Martin Luther King Jr.'s Adviser Talks About African-American Progress, Then and Now

Clarence Jones
Clarence Jones
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Jones played a key role in many of the biggest headlines of the civil rights era.

He defended Martin Luther King Jr. and others against libel charges in a landmark Supreme Court case that strengthened press freedom in the country.

He wrote the agreement between King and the city of Birmingham, Alabama that ended protests and desegregated public accommodations.

And he helped write King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Jones is coming to Cleveland to help celebrate the life of Stephanie Tubbs Jones, Cuyahoga County’s first black prosecutor, who later served in Congress. Clarence Jones said that arena is where change is most needed in today’s fight for equality.

"One of the principal issues in our country today is the fair application and administration of our criminal justice system," he said.

When I asked him about recent high-profile police incidents, Jones answered like an attorney: cautiously. He wouldn't pre-judge individual legal cases.
But he added that incidents like the shooting death of Tamir Rice in Cleveland are troubling, whatever the courts decide.

Law enforcement, he said, can do better.

As a battle-tested political strategist, Jones has some thoughts on how to get there. He said a major principle of the civil rights movement is still crucial for demonstrators today: nonviolence.

And not just for moral reasons. He said when a movement is seen as violent, "not only does it discourage people who might otherwise want to participate and support you, but more than that, is that you give the opposition all the PR tools to discredit and undermine the intrinsic value of your movement."

Keeping protests peaceful is tough and takes discipline, Jones said. People with other motives, or those just looking for a fight, are often the first to hit the streets. Even activists who start out committed to nonviolence can despair if they don’t see change coming fast enough.

Jones said he worries about violence in the current movement, but he's seen things that give him hope.

"One of the most beautiful things I saw, on a television clip some time ago, was: there was a group of people assembled in the early evening, and a couple of people from the group ran over to a store to smash the window. And before the police could get to those persons, the people in the demonstration ran over and grabbed those people, in effect saying, ‘You can’t do that,’" Jones said. "They acted more swiftly than the police did."

But Jones said even the most peaceful protests aren’t enough by themselves. The single most important tool for political change, he contended, is one his generation of activists fought hard to secure.

"The number one issue, with respect to acquiring political power to make a difference, is registering and exercising the vote," he said,

With all his views on how to push political change, though, Clarence Jones said that’s actually not his primary concern these days.

"When you look at the total picture, it’s not white police officers that are the principal threat to young black men," he said. "The greatest threat is other young black men with guns…Nobody wants to talk about that. People are embarrassed."

For someone so rooted in fighting external foes during the civil rights era, it may be surprising that today, Clarence Jones’ priority is change within the black community even more than outside it.

He says if African-Americans want to keep making progress, they need to focus on things like education and parenting, instilling in their children a sense of self-worth and personal responsibility.

He says that’s a major cultural challenge.

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