Passion for Justice

Clarence B. Jones Honored with Presidential Medal of Freedom

President Biden lauds retired USF educator at White House ceremony

by Mary McInerney, USF News

Civil rights activist Clarence B. Jones was awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, May 3 by President Joe Biden, who recognized Jones’ lifelong commitment to social justice and his work with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“Dr. Clarence B. Jones wielded a pen as a sword and gave words to the movement that generated freedom for thousands of people. Let freedom reign, Dr. Clarence B. Jones. Thank you, Dr. Jones,” Biden said.

Jones is founding director emeritus of USF’s Institute for Nonviolence and Social Justice and was a visiting professor at USF prior to his retirement in 2021.

“It has been the greatest honor of my life to work closely with Dr. King and to do my best every day to carry forward his legacy. Today, I am grateful to receive this honor for continuing to support his work,” Jones said.

Jones said he thought a prankster was on the line when he answered the telephone and heard the person on the other end say they were calling from the White House, according to the Associated Press.

“I said, ‘Is this a joke or is this serious?’” Jones recalled. The caller swore they were serious and was calling with the news that President Biden wanted to recognize Jones with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Jones, 93, was a friend, adviser, and lawyer to Martin Luther King Jr. from 1960 to 1968, when King was assassinated. In 1963, Jones assisted King in drafting the “I Have a Dream” speech that the civil rights leader delivered that August at the March on Washington.

Following King's arrest that same year for protesting in Birmingham, Alabama, Jones secretly took from jail King's hand-written response to eight clergymen who had denounced the protests. It was later printed in newspapers across the U.S. as "Letter from Birmingham Jail."

Throughout the Civil Rights era, Jones played a pivotal role as one of King’s inner circle of advisers, along with former Atlanta mayor and UN ambassador Andrew Young and political activist Jesse Jackson. Jones and Young came together in February 2021 for a USF discussion on civil and social unrest. Jackson spoke at the university in 2017.

Last year, Jones published a book about his time with King, Last of the Lions: An African American Journey in Memoir.

“Professor Clarence Jones has spent his adult life supporting and furthering the work of his friend the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Clarence brought that legacy to USF, where he has been a leader in the fight against hate,” said USF President Paul J. Fitzgerald, S.J. “We are proud of him and grateful for his work as founder of USF’s Institute for Nonviolence and Social Justice.”

Jonathan Greenberg, co-founder of the USF Institute for Nonviolence and Social Justice, accompanied Jones to the White House ceremony and said, “Dr. Jones has never wavered in his dedication to further Dr. King’s legacy of nonviolence and social justice.”

Gregory J. Boyle, S.J., who received an honorary degree from USF in 2002, was also among the 19 recipients of the Medal of Freedom this year. Fr. Boyle founded Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention and rehabilitation program based in California.