Clarence Jones' big civil rights role had a slow start

Published: Monday, Oct. 1, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 2B
Last Modified: Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012 - 11:31 am

In 1960 Clarence Jones told the Rev. Martin Luther King he couldn't afford to move to Alabama to help defend King against tax-evasion charges.

Jones, who had just graduated from the Boston University law school on the GI Bill, was in the Los Angeles area with his pregnant wife and son.

One Friday night, "my doorbell in Altadena rings and there's this fellow in a hat, dark suit, white shirt, skinny tie and horn-rimmed glasses," he recalled. "Following the success of the Montgomery bus boycott, King was a national celebrity.

"He sits down and says, 'Mr. Jones, we have lots of white lawyers from the North to help us in the movement, but what we need are young Negro lawyers like you.' "

"I said, 'Dr. King, thank you so much, but I'm simply unable to go to Alabama.'

"When he left, my wife said, sarcastically, 'What do you think you're doing that's so important that you cannot help this man?' "

The next day King's secretary called to invite Jones to King's sermon at a Baptist church in Baldwin Hills.

"My wife said, 'You may not be going to Montgomery, but you are going to this church.' If you were a Negro on the rise, you probably lived in Baldwin Hills."

In his sermon, King began: "Ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, my sermon today is on the role and responsibility of African American professionals to help their brothers and sisters in the South … ."

"It was mesmerizing. His mouth was like a musical instrument," said Jones. "Then he began killing me softly."

King opined, "For example, there's a young man sitting in this church today. … His parents were domestic servants, his mother a maid and a cook, his father a chauffeur and a gardener."

He was talking about Jones and his parents. King recited Langston Hughes' poem" Mother to Son," about an African American maid telling her son, in part:

"So boy, don't you turn back.

Don't you set down on the steps

'Cause you finds it's kinder hard.

Don't you fall now –

For I'se still goin', honey,

I'se still climbin',

And life for me ain't been no crystal stair."

Jones recalled his mother, who had died when he was 19, "and tears started coming to my face. … He struck a common note with 1,300 worshippers, whose parents made it possible for them to become doctors, lawyers and bankers."

After the sermon, Jones strode to the pulpit.

"He looked at me like a Cheshire cat. … I put my hands in his and said, 'Dr. King, when do you want me to leave?' "

Six weeks later, Jones helped King win acquittal by an all-white jury. He defended King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference against a libel suit by the Montgomery, Ala., police commissioner and other officials in the New York Times Co. v. Sullivan case.

In 1963 Jones drafted a settlement desegregating Birmingham, Ala., department stores and public accommodations, and helped King write his "I Have A Dream" speech, delivered at the Aug. 28 March On Washington that led to the Voting Rights Act.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Stephen Magagnini



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