The Section is thrilled to announce that it will honor legendary civil rights leader and advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Clarence B. Jones with the 2021 Thurgood Marshall Award in a virtual celebration on Friday, August 6, during the ABA Annual Meeting.
In 1962, Martin Luther King wrote a letter recommending his lawyer and advisor, Clarence B. Jones, to the New York State Bar, stating: “Ever since I have known Mr. Jones, I have always seen him as a man of sound judgment, deep insights, and great dedication. I am also convinced that he is a man of great integrity” (King, 29 May 1962).
Born in 1931 to parents who were domestic workers in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Mr. Jones was raised in a foster home and a boarding school in New England. He attended Columbia University beginning in 1949, but his college education was interrupted by military service. Mr. Jones was drafted into the Army in August 1953, but was given an “undesirable” discharge as a security risk in April 1955 for refusing to sign the Armed Forces Loyalty Certificate stating that he was not a member of the Communist Party. Federal Bureau of Investigation reports compiled in 1957 identified Jones as a member and leader of the Labor Youth League, described as a Communist Party front organization, during his years at Columbia. His discharge status was later changed to “honorable” on appeal. Following his discharge, Mr. Jones completed his BA at Columbia in 1956. He received his LLB in 1959 from Boston University School of Law.
Mr. Jones joined the team of lawyers defending Dr. King in the midst of Dr. King’s 1960 tax fraud trial; the case was resolved in Dr. King’s favor in May 1960. He, his wife Anne and his family relocated to New York to be close to the Harlem office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and he joined the firm of Lubell, Lubell, and Jones as a partner. In 1962, Mr. Jones became general counsel for the Gandhi Society for Human Rights, SCLC’s fundraising arm. Later that year, Mr. Jones would advise Dr. King to write President John F. Kennedy on the Cuban missile crisis. He urged Dr. King to make a statement because “your status as a leader requires that you not be silent about an event and issues so decisive to the world” (Jones, 1 November 1962).
Mr. Jones accompanied King, Wyatt Tee Walker, Stanley Levison, Jack O’Dell, and others to the SCLC training facility in Dorchester, Georgia, for an early January 1963 strategy meeting to plan the Birmingham Campaign. Following Dr. King’s 12 April arrest in Birmingham for violating a related injunction against demonstrations, Mr. Jones secretly took Dr. King’s handwritten response from jail to eight Birmingham clergymen who had denounced the protests in the newspaper. It was typed and circulated among the Birmingham clergy and later printed and distributed nationally as “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Mr. Jones helped secure bail money for Dr. King and the other jailed protesters by flying to New York to meet with New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who gave Mr. Jones the bail funds directly from his family’s vault at Chase Manhattan Bank.
Mr. Jones continued to function as Dr. King’s lawyer and advisor through the remainder of his life, assisting him in drafting the “I Have a Dream” speech and preserving Dr. King’s copyright of the momentous address; acting as part of the successful defense team for the SCLC in New York Times v. Sullivan; serving as part of Dr. King’s inner circle of advisers, called the “research committee”; and contributing with Vincent Harding and Andrew Young to Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” address at New York’s Riverside Church on 4 April 1967. After Dr. King’s death, Mr. Jones served as one of the negotiators during the 1971 prison riot at Attica, and was editor and part owner of the New York Amsterdam News from 1971 to 1974.