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JournalistI'm Soledad O'Brien. Journalist, political talk show host, documentarian, CEO, and philanthropist here with a special guest, Dr. Clarence B. Jones, former personal advisor and lawyer to MLK Jr. - Ask Us Anything!

Feb 13th 2017 by soledadobrien • 10 Questions • 143 Points

I'm Soledad O'Brien. Journalist, host of the weekend political talk show Matter of Fact, documentarian and CEO of Starfish Media Group, and philanthropist.

My special guest is Dr. Clarence B. Jones, former personal counsel, advisor, draft speech writer and close friend of Martin Luther King Jr. He is the author of What Would Martin Say? and Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation

Proof: https://twitter.com/soledadobrien/status/831242404887986177

https://i.redd.it/yfwwyfp1wofy.jpg

Edit:

Clarence: Thank you so much, it's always a pleasure to see this extraordinary woman, Soledad O'Brien. I've seen her, as some of your other listeners too, I've seen her develop from a younger woman to a more mature woman. And share her ideological compass has always been on the money. And I don't know how you've managed to be do that in the business she's in, but she's been able to do it and that's the source of the admiration that I, together with millions of other people I'm sure, have for Soledad.

So I'm delighted that I could participate in this discussion today. If there's anything I would say, from my experience, a long journey, is that, if you wanna change you have to be willing to work to bring about change. Sitting around and complaining, and saying “Nothing is going to make any difference" - that’s not the empirical experience that I had. I would say particularly to my younger colleges, is that I am a testament, I can tell you. I have seen the successful results of effective organization of effective 24/7 resistance and now with the advent of the new technology that you have, that we never had during the Civil Rights Movement, is you have the capacity to really get your message out and to make a powerful statement.

Exhibit A - is what happened in the Women's March early last month. You had 100 or more cities. Hundreds of thousands of people, I understand that, well I don't know the average amount, but there were several millions of people nationwide that came out. Well you have that now with the social media, and so if you use the media effectively and you understand, and I have to end with this, not voting is a vote. Not voting is a vote. That's not even an intellect academic question anymore.

If you don't vote, it's a vote.

Soledad: I'm honored to have introduced Clarence to this audience because every time I interview him I love it and to be able to bring him to more people was even more enjoyable for me. It was an honor to chat with you sir, as always.

Q:

I imagine this is an exhausting time for journalists in this country. What are you doing to maintain sanity when things are happening at a rapid-fire pace?

A:

Soledad: I think the key for journalists, and for me specifically, has been to try not to get so caught up in the froth of the moment - which actually i think is a good twitter conversation is for - like you can deal with those things, but they don't become the focus of your reporting. So on my weekly show, Matter of Fact, which is a magazine show, which airs most markets on Sundays, it's a Hearst syndicated so it's in different markets in different times around the country- saturday nights, sunday morning, what we focus on is sort of the big issues and i think that those are those big issues that you keep returning to versus the latest flash in the pan drama crazy frothiness that we've been dealing with within ad`ministration that’s been in for - i think is technically 3 weeks but feels like 3 and a half years. It's interesting though Charles Blow was just tweeting about the Montgomery bus boycott and he reminded me that it lasted for 381 days you know, so maybe the better question for you, Clarence, is "how do you keep your sanity over a long haul right? It's easy to be out there marching and keeping up day 1 day 7, and day 15. For me I say it's like exercise trying to keep myself in good physical shape and not chasing every single fluffy story is what keeps my sanity. How did you guys keep your sanity over that year plus?

Clarence: In all fairness I think it's probably easier for someone like me, than someone who is younger than me. Some of the current people who are protesting- and the reason why, first with me, I at least have the personal historic experience of having seen the success - of having seen that over a period of time repeated, repeated, repeated, nonviolent resistance- that it has resulted in successful change.

Now if I had not had the experience of seeing any success maybe I would have a different outlook. So I have a degree of patience and respect for some persons - today or younger - and who may not think that nonviolence will work, because they don't see the results immediately. Now one of the things which I would urge my younger colleagues to think about, and that is, the enormous power of the "more than one". We saw that in the women's movement recently - the enormous power of the more than one, is that when you have, when something, so excites and ignites a chord of resistance so that you have people in 25, 50, 100 cities coming out to express their resistance, to express their concern about important issue, then you know that there is some power in collective massive resistance, and fortunately I've had the historical beneficiary in which I have been able to see, not that I've read about it, not what someone gave me a lecture and told me about it, I've seen, just as Charles Blow cited the Montgomery Bus Boycott went on for 300 days, it went over 381 days - hello! After during that period of time the Montgomery Bus Company, the racist discriminatory segregation bus company, folded, the United States Supreme Court had to make a decision shortly thereafter, outlawing segregating interstate transportation. So those are meaningful victories, John Lewis, Amelia Boynton, and Hosea Williams, the one across the bridge - the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama. When they had that confrontation they did not know that the day, or the day after, or a few days after, that they were going to fundamentally be part of a movement that literally transformed the nation so that within a very few days after you had the `president of the united states, Lyndon Johnson convening a very special session, joint session at congress, in which he, during at the end of his speech, asking, saying he was presenting a special voting rights bill really powered for we shall overcome, in fact, adopting the mantra of the civil rights movement, so this was tangible success so I still say that you have to have a sense of confidence and belief in the political effectiveness of mass action. And you get there by looking at instances in which it has succeeded.


Q:

Do you think the portrayal of MLK Jr as nonviolent as opposed to say Malcolm is fair?

A:

Clarence: There’s no question that Dr King was committed to nonviolence and there was no question that Malcolm, I think the best characterization of Malcolm was that Malcolm was not espousing of offensive unilateral violence. The best most accurate way you could describe Malcolm to the extent, you can say, violence was defensive. I don't ever recall reading or being in the presence of Malcolm X where he said something where it could be interpreted as the initiation of offensive gratuitous violence - his violence, to the extent it was, it was defensive. It was 'you attack me and i'm not going to stand quietly and not attack back'" now that’s just a matter of historical fact, you can't change that.


Q:

What important ideas of MLK's would not retail well in 21st century politics?

A:

Clarence: Well, I have to candidly say, I can't think of any that would not retail well!

Soledad: Well didn't the Vietnam speech, for example, that was a tough sell at it's time. I have to imagine that it is really difficult in America to come out against military action.

Clarence: If you mean by retail well, you mean a speech that would have a minimum of popular support immediately?

Soledad: Like what would be a tough sell for Dr. King today, is how I read that.

Clarence: A tough sell for Dr. King today would be for him to say that at the end of the day, you can try and use the most sophisticated weapons that you believe you have to try to wipe out ISIS. Try to use the most sophisticated technological weapons try to wipe out ISIS, but unless the material conditions change on the ground of hope, for members of ISIS or who want join ISIS, you are not going to succeed. You are only going to succeed when the people have a sense of hope that their life could be materially better in their lifetime. Now I know I'm going into a very sensitive area, what I'm going to talk about now, it could be misunderstood but I simply have to tell you, one of the issues, smoldering issues in the Israeli Palestinian conflict, is you have generations of Palestinians, young Palestinians, they have never never never seen anything peaceful. Their entire life has been under circumstances where they have had to deal with one form or or another, what they thought to be forms violent acts and suppression from the Israelis. Now from the Israeli side, the Israeli would say, our security is essential, we have had to institute measures in order to protect ourselves. But you have, and I'm saying again, a classic example of children starting from 7 or 8 years old who are now 20 years old, and all they've experienced is violence, violence, violence!


Q:

Hi and thanks for doing this AMA! What is something that Dr. King did physically that you found an idiosyncrasy? What surprised you most when you first met him?

A:

Clarence: What surprised me most about when I first met him was that he is shorter than I thought he was, I mean I'm 6'1. The other thing was that he spoke much more slowly than I did, I don't speak quickly, but he spoke in much more deliberate tones. As I came to get to know him better, what impressed me was that he was afraid, I mean we're all afraid of different things, but again he was not afraid. We'd be walking down the street, 3 or 4 of us, and a car would backfire. You know we'd be having a conversation, next thing you're looking around and he's bent down, he had this kind of reaction. I was impressed that he had a kind of "come to Jesus" moment with himself. He used to berate us, for trying to believe that there was anything we could do to protect him. I never will forget November 23, 1963, the day after President Kennedy was assassinated, he came up to New York so that we could consider drafting a statement that he would have to issue on the Kennedy assassination. One of the first things he said off the plane, and other people could hear it too when he was coming down the stairway, he said "You see! If they can get to the president they can get to anybody! You gotta stop all this nonsense about trying to protect me." He was talking about the Justice Department and all of us around him, there were several reports of assassination attempts. Unfortunately, J. Edgar Hoover, who was the director at the FBI at the time, we didn't have any confidence that he really cared whether Dr. King would be assassinated or not.


Q:

What is your favorite memory of Dr. King?

A:

Clarence: One of my favorite memories of Dr. King is a humorous memory because when we would travel in south, we rarely ever ate out in a restaurant. Well, sometimes we'd eat in a so-called negro soul food restaurant, but often we were the guests in the homes of people and he used to say to the host, "Please don't sit me next to Clarence" and the host would say, "Why?", "Well, because Clarence, he was raised in a boarding school and he was always food hungry and I know what he will do. You turn your head and he will snatch a piece of chicken right off your plate", and I would do. Sometimes if I saw he had a piece of chicken better than mine, I would just take it from his plate and put it on mine. It's his humor. I remember that. I also remember a matter of fact, a day of resignation. On November 23rd, 1963, the day after John F. Kennedy was assassinated and he came up to meet with me in the Eastern Airlines terminal in New York in connection with our jointly drafting a statement he would have to issue on the Kennedy assassination and one of the very first things he said as he was getting off the plane, he said, "You see, Clarence? You guys gotta stop worrying about all this nonsense. If they can get to the president, they can get to me". It was a kind of resignation that there was nothing the government or those of us that who cared about him could do. He was resigned that when it was his time they would kill him.

Soledad: So, one of the reasons that I was very interested in having you as my guest was there's just a lot of conversations for people about how you organize at a time when you feel like the government is not necessarily acting on your behalf. I certainly think that we're seeing, as a member of the media, this very concerted effort to discredit the media across the board that's very intentional, but I think that people who are not journalists are feeling the same thing. Feeling like they don't know exactly how to respond if they feel like their own government is standing behind things that are demonstrably not true. Give me two pieces of advice.

Clarence: Well, first of all, what's the purpose of organization if you want to achieve an objective? You cannot acquire or exercise power unless you are organized to get it. It can't be done. Ok? You can talk around and as we say, lollygag, and run your mouth all you want and I'm particularly addressing my answer to those people who didn't vote. A non-vote is a vote. I was amazed when some people were protesting outside Trump's residence in New York and I would say to myself, "These people are carrying placards and they didn't even vote".

Soledad: Alright, but some might say that's water under the bridge. What do you do now?

Clarence: Well, hold on. What do you do now?

Soledad: Yeah. Those same people.

Clarence: I'm going to tell you. Block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, precinct by precinct, county by county, state by state, you have got to organize and stimulate. You've got to tell people. You've got to talk to people. You've got to get them to understand that they can carry all the placards and signs that they carry are effective and it is important. It is important to have a constant communication presentation of your feelings, so that the media and so that, in this case, the Trump presidency knows that 24/7 you're angry and 24/7 you're not going to be quiet and 24/7 you intend to resist. I thought there is an excellent column in today's New York Times by Charles Blow. Says it all. Just stand up. You have to resist.


Q:

Do you think MLK Jr was a Socialist? Why or why not?

A:

Clarence: He was, fundamentally, a deeply religious christian person. Deeply believes embedded in a religion of Christianity who had a point of view that could be accurately described, as for social justice, I’m very hesitant to say he would be a socialist. Sometimes I used to have conversations with him where I would say "well what you're saying makes you sounds like a marxist!" And he would say “well if Karl Marx said certain things about capitalism that I say and we agree, it means he arrived at them from his own independent path of investigation and I've arrived at it at my own independent investigation, now the fact that we've come to see the same things about certain aspects about capitalism doesn't make me a marxist. You could ask MARX if he was alive, 'is he a Christian minister” because he agrees with me."

I was raised by white Irish Catholic nuns, in fact dr king used to say to me "how did it end up Clarence that a Catholic ends up being a lawyer for a baptist preacher?" So I would simply say the lord works in mysterious ways, we has wonders to perform.

Soledad: Can I ask you about smuggling papers into Dr King in prison? When we first met it was because I was doing a documentary and we were interviewing you, it was about Dr King but we were interviewing you about that moment. I know we talked about it earlier but we were just chatting, but now that we're on with all the folks from Reddit, I thought it would be worthwhile to repeat it. So Dr. King was writing on what when he was in his jail cell?

Clarence: Well first let me give you some historical context. He was arrested on April 12th, Good Friday, 1963. When I went in as his personal lawyer, only Arthur Shores who was out of town, and myself Arthur Shores, was a local Alabama lawyer. My assistant and myself were the only ones who were authorized to see him. Coretta was actually in the hospital giving birth to one of her child at the time. In any event I went in to see him on April 12th, Good Friday, and i went in to see him because I was been bombarded by parents of the children who had joined Dr. King in the march and they also were in jail, and their parents were saying "when are you gonna bail our children out?" so I went in to see Dr. King and I said "Martin, we got a real serious problem here, when I came in here to visit you these parents are a little bit shoving at me." and their saying "Lawyer Jones you go in and tell Martin King get our children out!" and I say "we got a real problem with bail money" and his initial reaction was "I know, I know Clarence but you gotta solve that and then he said 'have you seen this?" and I said "what are you talking about" and pulled out, he showed me a full page ad in the Birmingham newspaper in which all of the clergy, the major clergy, the white clergy, in Birmingham had signed an open letter and signed it and published it in the Birmingham Herald critiquing him being in Birmingham and in fact telling him 'yeah we have some issues with Dr. King between our negroes and whites but all you’re doing is aggravating - best thing you could do is get out of town." and he was so, plus you know he responded to some criticism why isn't he more patient, why can't you wait, etc etc. So he had started writing a response to the ad and I looked at him and he had little piles of paper and he had one pile that was labeled one and two, and three, and he had written something on a paper towel, on the blank spaces on a dirty newspaper, on toilet paper, anything with a blank space. And he said "you take this out and have it typed, and then when you come back in please bring me some blank paper because I wanna continue."

So to make a long story short, over a period of 5 days, the process involved me taking out what he wrote and giving it to someone to type, and my bringing back, I visited him twice a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, and bringing him blank sheets of paper that he would write on, and at the end of the 5 day period this is what became the Letter from the Birmingham jail. Now as I said to Soledad earlier, maybe I said it in our initial interview years ago, I used to be a little embarrassed about it but now i'm not, it's just a matter of fact, you know I never even looked at what he wrote, until maybe 3 weeks later. I didn't even pay attention to it because I had more urgent problems to deal with, in fact raising money to get the kids out of jail amongst other things. But I was in the Atlanta office once and Dr. King's secretary, Dora McDonald said "you know Christianity and Crisis is a very prominent periodical" at the time, wanted to reprint the letter from Birmingham jail in full and "you handle matters involving his copyright and protection of his literary properties, you ought to sit down and read this and tell us what to do." So that was the first time I sat down and read it, for the first time! And when I read it I said 'oh my god, I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe it because I knew the circumstances in which he had written it and i said oh my god because in the letter he had quoted in verbatim different writers from different literatures, he had a PHD in theology he's supposed to know the bible, ok? But he’s quoting Aristotle, he's quoting Shakespeare! When I was writing his speeches I had 10 books at my feet looking around trying to insert things he could use, so i'm thinking to myself "man this brother got a lot of information in his head." And as you know from history, I happen to believe that that is the most preeminent social justice manifesto of the 20th century.


Q:

I notice you frequently engage trolls on Twitter. Why don't you simply block or ignore all the eggs? Especially when they're deliberately trying to antagonize you?

A:

Soledad: I would say, I am very hard to antagonize. Generally just trying to antagonize me doesn't work, I have four children! I think you learn great anti-antagonism skills once you get through a couple of thirteen year old girls. Often I answer and engage trolls because I think you can use what they are saying as an example. When someone calls me something very nasty, I actually answer them, not because they have their 3 followers, because I'm trying to send a message to the larger group about a good way to deal with people who are nasty. Sometimes it's just fun to give it back to them. Again, it's to for that person specifically. If there is someone who is really hostile and I think there is no point, I will just mute them or block them all together. It's always for me about a larger audience, almost 620,000 followers on twitter, so I really want to make sure every single thing that I'm posting, people get to know my point of view better. Even something that's an engagement in trolls. Are you on Twitter Clarence?

Clarence: Yes, I am!

Soledad: Do you hate it? It's literally a cesspool. I say that with love! I love Twitter but it's a cesspool!

Clarence: I consider myself a dedicated wordsmith. I find it so offensive to have to take the beautiful English language and reduce it to 140 characters!


Q:

Soledad are you hiring at StarfishMedia? Big fan of Matter of Fact and your work - keep it up! Would love the chance to work with you covering the current political climate.

A:

Soledad: Sure, yeah. Actually we're looking for someone to help us with our social media, so absolutely!


Q:

Believe it or not, Soledad, my fondest memory of your career is actually your appearance on NPR's Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! What was it like showing up on that program? Would you do it again?

A:

Soledad: So your fondest memory of my entire career, which by the way is now about 30 years old, so in 30 years your fondest memory is me on a guest slot on a radio show?! Seriously?! Seriously?! Oh my gosh, I need a cocktail. Wow! Sure! I'll do it again. What the hell?! What kind of question is that? That was like 5 or 7, or 6 years ago? I don't even remember what I was asked! That's so crazy. Are you a fan?! You're a really terrible fan, of you're a fan!


Q:

Are you a feminist ?

How can milo be stopped?

A:

Clarence: Today I'm a feminist because of a process of evolution. I have three daughters. If you take me back at the time when I was 29 years old when I met Dr. King in 1960 and during the seven years I worked for him, I would not say I qualified for being a feminist. I'd say I was very much a part of the then prevailing male culture. First of all, I was very athletic. I played football for the United States Military. I was a macho man. So, I don't know whether being a macho man qualifies being a feminist, but I do know when you have daughters and when you have responsibility and you have daughters and you have your own sense of maturity. So, was I a feminist in 1960? No. I think I am more sensitive, more knowledge about those issues that are important to women and I don't know that I would elevate my knowledge or sensitivity to the nomenclature of being a feminist. That's a very valued kind of characterization and I'm more humble than that. I think I support those issues that are important to women and to particularly young girls and women and I hope that I come near to being as close to a man can be in 2017 as being a feminist.