On a day that for nearly 30 years has been set aside to commemorate the life of Martin Luther King Jr., the words of a man who knew him personally echoed throughout the Blau Auditorium in the Ross School of Business on Monday.
Clarence B. Jones, an adviser, lawyer and speechwriter for King spoke as the William K. McInally, Memorial Lecturer. The lecture was established in 1966 in memory of McInally who served on the University’s Board of Regents from 1960 to 1964.
Past speakers have included former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Adrian Fenty, the former mayor of Washington D.C.. The speech was a part of the University’s 27th annual Martin Luther King Jr. symposium.
Entitled “Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech,” Jones spoke about his “dear friend” whom he worked closely with on King’s famed “I Have a Dream” speech. Jones served as one of King’s closest political advisers and confidants.
Jones said King never wanted to be described as a civil rights leader. He wanted everyone to remember that he was first and foremost “a minister of the gospel,” and his title referred to his Ph.D. in systematic theology. But, Jones did not downplay his friend’s lasting influence on the nation.
“In 12 years and four months, from May 1956 to April 4, 1968,” Jones said, “with the exception of Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. may have done more to achieve political and social justice, racial justice and equality than any other person or event in the previous 400 years of our nation.”
He added that the second inauguration of the nation’s first African American president and the 50th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech provided a unique opportunity for Americans to examine what United States stands for.
“We have arrived (at a point) where our 21st century interpretation of the constitutional right of the citizen to bear arms is incompatible with the legacy of non-violence bequeathed to us by Martin Luther King Jr., America’s apostle of non-violence,” Jones said.
Jones said he believes that the nation’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre requires an immediate re-evaluation of the core values and moral compass of the nation.
“It is no longer a choice between non-violence and violence in this world; it is non-violence or non-existence,” Jones said, paraphrasing King’s words to address to the December shooting in Newtown, Conn.
He then mentioned that continuing King’s legacy of non-violence may be the most difficult duty he gave the nation. He spoke of gun violence being a critical issue facing the nation’s youths in particular.
“What we (give) and what our world gives our youth today is violence,” Jones said.
Jones also spoke at length about the way in which some people and institutions debase the memory of King by distorting the meaning and content if his teachings and speeches by fitting his views to their own agendas. He accused the National Rifle Association, of which such manipulations — the group is holding a gun appreciation day during the week commemorating the 84th birthday of King.
In addition, Jones said without the collective work of those who transformed the United States politically through the Civil Rights Movement, Obama’s 2008 election wouldn’t be possible. He ended his speech in noting that he is frequently asked whom he thinks is most like Martin Luther King Jr. today.
“I answer them by asking a rhetorical question: Who today is most like Michelangelo?” Jones said. “Who today is most like Beethoven? Galileo? Shakespeare? No one.”
LSA sophomore Cecilia Dumouchel and LSA senior Andrew Kalenkiewicz both decided to come to the event because of the personal connection Jones had with King. They commented positively about Jones’ incorporation of recent, real-life events and gun-violence commentary into his speech.
“I was totally mesmerized through the entire thing,” Dumouchel said. “I think the way that he applied these notions of the past in such a real and vibrant way to these immense issues we have today was kind of refreshing.”
They both agreed that Martin Luther King Jr. Day was a time for reflection on what race and discrimination issues still remain in U.S. society.
“It’s a day to sit back and reflect on partially the problems that our nation has faced and how those problems how they manifested themselves in the past and how they manifest themselves today,” Kalenkiewicz said, “And also it serves as a reminder for how much of an impact an individual can have on society, everything that can be achieved by one great man.”