Thursday, July 24, 2008

What Would Martin Say?

Clarence B. Jones is the author of What Would Martin Say? - the fascinating and somewhat controversial book about his friend, Martin Luther King, Jr. Jones spoke at Kepler's on July 23rd. Bookseller and event host, Craig Beebe writes about the event - what he describes as a night he'll never forget. ~

What a great event, filled with lively discussion, fascinating stories, and a glimpse into history that I am sadly too young to have experienced. Clarence B. Jones is probably the most prominent person I have ever introduced, at Kepler's or anywhere. If you don't know his name offhand, that's not unusual--but he was a close friend and adviser to Martin Luther King from 1960 to 1968, joining initially as a member of his legal team and then becoming much closer over the years. Following King's assassination, Jones went on to have a very successful career in business; he was the first African American member of a major Wall Street investment firm, was named Fortune Magazine's Man of the Month twice, and counseled governments around the world on business matters. He was instrumental in the negotiations that ended the 1971 prison riots at Attica in New York, and has also gained acclaim as a producer and supporter of the arts. He received a White House Letter of Commendation from Bill Clinton, and in January was inducted into the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame in Atlanta. He is currently a scholar in residence at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center at Stanford.

This is a man of great experience, accomplishment, and importance in American civil rights history, but really American history in general. And yet, I found, he is a man of great humility and humor as well--who thanked not only the MLK Center but also the Federal Bureau of Investigation for helping him with his research for this book. (That was thanks to the many bugs they had on his phones during the period he worked with MLK--the transcripts of which are now declassified, including one in which he was admonishing his son to work harder in school!)

I was very pleasantly surprised by the size of our crowd, as well. It's hard to tell with a figure like Mr. Jones, a man who doesn't have a household name and yet is known to many, whose book has been out for a couple of months already. But a sizable initial crowd occupied the first 50 chairs we put out (including what seemed to be an entire high school class with their teacher), and so we had to break out the extra chairs. As the event went on, and Clarence regaled us with stories of his relationship with MLK--such as how the great man wouldn't sit next to him when they went out to dinner because Clarence would always steal food off his plate!--additional customers seemed to realize this was something they didn't want to miss, and our crowd grew as the evening progressed.
(This includes one gentleman who, as it turned out, was the grandson of a man Clarence had known, an editor and journalist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in the 1960s.)

I should say a few words about the book. What Would Martin Say? is Clarence's examination of how Dr. King might respond to some of the pressing issues of today, including affirmative action, terrorism and the war in Iraq, illegal immigration, and the state of current black leadership. Clarence uses King's writings, speeches, and their own interactions to create a highly readable and occasionally provocative book--I think it is safe to say (and Clarence would agree) that some of his conclusions are likely to be controversial, particularly regarding what Clarence believes King might say about illegal immigration and the methods of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. But he is very comfortable with that, and actually seems to revel in being provocative, as he said when he was discussing the upcoming presidential election as a referendum on race.

But beyond any controversial conclusions contained in the book, both it and his presentation on Wednesday were more fascinating for the stories and memories contained therein. For a young man like me--born over 20 years too late to have seen the Movement in full action, and robbed of the chance to hear Dr. King's voice today except on grainy videos--Clarence provides an amazing glimpse into the past, a front-row seat to witness the private conversations, jokes, and struggles that were not caught by any video camera (although many were caught by the FBI, as I mentioned earlier). Some of these stories are difficult. Audience members asked some questions about how Dr. King's awareness of the many threats he faced as such a figure, and it was clear that he knew there was a high likelihood he would be killed for his work. And yet he pressed on, along with so many brave people, in spite of the risks he knew that carried. Clarence is a testament to that, and has dedicated his life to preserving Dr. King's legacy, and fighting the many misappropriations of that legacy. Whatever one thinks of some of his conclusions, he is a great man and it was an honor to meet, host, and listen to him last night.

Sadly I was forced to cut him short, long before the evening would have naturally concluded--I think our audience and Clarence could have talked all night! I was told that was typical for Clarence's events; there is just so much to talk about, and he is such a great storyteller. Hearing his impression of Martin Luther King's preaching is something I'll never forget.

In short, one of the more memorable evenings I had here at Kepler's. I'm grateful to Clarence Jones for the work he's done for equality in this country, work that is ongoing and probably will not be finished in our lifetimes.

In case you missed seeing Clarence B. Jones at Kepler's, here's a clip from an interview with Tavis Smiley on PBS.


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