Dr. King and the speechwriters

Everyone’s publishing pieces about Dr. King today—of course, it’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. But I found some new things in this long piece Vanity Fair republished today. Okay, “new” only because I clearly missed it three years ago when it was originally published.

It focuses on one Clarence Jones, who was Dr. King’s lawyer and—the word appears just once—speechwriter. Nelson Rockefeller’s speechwriter pops in at a pivotal point in history, too. He connected with his fellow scribe Jones after King and dozens of young people had been jailed in Birmingham. And because of that connection, Jones met Rockefeller at a Chase Manhattan Bank branch one Saturday morning and emerged with a valise full of bail money—$100,000 in cash.

Dr. King
Meme created by Daniel Rarela (@DJRarela) using text from Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

Like his contemporary Ted Sorensen, who never until the day he died confirmed that he had written President John F. Kennedy’s speeches, Jones remains mum on his contributions to Dr. King’s writing. But he did smuggle the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” out of said jail, after smuggling in the pages of legal paper on which Dr. King wrote it.

Clearly, these days it’s more important than ever for us to remember Dr. King, all that he fought and died for. We must also recognize all the injustices we still perpetrate (knowingly and unknowingly) and still need to correct.

But let’s also remember the people behind the legendary leader—especially those who’ve stood in history’s shadows for so long. Including Clarence Jones, Dr. King’s lawyer and speechwriter.

Public Speaking

A lovely walking path follows the curves of the harbor across the street from San Diego’s convention center.  The path offers something for just about everyone: art (an arresting silver sculpture), nature (a small dog park with the prettiest dog-level drinking fountain I’ve ever seen), a reflecting pool (surrounding yet more art).  But the most interesting feature to me were the square granite plaques spaced every few feet along the path, with quotations engraved on them.

Now, San Diego is not the only city to do this: The public spaces in Manhattan’s Battery Park City feature passages by Walt Whitman and Frank O’Hara, celebrating what one web site calls “the exhilarating spirit of New York City.”   But those passages are actually about New York City.  The quotations in San Diego’s park were not created for or about San Diego; the man who wrote the words never lived there.

From the written word to the art inspired by it, the entire park – its official name is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Promenade – celebrates the spirit and the vision of this great leader.  And the fact that San Diego has placed this tribute in such a prominent location, across the street from its Convention Center, where tens of thousands of tourists encounter it every day, gives even casual visitors a real sense of the culture and priorities of this beautiful city.

I can’t wait to go back.