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MLK confidant reflects on America’s complicated relationship with the civil rights icon

Portrait of Dr. Clarence B. Jones holding a photograph of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at his home in California.
Demetrius Philp / The Washington Post
FILE, 2023: Holds a photograph of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at his home in California.

As it has been since 1976, February is Black History Month. Many will process iconic moments in Black history through black and white images or through passages in a book. But for some, those iconic moments are actual memories — because they were there.

Clarence B. Jones was there by the side of his friend and iconic leader at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

“Martin Luther King, Jr.” Jones said, “may have done more to achieve political, social, racial equality than any other person in the previous 400-year history of our country.”

But without the legal talents of Jones, now a 93-year-old attorney who recently spoke at an event honoring King in Westport, Connecticut, King’s path to those achievement’s would have been more arduous.

It was Jones who helped successfully defend King in his 1960 tax fraud trial. It was Jones who smuggled in the papers — denied to King by jail guards — on which King wrote his iconic "Letter from Birmingham Jail." It was Jones who met with New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller to secure the bail money that got King and other protestors released from the Birmingham jail. It was Jones who wrote the first seven paragraphs of King’s legendary “I Have a Dream” speech.

But one thing Jones could not do for King was convince him to show more regard for his own safety.

He was almost killed in the 1956/1957 Montgomery Bus Boycott,” Jones said. “Every day 24/7, at least from when I first met him in the second week of February until he was assassinated, they were trying to kill him.”

“While he was personally afraid, as a human being, he had this profoundly genuine commitment in what he called his Lord Jesus Christ. And as a consequence of that, as close as we were, I could not have a rational discussion with him about what he was doing, whether it was dangerous or not dangerous, or whether he should not do this because it was irrelevant to him," Jones said. "Because he said, ‘You can't protect me. The Attorney General can’t protect me. Only my Lord Jesus Christ can protect me.’”

Seeing what King went through in life is part of what makes the way the United States celebrates him in death ring hollow to Jones. For example, King famously said “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Jones holds particular scorn for conservatives who quote King’s famous line when arguing against the kind inequality remedies that he believes King would have supported.

“It makes me want to puke,” Jones said. “It’s, at best, malevolent. It's evil. It's opportunist, and they know better.”

As an attorney, Jones said he believes in evidence. And, in his view, the evidence leads him to conclude that, in life, King loved America more than America loved him. But it was how King came to that love that taught Jones a lesson he feels we all would do well to learn.

“He had a unshakable belief that every sinner’s soul can be redeemed,” Jones said. “See my attitude was this: Some people, you just don't need to waste your time on. They are beyond redemption. He said, ‘No Clarence. You’re wrong.’ There was nobody that is beyond redemption.”

Today, in a world filled with so much suffering and strife, it’s King’s belief in humanity that Jones said should give us all hope.

“I am convinced that there are generations and generations-yet-unborn, who are wintertime soldiers,” Jones said. “They may be born white and presumptively carry the historical virus of racism in their DNA, but they can overcome that by the power of love from people who are not white, who can extend the hand to them of love and genuine reciprocity. So, I'm very hopeful about our country.”

John Henry Smith is Connecticut Public’s host of All Things Considered, its flagship afternoon news program. He's proud to be a part of the team that won a regional Emmy Award for The Vote: A Connecticut Conversation. In his 21st year as a professional broadcaster, he’s covered both news and sports.