Dr. Clarence Benjamin Jones records his book Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech That Transformed a Nation. The book's audio version is due out this month.
Photography by Jeff Singer

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous speech wasn’t a solitary effort. Close friend and aide DR. CLARENCE BENJAMIN JONES reflects on how his words impacted history.


In February 1960, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. arrived at the Altadena, Calif., home of a recent law-school graduate named Dr. Clarence Benjamin Jones to enlist his help in the civil-rights movement. By that time, the charismatic Baptist minister was famous, having led the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott in 1955 and having had his face adorn the covers of magazines like Time. Following this visit, Dr. Jones began working closely with Dr. King as a political advisor, then as his personal legal counsel and later as his draft speechwriter.

Today, Dr. Jones is a diversity-scholar visiting professor at the University of San Francisco and a scholar writer at the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. Dr. Jones’ career accomplishments are too numerous to mention in such a short space. Perhaps one of the most significant events was when he, along with King confidante and progressive activist Stanley Levison, helped craft the language Dr. King would incorporate into the opening paragraphs of his “I Have a Dream” speech, which was delivered on Aug. 28, 1963, before more than 250,000 people gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of that transformational event, Dr. Jones recalls the events leading to the creation of one of the most important speeches in American history, in his own words:
Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech That Transformed a Nation.
Photography by Jeff Singer

In July 1963, based on events that had occurred much earlier, the major civil-rights organizations had determined they were going to have the March on Washington. Between May and late August, more than 1,300 demonstrations had occurred in more than 200 cities in 36 states. Specifically, the march was prompted by the great turnout for Dr. King’s speech in Detroit on June 23, 1963, where he had used the phrase I have a dream, but in a different configuration.

President Kennedy gave a speech on June 11 describing, for the first time, equal opportunity and civil rights as a moral issue. Medgar Evers was assassinated on June 12, and two Negro students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, had to be admitted to the University of Alabama by a federalized Alabama National Guard. So all those things were cascading at the time, as well as a pending civil-rights bill submitted to Congress by the president.

The march was originally intended as a march on the Capitol. The Kennedy administration and the Department of Justice said to the march’s leadership: “A march to the Capitol steps will make members of Congress feel they’re negotiating with a gun to their heads. Please have the march somewhere else.” That’s when the venue shifted from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial.

Dr. King was physically and emotionally exhausted from the campaign in Birmingham, Ala. — he had been jailed for eight days there — and the civil-rights demonstration in Detroit. Customarily during the summer, he’d go away with his family to Jamaica or to the Bahamas or some place where he could be completely cut off. Once the march was announced, it became clear he would have to be physically available.