When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stood before 250,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, he had notes for his speech in front of him. Nowhere in these notes, or in any previous drafts of the speech, however, were the words “I have a dream.”
Clarence Jones knows this — he helped King write the drafts of the speech. He also stood behind King when acclaimed gospel singer Mahalia Jackson called out, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” And he watched as King put aside his notes and stopped for a pregnant pause before uttering the most celebrated phrase of the modern civil rights movement.
"It was completely extemporaneous — of the moment," Jones, the former personal counsel, adviser, speech writer and close friend of King, told POLITICO. Recalling the moment King went off-script, he said "I read his body language, then I turned to the person next to me and said, 'These people don't know it, but they're about ready to go to church.'"
Jones, now a scholar-in-residence at the Martin Luther King Jr. Institute at Stanford University, is one of the last surviving confidants of King’s who was with him throughout the buildup and preparation for the March on Washington. He recounts the events leading up to the speech in detail in his forthcoming book, co-written with Stuart Connelly, “Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech That Transformed a Nation,” released by Palgrave Macmillan on Jan. 4.
Jones told POLITICO that the book offers rare insight into what went on behind the scenes before and during the historic march.
"I don't think the public knew, but up until 24 hours before the march, there was a little bit of skepticism among the organizers. There was anxiety about how many people might attend. We didn't have Blackberries or cell phones, or anything like that. The best we had was spotters near major highways saying, 'There seem to be a lot of people coming in,'" he said.
There was concern too, said Jones, about how many white people would attend the march, since too small a number would have undermined the message that an integrated, multi-racial society could work. That a quarter of participants were white came as a relief to organizers.
Some information about the organization of the march even came as a surprise to co-author Connelly. Concerns about turnout, for example, were also rooted in economic considerations:
"The organizers had taken on huge debt to finance the March, and the key to paying back their loans was the sale of souvenirs. Buttons and posters had to move, and if too few people showed, financial ruin would've followed," Connelly told POLITICO via e-mail.
He said that the financial aspect of the event perhaps should not have come as such a surprise to him - concerns over money being "endemic to every enterprise" like the March on Washington. Yet, logistics and organization are often overlooked when we recall the historic event.
"I'm from a generation that views the March on Washington as something nearly pre-ordained. Something that was 'supposed' to happen," said Connelly. "I think that's a dangerous way to view history because it lets people off the hook when it comes to trying to change the world themselves. Clarence is one of the last strategists of the civil rights movement to authoritatively tell future generations that the key to change is to take action. Even if it isn't planned perfectly, it's better than waiting."
And Jones sees much need for change in America today, and believes that if King were still around, he would too.
"Dr. King would be happy as a general rule at seeing minorities moving upwards towards the middle class. And he would be pleased that the United States elected an African-American president. But one would have to be a little dishonest about the reality of things I you don't admit: Things are happening that should not be occurring."
Jones told POLITICO that he believes the "wanton" gun violence in urban centers would be "a matter of appalling concern to [King]." Also on that list would be an issue that, in Jones's words "continues to fester" - that is, the relationship between the African-American community and the police in America.
"There seems to be a repetition of an ugly experience of police in urban communities putting discretion on hold and pulling the trigger," said Jones. (To name just one horrifying example: Last year, in Oakland, Calif., Oscar Grant, a young black man, was shot in the back and killed by police officer Johannes Mehserle. There is video footage of Grant, who was unarmed, prostrate on the floor when the shot was fired. Mehserle was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.)
And so, Jones considers it crucial that young people look back to King and the words of his celebrated speech. "There is nothing more powerful than the words themselves, all I seek to do [with 'Behind the Dream'] is fill in the blank space," he said.
“I’m going to be 80 years old next month,” Jones says. “There may be people still around who were part of the civil rights movement, but virtually no one who was with Martin Luther King Jr. 24/7 in the weeks before and during the March on Washington. This book may be the last eyewitness account that history will be able to offer of this momentous event, and that’s why I wrote it.”