Clarence B. Jones, civil rights adviser, attorney and speech writer to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., greeted a packed audience at UVU’s Sorenson Center ballroom on Thursday by singing a verse of a post-Civil War freedom song.
“Oh freedom, oh freedom, oh freedom over me, And before I’d be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave, and go home to my Lord and be free.”
Jones said the words of songs like these capture the commitment and courage and nourish the soul of those who worked in the civil rights movement.
Jones, who helped draft part of the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, gave the keynote address at UVU’s 2013 commemoration week that celebrated the 50th anniversary of King’s speech.
UVU President Matthew S. Holland began the event by expressing his gratitude and excitement for having Jones there.
“It’s a powerful, incredible expression of philosophy, of religion, of ethics, of humanity, all portrayed with the greatest kind of poetry,” Holland said, speaking of Dr. King’s speech.
Jones stood in the audience of more than 200,000 people as Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963.
“Never had I ever seen him speak like that before. It was as if some spiritual cosmic force had come from someplace and overtaken his body,” Jones said. “It was extraordinary! It was unbelievable!”
Jones, now 83 years old, spoke to the students and community about how they could commemorate the legacy of Dr. King and honor the words spoken a half century ago.
Jones said the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. rests on a simple tripod of non-violence, racial equality and the elimination of poverty.
“To commemorate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. means we leave no stone unturned. We have to lay down the instruments of violence,” Jones said. “We do need that biblical injunction of loving our enemies.”
“This is a great opportunity for us to examine who we are as a nation,” Jones said. “What are our current core values today as a nation? Are they compatible with the prophetic dream that Dr. King shared with us on Aug. 28, 1963?”
Jones remembered Dr. King saying, “It is no longer a choice between violence and non-violence in this world; it’s non-violence or non-existence.”
Jones explained that the United States has less than five percent of the world’s population but it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.
“The foreign twentieth century battle against institutional racism is now our twenty-first century battle against institutional violence,” Jones said.
Jones quoted Dr. Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” who said, “There are more African American men in prison, in jail, on probation or parole, than were enslaved in 1850 before the Civil War.”
Jones suggested that the strategy needed to overcome the problems of violence, particularly in this generation of African American youth, must include access to equal opportunity and the pursuit of educational excellence.
Jones urged the audience to commit themselves to the pursuit of nonviolent resolutions no matter what conflicts the nation faces.
“The choice of violence with the use of a gun is not a question of second Amendment rights, it is a question of fundamental, biblical, moral rights,” Jones said. “It’s the simple question of either it’s morally right or morally wrong; there is no in between.”
As Jones concluded his address, he expressed his faith in the celebrated dream his friend, Martin Luther King Jr., spoke of 50 years ago by singing another verse of a freedom song.
“We shall overcome someday. Deep in my heart I do believe, we shall overcome someday.”