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Speechwriter for MLK to be Honored With Legacy Award

December 6, 2011 – Clarence Jones, attorney, advisor and draft speechwriter for the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., will be recognized by Georgetown for his contributions to the civil rights movement and King’s legacy during the “Let Freedom Ring!” celebration Jan. 16.

Jones will receive the 2012 John Thompson Jr. Legacy of the Dream Award during the annual MLK celebration, co-sponsored by Georgetown and the Kennedy Center.

An author and Stanford University scholar, Jones is best known for assisting King in crafting the opening paragraphs of the celebrated “I Have a Dream” speech and several others, including King’s speech on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Jones helped get the civil rights leader’s messages across in more ways than one. 

When King was jailed in Birmingham, Ala., for demonstrating, Jones smuggled his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” out to local clergy, and it was later distributed nationally. With his legal background, Jones also had the foresight to copyright the “I Have a Dream” speech.

Social Justice

Named for the former Georgetown men’s head basketball coach, the award honors outstanding scholars, activists and humanitarians who fight for social justice.

Past award recipients include civil rights activist Joseph Lowery, humanitarian and NBA legend Dikembe Mutombo (C’91) and Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund.

“I remember my two boys who are now young men, growing up,” Jones said. “They were absolutely consumed with Georgetown basketball, coached by John Thompson Jr.”

Jones’ sons will be in the audience the night he receives his award.  

The Recruitment

Author of What Would Martin Say? (Harper Collins, 2008), Jones is a scholar-in-residence at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. He also co-authored Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech That Transformed a Nation (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2011) with Stuart Connelly. 

He says he first met the civil rights icon in February 1960.

King had made a trip to the West Coast for a speaking engagement in Los Angeles, but had another mission as well. He wanted to recruit Jones, then a 29-year-old lawyer, to his legal team.

The civil rights leader told Jones how important it was to have young black professionals involved in the movement.

“He was very eloquent about what he was seeking to do with the movement for our people in the South,” Jones recalled.

A Changed Life

But King was unable to sway Jones to join the legal team in Montgomery, Ala., until the next day when he heard King’s speech.

Jones started as a law clerk on King’s legal team and later became one of his close advisors and draft speechwriters.

“He was a leader of extraordinary moral integrity … I remember him as a father who often talked about his children,” Jones said. “He worried about what would happen to them when he was no longer here.”

Jones, who now writes regular columns for the Huffington Post, said King changed his life.

“If I had not met Martin,” he said, “I probably would have been a very successful, very rich amoral [person].”