Opinion writer

CLARENCE B. JONES: I happen to think that you can book end Martin’s life in this country by the letter from the Birmingham jail, his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington, and his April 4, 1967 speech, “Time to Break the Silence,” speaking about Vietnam. Now I know he’s given other passionate speeches, but the letter from the Birmingham jail is really the 20th century’s Magna Carta for freedom and liberty and justice. I think it will endure forever as part of the American experience. I think it will.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: Hi, I’m Jonathan Capehart and welcome to Voices of the Movement, a series from ‘Cape Up’ sharing stories and reflections of some of the leaders of the civil rights movement, and their lessons on where we go from here.

Dated April 16, 1963, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was written by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the eight days he spent in jail for marching in a banned protest. A nine-page lament by the leader of the civil rights movement to his white Christian counterparts that explained to them and the nation why African Americans could no longer wait — for equality and justice.

In some ways, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is a relic from another America when segregation ruled. Yet, the document’s lasting power is revealed in just how relevant King’s words are in today’s America, more than 50 years later.

This episode is the unlikely story of how it came to be.

Because the man who helped it come into existence will be the first one to tell you that he couldn’t have cared less what was being written. He had other things to worry about.

That man is Clarence B. Jones.


Clarence B. Jones, personal attorney to Martin Luther King Jr., at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, Calif., in January. (Jonathan Capehart/The Washington Post)

JONES: Dr. King was arrested on Good Friday, April 12, 1963.

CAPEHART: Clarence Jones is currently the co-founder of Institute for Nonviolence and Social Justice at the University of San Francisco.

He’s also the one who convened the civil rights retreat at Sunnylands in California this January that inspired the series.

Back then, he was King’s lawyer and occasional speechwriter.

JONES: I went in to see him the next day on a Saturday. And the purpose in my going into see him was that the parents of the children who had followed Dr. King and the local leaders in this first demonstration in Birmingham. They were yelling at us to get their kids out of jail — bail them out.

CAPEHART: King and the others were were in jail because they had led a march in protest of the segregated city of Birmingham, Ala.

Alabama’s governor was George Wallace, who famously said “Segregation now, segregation forever.” And that played itself out in Birmingham — in all aspects of life, from stores to restaurants to public transportation. Blacks and whites were kept separate, by law.

Members of the African American community in Birmingham began picketing and leading marches. So the city government got a court state circuit court injunction against the protests.

After a tense meeting with his advisers, King decided to go against the court order.

So on Good Friday, April 12, 1963, King led some 50 marchers in a protest. They only get a few blocks before being arrested.

King was put in solitary confinement. And the only person allowed to go see him was Clarence Jones.

JONES: So when I went in to see Dr. King, this was urgent.

CAPEHART: Jones told me that whenever he went to the jail to see Dr. King, the parents of the kids who were in jail were waiting outside asking, “What are you doing to get our kids out?”

Remember, these are poor people. They don’t have the money to bail their children out of jail.

JONES: I had this plan in my mind of saying, “Martin, I want you to give me the names of some people I should call.” Many of whom I already knew and some of whom I did not know. Because I wanted to dramatically be able to call them and say, “Listen I just visited Dr. King in jail a few hours ago, and he asked me to call you because . . .” I was trying to raise money. That’s the way I was figuring this. He wouldn’t have any of it.

CAPEHART: Jones didn’t get to have that conversation. He’d have to bail those kids out without King. Because when he arrived at the jail, King had something else on his mind. He was frustrated about something he had seen in the local paper.

JONES: He said to me, “But have you seen this?” I said, “What are you talking about?” He pulls up a full-page ad from the Birmingham Herald. And then that full-page ad was a letter from a group of local white clergymen who were critical of him for having come to Birmingham and stirring up the people, as they said — protests. And he was really upset.

CAPEHART: Those white clergymen were telling King that he was wrong to protest. He should be more patient. He should wait.

JONES: They told him, first of all, he should get out of town. He’s an outsider. Second of all, sort of lecturing him. “You know, these things take time, Dr. King. Wait. We can work on these things, but, you know, you’re impatient. You’re an outsider. And your agitation is not helping the situation.”

CAPEHART: When Jones got to King’s cell, the Baptist preacher had started writing — writing all over that newspaper. All in the margins. In between the ads. Lots of writing all over the place, on every scrap of paper he could find.

JONES: There was nothing I could say to him about any other subject other than, “Take these, what I’ve written.” And I said, “What is this?” He had started to write on anything that was a blank paper. The blank part of a dirty newspaper, where the copy and the advertising wasn’t — you know, where there was blank space. Paper towels, paper napkin.

That time I stuck them in my pockets and under my shirt because they were in different piles.

But over the next few days, I was bringing him paper and taking back what he had written. I would take them and put them under my shirt. I wore a shirt and a tie, and I had a T-shirt on under my shirt. And this procedure was repeated over the course of the next four to five days, twice a day.

CAPEHART: Every visit, King asked Jones to bring more paper and Jones would dutifully smuggle in more paper and smuggle out the filled up pages.

JONES: Normally, I mean, the authorities knew who I was. I had to go through the perfunctory — they never patted me down. It’s not just before 9/11 — No, they knew who I was. Nobody came over and patted me. They didn’t do any of that. They just said, “Okay, Mr. Jones, you can go in.”

And I would take them to Wyatt Walker, and then I would bring him in blank sheets of paper the next time. And that went on for four or five days. I never looked at any. I never looked. First of all, it was hard to read his writing, although I could. I never looked at it. I was more preoccupied with anything. Never looked at it.

CAPEHART: Wyatt Tee Walker was King’s chief of staff.

Even though Jones is the first to admit that, at that moment, he couldn’t care less about what was on those scraps of paper — he brought them to Walker anyway to have them typed up. King had provided instructions with arrows showing how they should be assembled.

Afterwards, Walker sent it out to several publications to try to have it published.

And, at first, it was only published in some small publications.

JONES: The first time I ever read the completed “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was about six weeks later. And that occurred because I was in Atlanta in his office.

Dora McDonald --

CAPEHART: Dora McDonald was King’s personal secretary.

JONES: -- was out at some meeting and Dora said, “Oh I’m so glad you’re here Mr. Jones, because Christianity in crisis, they want to republish Martin’s letter. And I told them they first had to check with you, copyright matters and so forth.” And I said, “OK, so where’s the copy of the letter?” She says, “Oh there are a couple of mimeographed copies over there. Sit down and read it.”

JONES: Well, when I sat down in his office to read that letter in the form of typewritten pages, I said to myself, “Oh my God.” I couldn’t believe it. I mean it was incredible.

[FERGUSON AUDIO STARTS] STEPHON FERGUSON: Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the . . .

CAPEHART: Stephon Ferguson, a Martin Luther King impressionist, read sections from “Letter from Birmingham Jail” for the crowd at Sunnylands.

JONES: I read it a couple times, right there for the first time. The section that was so moving to me is when he responds to the minister’s characterization of him as being impatient, and he says, “Why wait?”

[FERGUSON AUDIO CONTINUES] FERGUSON: For years now, we have heard the word “wait.” It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This “wait” has almost always meant “never.” We must come to see with one of our distinguished jurist that “justice too long delayed is justice denied . . .”

TAYLOR BRANCH: He wanted he wanted to anticipate every objection they might have to them. He wanted to be as sophisticated, as learned, as patient as he could, but tell them why they were wrong and why they were on the wrong side of history, and his movement and those those kids who marched and the dogs and fire hoses were on the right side of history. The “Letter from Birmingham Jail” became immortal from from this combination of very odd circumstances.

CAPEHART: That’s Taylor Branch, who spent years interviewing members of the civil rights movement for what would become “Parting the Waters.” That Pulitzer Prize-winning book and two others comprise Branch’s authoritative trilogy that chronicle the birth, growth and consequence of the civil rights movement.

I spoke with Branch at the civil rights salon that Jones organized and as Jones says, “Taylor is an encyclopedia of knowledge on the movement.” If Taylor didn’t write about it, it probably didn’t happen.

So I asked Branch about “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” why King wrote it and what its importance was in society at the time, and today.


Author and historian Taylor Branch is interviewed by Jonathan Capehart at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, Calif., in January. (Jonathan Capehart/The Washington Post)

BRANCH: It’s important to remember that even when the document was done, regardless of the accidental circumstances — and they had it printed out — nobody was interested in it. Nobody recognized it as significant.

What changed the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and flipped things was what happened in Birmingham a month later when they had the big demonstrations and they brought out the dogs and fire hoses on small children in Birmingham.

I've argued, and I think many people agree now, that this was a great psychological watershed for the country that the photographs of dogs and fire hoses on small children went all around the world and broke the emotional resistance that the country had to doing something about segregation. It was in the wake of that that demonstrations broke out all over the country. I think there were 750 demonstrations within the next few weeks. It was that ferment that changed the world and made people receptive to what the message was.

This document then became the go-to document for where this movement came from that has finally taken hold of the country. They could have grasped for anything to explain this — one of Dr. King’s sermons, one of Dr. King’s speeches or anything — but instead they happened to grasp for this letter, which has such great breadth and residence.

CAPEHART: One of the things that Clarence Jones says he likens “Letter From Birmingham Jail” to the Magna Carta. What do you make of that?

BRANCH: The Magna Carta was revolutionary in the sense of trying to organize a whole different framework for philosophy and politics. Basically, put limits on an unlimited monarchy to move things in the direction of democracy. The “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” I don’t think is analogous in that sense because what the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is doing is saying you profess to have the ideals, the democratic ideals, that unite this country. But I’m trying to show you that, where black people are concerned, you are blind to the fact that you don’t live up to your own ideal. So it was not proclaiming a new standard of power or a new standard of justice. It was a cri de coeur telling people that they were hypocrites to their own system of values, that your system of values is good. You need to pay attention to it.

CAPEHART: People did end up paying attention to it. Like Taylor said, after the eight days King spent in jail, the Birmingham campaign ramped up.

And, as images of police dogs attacking teenagers and children being pinned to walls by the force of fire hoses spread across the nation, it was King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that the rest of America turned to to understand what was driving these protests.

[FERGUSON AUDIO PLAYS] FERGUSON: When you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger” and your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodyness” — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over . . .

JONES: There comes a time when the cup of endurance runneth over.

CAPEHART: There’s one more thing I’d like to share with you about Jones’s role in Birmingham in 1963.

Throughout the Birmingham campaign, hundreds of protesters were being arrested. Bail was set high. And as you may recall from the start of this episode, Jones said a lot of people turned to King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for help with bail money. That's why Clarence Jones said he was so fixated on fundraising.

Harry Belafonte was big supporter of the civil rights movement in general, and Martin Luther King in particular. He lent his considerable celebrity to the cause, including raising money.

So when the famous actor called Clarence Jones and told him to come to New York, Jones went.

Once there, Belafonte told Jones to go meet with an official from the Chase Manhattan Bank. And Jones didn’t meet the guy just anywhere. They met in the midtown Manhattan bank’s vault.

CAPEHART: What did you walk out of that vault with?

JONES: With $100,000 in cash. One-hundred-dollar bills.

CAPEHART: In?

JONES: In a briefcase. They’d actually given me a briefcase with a chain. After he gave me the money they said, “Mr. Jones, bank regulations require us, you have to sign a piece of paper.” So I figured, okay, sure, I understand, I’ll sign it.” But little did I know what I was signing was a demand promissory note. A demand promissory note which is payable on demand whenever they ask me for it. In fact, when I left the bank and I called Harry Belafonte, I said, “Hey Harry.” He said, “Well, how did everything go? I said, “Everything went fine, except you didn’t tell me I’d have to sign a demand promissory note for a hundred thousand dollars.” And Harry’s reaction: Better you than me.” And I said, “But you got much more money than I do.” And he laughed.

So I take the money down to Birmingham, and I come back . . . I’m in my law office on Tuesday morning, there’s a messenger from the Chase Manhattan Bank. They said, Mr. Jones?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Mr. Jones, do you have some identification?” I show him my identification. He gives me an envelope marked, “Personal, Confidential, Clarence B. Jones.” I opened it and inside the envelope is the promissory note I had signed —a demand promissory I had signed and [it was] marked paid in full. I didn’t pay it. I didn’t repay it.

CAPEHART: In the next episode of “Cape Up,” the march that became known as Bloody Sunday, and the annual event that commemorates the struggles that led to some lasting legal victories.

Listen to Episode 2: Children ‘stripped of innocence’ during the civil rights movement | Listen to Episode 4: The story of Bloody Sunday and today’s pilgrimage to Selma

Related:

Listen to the entire “Voices of the Movement” podcast series

Read more from Jonathan Capehart