Dr. Clarence Jones, a scholar writer in residence at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research & Education Institute at Stanford University and adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco, spoke as part of the Presidential Lecture Series on Wednesday, May 1.
Jones — who worked as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s personal attorney and adviser during the height of the civil rights movement and helped write the famous “I Have A Dream” speech — shared his thoughts on the current challenges facing King’s legacy.
“What Dr. King sought to do was to reclaim the soul of America,” he said.
Jones shared how Dr. King was deeply committed to nonviolence, especially having been a student of Gandhi.
“I didn’t agree with his way of nonviolence at first, but I went along with him. I told King that ‘if a white man were to put his hands on me, he was going down for sure.’”
Jones said this remark made King laugh. He shared with the audience what King told him: that engaging in violence was the reaction the oppressors wanted and therefore, violent actions just obscure the message behind the protest.
“That was the reason that was our way of going about things,” Jones said. “To really be non-violent, you have to start out with loving yourself. You have to love yourself enough to commit yourself to something deeply.”
Much of Jones’ lecture pondered what kind of nation the United States is becoming — both morally and ethically — in the 21st century.
“I believe that today we face a crisis of morality and we’ve lost the way,” he said. “This lecture requires us to look at the journey in short form of where we have come.”
Jones spoke about the long-term impact that slavery had on America’s history, adding that 2019 marks the 400th year anniversary of the initial arrival of slaves in the U.S.
“You can’t understand the proper soul of America and essence of what America is today unless you understand where we came from and the truth behind slavery,” Jones said.
He went on to talk about school segregation during the Jim Crow era. After discussing the movement to integrate public schools, Jones pivoted the discussion to a broader critique of inequality in the United States. He noted how even as society has gradually become more equal, certain people have been left behind.
“How is it possible that in the richest country in the world we can spend trillion plus dollars for Afghanistan and farm boys, but we don’t have enough money to feed and provide shelter to the homeless and poor?”
Later on, Jones spoke about the impact that technology has had on the quest for social justice. Jones argued that today, machines and property are valued over people.
“If we wish to honor Dr. King, we must shake the social economical order,” he said. “We must cool a world on fire and save our children from destruction.”
Steven Adelson, co-director of the Center for Civic Justice at SBU, met Jones when he was a college student and got the opportunity to hear his story and passion. This encounter inspired him and gave him the energy he needed. He shared how throughout the day, Jones spoke to students and he saw that “the excitement came out to the forefront for all of them,” he said.
Cheryl Chambers, associate dean and director of multicultural affairs, said she appreciated the insight Jones was able to give on Dr. King as a personal friend of his.
“My favorite part was being in the presence of someone who not only knew Dr. King but also knew his soul,” Chambers said. “I loved that he could speak about him in a way that no one else can.”