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Former Advisor, Speechwriter of MLK Jr. Speaks at the USF School of Law

October 01, 2012

Dr. Clarence B. Jones delivered an address to the law school community on his role advising the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and defending King and other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in a libel case filed against them and the New York Times.

Dr. Clarence B. Jones

“To be sure, Dr. Jones has been recognized for his life’s work, including receiving a White House commendation from President Clinton,” Dean Jeffrey Brand said. “But, Dr. Jones, those awards do not express the personal thanks that we owe you for helping move generations, a nation, and the world. In fact many of us in this room today owe our life’s work to the inspiration provided by Dr. King and his intimate advisors, including you. It is an honor now to be able to extend a personal thank you.”

Jones is a visiting diversity scholar and professor at the University of San Francisco.

Jones worked side-by-side with King as an advisor and speechwriter through the civil rights movement. He helped plan the Birmingham bus boycott in 1963 and assisted King draft some of the most powerful speeches in our nation’s history—“I Have a Dream” given at the 1963 march in Washington, D.C., and “Beyond Vietnam” delivered in 1967 at the Riverside Church in New York.

Jones was an entertainment lawyer in California when he was approached by King and urged to join his legal team and defend him in a tax fraud trial; King would later be acquitted of these charges. To help raise money for his legal defense, the Committee to Defend Martin Luther King Jr. ran a full-page advertisement in the New York Times.

The advertisement detailed the spread of nonviolent demonstrations by black, Southern students. The newspaper found three errors in the advertisement that it retracted—the title of the song sung by students on the capital steps in Montgomery, Ala., the statement that police had “ringed” the campus when they had merely repulsed the students leaving it, and the comment that the dining hall had been padlocked to starve the students into submission, when no padlock had been put on the doors.

In response to the advertisement, L.B. Sullivan, the public safety commissioner in Montgomery, sued for defamation.

“We regarded the suit as an effort to politically discredit the leadership of the direct action civil rights movement of Dr. King. As such it was concluded we had to organize a defense against the suit as soon as possible,” said Jones, referring to King and civil rights activist Stanley Levison. “This was the most serious threat to the survival of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the civil rights movement led by Dr. King that had yet occurred up to that time. We additionally concluded that the political objective of the lawsuit was to bankrupt and decapitate the civil rights leadership.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the defendants in March 1964 in what has become a landmark libel and First Amendment decision. The court established that public officials need to prove actual malice to recover damages in libel cases.

For more information on his USF School of Law speech and involvement in the New York Times Co. v. Sullivan case, click here to read Jones’ recent blog on The Huffington Post.