Dr Martin Luther King, Jr on an official visit to the WCC, June 1967. © WCC/John Taylor

Dr Martin Luther King, Jr on an official visit to the WCC, June 1967. © WCC/John Taylor


By Theodore Gill (*)

“Everything that is celebrated about that speech was completely spontaneous,” said a man who should know. On 28 August 1963, Clarence B. Jones stood 15 metres behind the Rev. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr as he set aside a prepared speech and began to describe his “dream” for America.

Jones, a principal aide to King who had collaborated in drafting a speech for the March on Washington, described that event in Geneva, Switzerland on Monday, 26 August during a week when the 50th anniversary of the speech was being commemorated world-wide. The following day, Jones was to fly to Washington where he and fellow veterans of the civil rights movement would meet with the US president Barack Obama in the White House.

Jones explained that he had written a manuscript for King that was based on conversations in which they pondered what might be included in an address on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. In signing this historic declaration in 1863, Abraham Lincoln had begun a legal process that would lead to the end of slavery in the United States.

“The first seven paragraphs came from the text of what I wrote,” Jones said of the speech. King’s delivery of the text was measured, and he began to add material not on the pages before him.

Then came the moment when African American gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, standing near the speaker, called out, “Tell them about the Dream, Martin!”

As King set aside his manuscript, according to Jones, “his whole body language changed to that of a Baptist preacher. Watching him, I said to the person beside me, whoever that was: These people don’t know it, but they’re about ready to go to church!”

Jones heard Dr King speak on many other occasions. But never, he says, like this. He refers to King’s inspiration that day as “capturing lightning in a bottle.”

Moving from the historic ideals of America’s foundational documents, through the biblical prophecy of a time when justice would “roll down like waters”, he foresaw a day when men and women, boys and girls, would be “judged not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.” And he concluded with words from a hymn: “Free at last, free at last! Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last!”

Jones spoke to a standing-room-only seminar sponsored by the Geneva government and the university’s graduate institute for international and development studies. Author of the book Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed America, he is currently a visiting professor at the University of San Francisco.

Jones was introduced by Ambassador Betty E. King, head of the US mission to Geneva-based United Nations agencies, who said that the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom was “the largest demonstration in the history of the United States” and “marked the beginning of a transformation of American law and life.”

Clarence Jones was quick to remind his audience that there was more to King than words alone. “Martin Luther King was a brilliant political tactician,” he said. King used speeches and demonstrations to win over a majority of Americans to a belief in the need for fundamental change.

Jones insists that “Martin Luther King was the moral compass of our country”, pointing the way to a racially free society. In the two years following the Washington march, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed and signed into law.

But what of King’s devotion to nonviolence as a way of life? The nation and the world seem not to have heeded that lesson.

“As we gather here on this 50th anniversary,” said Jones, “Dr King would remind us violence is not the answer to the evils that confront us.”

“Nonviolent resistance has been strategically superior” to violent approaches, Jones argued. Violence may put down an enemy temporarily, but it also breeds hatred, division, and open hostility, until it breaks out again into more violence.

“Violence lies like molten lava beneath our societies, waiting to erupt,” he warned.

“We need to take stock,” he continued. Martin Luther King learned from the teaching and example of Gandhi that the key to reconciliation is forgiveness.

“People today need to learn from the past,” he concluded, “yet we also need to look forward to a time when the rights lessons have been learned.”

[745 words]

(*) Theodore Gill is senior editor of WCC Publications in Geneva and a minister ordained by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).


Eugene Carson Blake and the March on Washington

The March on Washington was organized through a coalition of diverse social groups including Jewish and Christian organizations. One such body was the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, represented on the march’s steering committee by Eugene Carson Blake of the United Presbyterian Church.

Blake had gained some notoriety one month earlier, on the Fourth of July national holiday, when he was arrested with other protesters at the gates of a racially segregated amusement park outside Baltimore, Maryland. Blake claimed to have been “the first white minister arrested in a civil rights demonstration”.

Blake was one of the speakers who preceded Dr King on the podium in Washington. He confessed that, despite US churches’ many high-minded resolutions, “we have achieved neither a desegregated church nor a desegregated society. And it is partly because the churches of America have failed to put their own house in order that 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation…the United States of America still faces a racial crisis.”

Less than three years later, Eugene Carson Blake became the general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC). Maintaining his ties with US leaders, he persuaded Martin Luther King to agree to give the opening address at the 1968 WCC Assembly in Uppsala, Sweden. However, King was assassinated four months before that assembly convened.