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August 18, 2021

Civil rights legend Clarence B. Jones honored, recounts lessons for today’s fight for equality

Legendary attorney Clarence B. Jones is the recipient of the 2021 Thurgood Marshall Award from the American Bar Association Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice in recognition of his career-long contributions to the advancement of U.S. civil rights, civil liberties and human rights.

Currently a scholar-in-residence at Stanford University, Jones has been committed to the advancement of racial justice for more than six decades, making his indelible mark on history as an advisor, speech writer and close friend of Martin Luther King Jr., who served alongside the reverend in the fight for civil rights.

An Aug. 6 online award ceremony celebrated Jones’ extraordinary life – from his work as a summer intern for Thurgood Marshall in 1957 and his talent as an accomplished clarinetist at the Julliard School of Music, to his work for King and his continued social advocacy work.

Comedian Ronny Chieng, senior correspondent with The Daily Show on Comedy Central, interviewed Jones about his 90-year journey.

Jones told Chieng that when he went to law school, he wasn’t interested in civil rights or criminal law.

But, while working in entertainment law in California, King was indicted by the state of Alabama for tax evasion and someone reached out to him to join King’s legal team.

Jones was pivotal in defending King in the fraudulent tax case and subsequently coordinated the defense of King in New York Times v. Sullivan.

The landmark First Amendment case was “integral to the survival of the civil rights movement in the 1960s by stopping efforts to bankrupt the civil rights movement through bogus libel lawsuits,” said ACLU National Legal Director David Cole in his tribute to Jones.

Among other achievements, Jones negotiated with King a key settlement with the city of Birmingham that led to the desegregation of department stores, restaurants and hotels.

And Jones was pivotal in getting King’s hand-written notes from his jail cell that became known as the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Beyond Jones’ indelible mark on history, he also inspired generations of lawyers who have strived to extend the legacy of his work. Many of these attorneys – legends in their own right – paid tribute to the Marshall Award honoree.

President Barack Obama said Jones’ work helped to “bend the arc of history toward justice and freedom.”

“Along the way, he became part of a generation of giants,” Obama said. “Men and women who recognize that the odds were stacked against them, but who pressed forward with courage, ingenuity and resilience.”

Andrew Young, former ambassador of the United States, called Jones a friend and brother. He said Jones was always there as the “voice of reason and clarity.”

Young said, “You are a blessing to this entire nation, and you are in the tradition of Thurgood Marshall.”

View Jones’ acceptance remarks here.

Established in 1992, the Thurgood Marshall Award is named in honor of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who epitomized individual commitment, in word and action, to the cause of civil rights in this country. The award recognizes similar long-term contributions by other members of the legal profession to the advancement of civil rights, civil liberties and human rights in the United States.