNCC) and several labor unions were all involved in the march. Every major city in the country had coordinators and everyone had agendas for which they wanted exposure on Wednesday, August 28, 1963. Several of the key players in King’s camp felt pressure as JFK told MLK in the Rose Garden that information from J. Edgar Hoover identified Levison (and other in King’s camp) as communist sympathizers. Yet the planners persevered.
On Tuesday, before the day of the march, King met with Jones and seven of his advisors to begin finalizing his speech. Jones had come up with the NSF check analogy in an encounter with Nelson Rockefeller. Each of the seven repeated their pitches for what they wanted included and King ended the meeting abruptly by thanking them all.
Jones, now in his eighties, has enlisted the services of Stuart Connelly, a Caucasian writer for the Huffington Post, and together they take readers Behind the Dream. They tell the inside story of private meetings and conversations as obstacle after obstacle is overcome. The planners and speakers indeed had mountains to climb in those months and days leading up to that historic moment on the National Mall in the nation’s capital – at the Lincoln Memorial.
Everyone has special memories of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Perhaps it’s the spontaneous shout from Mahalia Jackson to King to “Tell them about the dream!” and King’s ad libs in reply. Jones shares his memories with us by filling his book with anecdotes and stories about the events and the players. For this writer, the phrase I remember most is, “they will not be judged by the color of their skin.” That same phrase comes to the forefront in discussions of progress since 1963.
Connelly asked Jones if he thought Barack Obama would have been the Democratic nominee if he “had darker skin?” With no hesitation, Jones replied, “No.” Certainly we’ve come a long way since 1963, but as long as Jones’s answer represents the truth in America, King’s “Dream” will be unfulfilled.