Nonviolence at a Crossroads
Clarence B. Jones, Martin Luther King Jr.'s former adviser, says today's violence calls for a reflection on America's core values.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Fifty years after Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic "I Have a Dream" speech, many issues facing American society have reached a critical inflection point, said Clarence B. Jones, King's former adviser and speechwriter. Jones spoke during the Ross School's annual McInally MLK Day Celebration Lecture Jan. 21.
On the day the nation remembered King's birthday — and saw its first African American president sworn in for his second term — Jones said the nation must reflect upon its core values and consider how they align with the dream King outlined in his iconic address.
"We have reached an unavoidable historic crossroads where our choice is between nonviolence and nonexistence," said Jones.
From 1960 until King's assassination in April 1968, Jones was one of King's closest confidantes, as well as his adviser, lawyer, and draft speech writer. In the span of a decade, Jones said his "beloved friend" did more for political, social, and racial justice and equality than anyone in the previous history of the United States, with the exception of Abraham Lincoln. Yet he noted that King "bristled" at being called a civil rights leader, and saw himself "first and foremost as a minister of the gospel."
Today, in the wake of the Newton, Conn., elementary school shooting — as well as the daily violence found on the streets of many communities — King's gospel of nonviolence is at a tipping point.
"What the world gives today's youth is violence," said Jones, who noted that King, as well as John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, and others, lost their lives to handgun violence. "It's in our homes and schools; it's perpetrated by loved ones and strangers. Our previous battle against institutional racism has become a battle against institutional violence."
"[King's] legacy is our moral compass," said Jones, as he listed sobering statistics about the rapid increase in juvenile crime, gun possession, gun violence, and African Americans who are incarcerated for committing violent crimes. "We can't arrest our way out of this problem."
And although corporations might be located in tony areas, they cannot be immune to the violence affecting neighboring communities, said Jones, who while working with King became the first African American partner in a Wall Street investment banking firm. Today, he is a scholar in residence and visiting professor at Stanford University, as well as an executive adviser to Marks Paneth and Shron LLP, a New York-based auditing and consulting services firm.
He challenged students to consider "new paradigms for the operation of business ethics" and argued that violence is a health issue — a "social disease" — with substantial economic impact.
"History might well indict business students and CEOs as the Neros of today," he argued, referencing the Roman emperor who was said to have played his fiddle while his city burned. "We can't know what is happening and continue to conduct business as usual. It doesn't matter how innovative your company's technology is. This is a problem that must be dealt with now or later, and fewer options will be available later."
During the 50-year commemoration of the "I Have a Dream" speech, Jones said a couple of erroneous trends have emerged. One that romanticizes King's influence while he was alive is "infected with amnesia," as he was not universally beloved. In reality, King was a "persona non grata" for criticizing the war in Vietnam, Jones noted.
Jones continues to be angered by those who distort King's legacy to serve their own purposes, such as gun rights advocates who say the reverend would have supported their cause. "The pursuit of nonviolent conflict resolution was the core of who he was."
When he is asked who today most resembles Martin Luther King Jr., Jones always answers by asking who today is most like Michelangelo or Beethoven.
"No one," he said. "If you were fortunate to be alive from May 1956 to April 1968, and you went outside at midnight and looked up and saw the brightest of the shooting stars … that shooting star was Martin. We will never, ever, ever see that shooting star again."
— Amy Spooner
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