Take Five, With Clarence B. Jones

Former speechwriter, adviser, and counsel to Martin Luther King Jr.

Clarence JonesJones is USF’s first diversity scholar visiting professor and a scholar in residence at Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute. Photo by Karim Iliya.

1. You helped King draft his famous “I Have A Dream” speech. As we approach its 50th anniversary, how close are we to fulfilling his vision of racial equality and equal opportunity?

You have to be deaf, dumb, and blind not to know that America has come a significant distance, but the question is whether or not we could have come further. After the Civil War, it was intended that the South be reconstructed, that an economic and political base framework be provided to the slaves who were emancipated in 1863. If reconstruction were as successful as had been intended, it wouldn’t have taken 40 years for an African American to become president of the United States. It wouldn’t have taken that long, in my opinion, for major legal legislation to desegregate public education. This is always a question of “what if,” but I am of the opinion that the progress that African Americans have made would have been significantly greater if reconstruction had succeeded.

2. At USF, you are teaching an undergraduate political science course called From Slavery to Obama, which looks at the history of racial struggles in the U.S. and key moments of the civil rights movement. What do you think are the most pressing civil rights issues facing our country today?

The critical question facing America today in terms of the issue that is the subject of my course is finding a solution to the plague of gun and drug violence that has in many ways crippled our communities, which would otherwise have an opportunity to flourish. And here I get into a very controversial area—I don’t think there will be any material change in this issue until we find a 21st century equivalent to the paradigm of the black family. The black family, with a male co-head of household, is virtually non-existent, and so you have to find a substitute equivalent to the family they don’t have at home to guide African American boys through the transition to young manhood. The best example I know is the Omega Boys Club, which is run by USF Trustee Emeritus Joseph Marshall. The Omega Boys Club’s Alive and Free Program has, in effect, become the equivalent of the family for young Hispanic and African American males. Their family life is destroyed, and the Omega Boys Club has become their family. It’s given them the transitional foundation to enable them to become adults with a minimum or no violence.

3. One of the goals of your course is to enable honest and critical discussion of race in America. Why is this important for college students today?

Because I think that no matter what other educational pursuits a college student may get involved in, it is important that they understand how America came to be on one of the singular, most important issues that dominated the history of our country, and that’s the issue of race—how whites came to think about negroes and how negroes or African Americans began to think about whites, and the interaction between the races. That didn’t just happen in one day. It has some historical antecedents, and I thought it was important for students to have the opportunity to learn about them. 

4. What stands out about your experience teaching at USF? 

I have found the students to be extremely interesting, extremely responsive, and very, very disciplined about the readings that have been assigned. They are engaging in their discussions with me. 

5. What projects are you working on?

I’m working on my autobiography, “Memoirs of a Wintertime Soldier,” and on a series of lectures, which I want to lead, about the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. in the American Jewish community during the civil rights movement. I have been blessed that I’m also the subject of a theatrical documentary film that’s being made, with the participation of PBS, on my life, not just on my work with Martin Luther King Jr.

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