50 Years After Memphis
Arvin Temkar MFA '18 talks American identity with Martin Luther King Jr.'s attorney and speechwriter
After Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead on a motel balcony in Memphis 50 years ago, his attorney, Clarence Jones, contemplated leaving the U.S.
“I considered, out of overwhelming anger, whether or not I could stay in this country,” says Jones, now a USF visiting professor. “Could I, after April 4, 1968, continue to live in this country knowing what they had done to this man? I was very conflicted.”
Ultimately Jones stayed. He wasn’t going to let himself be run out of a country whose very foundation was built by his ancestors — slaves.
Jones, now 87, went on to a long and wide-ranging career, including editing one of the oldest African-American newspapers in the country, authoring two books about King, and creating a USF course, “From Slavery to Obama: Renewing the Promise of Reconstruction.”
Today, as the country faces inflamed racial tensions, Jones says we are once again confronted by King’s legacy.
“We’re again ... at a moral crossroads,” Jones says. Do we want to “once and for all cross over that bridge and leave racist-based political power behind?”
Who are the Americans?
What does it mean to be an American? Who gets to be an American? What values does our country stand for? These are questions many of us are grappling with today, and the questions at the center of my MFA in Writing thesis about American identity. I sat down with Jones — whose contributions to American history include helping draft MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech — to get his thoughts on being an American.
“I feel very proud to be an American that has African roots,” Jones told me. “I feel very possessive and proprietary actually, because … slaves created the economic foundation of what this country is today.”
But, he said, that pride doesn’t keep him from also being embarrassed or ashamed at the state of the nation or the actions of its politicians. He decried partisan gerrymandering, the rise of alternative facts, and the U.S.'s distinction of having the highest incarceration rate in the world.
“[I’m] proud to have the opportunity to keep my foot up the behind of my country 24/7 when it’s not doing the right thing,” Jones says. “But I’m very proud. [I] wouldn’t want to be in any other country, or live in any other place.”