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MLK’s speechwriter reflects on ‘The Dream’ 60 years later

Dr. Clarence B. Jones, the longtime speechwriter and confidant of MLK, was the guest of honor at Westport Library’s 18th annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration on Sunday, Jan. 14. He spoke with news anchor Craig Melvin and Trey Ellis, novelist and King in the Wilderness producer.
The Westport Library / Verso Studios
Dr. Clarence B. Jones, the longtime speechwriter and confidant of MLK, was the guest of honor at Westport Library’s 18th annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration on Sunday, Jan. 14. He spoke with news anchor Craig Melvin and Trey Ellis, novelist and King in the Wilderness producer.

Sixty years ago, Dr. Clarence Jones smuggled the “Letters from Birmingham Jail” out to the public from the hands of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Jones acted as Dr. King’s lawyer and confidant throughout the civil rights movement.

“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. may have done more to achieve and bring about equality than any other event or person in the previous almost 400 years of history of the United States,” he said.

Before Jones became involved with Dr. King, he played shows with jazz legends. He said that is what helped him write speeches like “I Have a Dream.” He was often found on stage at Manny’s Music in New York City, playing jazz gigs. “When I was 17 and a half years old, I played with [jazz legend] Charlie Parker,” Jones, 93, recalled.

Jones went on to become a clarinetist at Julliard. Years later, he became Dr. King’s lawyer and speechwriter. And he said his love of music informed the way he crafted speeches for Dr. King.

“When I would hear his voice, I could retain the sound,” he said. “Therefore, when I wrote the words, I wrote them like they were musical notes.”

Jones also said that music is the best way to focus — a manifestation of sorts. Today, he serves as chairman of the Spill the Honey Foundation, an organization that uses the arts to bring together a Black-Jewish alliance to achieve social justice non-violently.

So, his advice to young people, looking to make change in the world: “Put down the goddamn laptop and cell phones, and read — and listen to music.”

Jones has continued the legacy of Dr. King through his professional work – writing books, and starting organizations like the Institute for Social Advocacy. In 2021, former President Barack Obama recognized the lifetime of civil rights work accomplished by Jones with the Thurgood Marshall Award, given by the American Bar Association.

Most recently, he was the keynote speaker at Westport Library this weekend ahead of MLK Day celebrations.

Eda Uzunlar is WSHU's Poynter Fellow for Media and Journalism.