On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington at which the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of his dream for redeeming that “promissory note” of freedom that the nation’s founders issued, his associates are recalling the hard-fought years that preceded and followed that speech and that march.
Clarence B. Jones, who was an attorney, adviser and speechwriter for King and now a resident scholar and writer at Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Institute, speaks of the origin of that conceit of the promissory note in an interview aired by National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition.”
Hundreds of children had been arrested at the Children’s March in Birmingham in May of 1963, and organizers were seeking cash to bail them out.
“I got a call — an urgent call — from Harry Belafonte, because we were getting enormous pressure from the parents of these kids to get them out of jail,” Jones said in that interview with Michele Norris aired today. The Rockefeller family wanted to help, so Jones had to fly to New York and sign a promissory note for $100,000 in cash. That means, Jones explains, that “when the creditor calls you and say[s], ‘Pay me,’ you pay that person.”
So in the drafting of the talking points for that speech, Jones said; “Now, coming here to Washington … is like we are coming to our nation’s capital and asking to be repaid, or asking to be paid in full, on a promissory note,” Jones said. “Well, there has to be sufficient funds in the vaults of justice in this country.”
“In a sense, we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check,” King said as he stood before masses at the National Mall on Aug. 28, 1963. “When the architects of our Republican wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men — yes, black men as well as white — would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, American has given the Negro people a bad deck, a check which has come back marked `insufficient funds.”’
As Jones also recalls, and as Bloomberg’s Tony Capaccio writes today, something else was going on during the planning of that speech and the planning of that march: The FBI was listening to and transcribing all of the conversations that King was having with Jones and other associates. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy had authorized the wiretaps. Jones jokes in his NPR interview that he is thankful now, in a way, because the transcripts refresh his memory of all the details of talks now five decades old. Yet there is a darker side to what has been revealed about all that eavesdropping.
William Sullivan, head of the FBI’s domestic intelligence division during the King surveillance program, wrote a memorandum days after the Dream speech, entitled: “Communist Party, USA, Negro Question.”
“Personally, I believe in the light of King’s powerful, demagogic speech” that “he stands head and shoulders over all other Negro leaders put together when it comes to influencing great masses,” Sullivan wrote. “We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security.”
The only real danger, it seems many years later, is that King’s dream remains unfulfilled.
So says Andrew Young, who was there in 1963, and will be at the anniversary of the march tomorrow, when the first African-American president of the United States will join many others at the Lincoln Memorial in commemoration of that so carefully planned, and monitored, march. Read about Young’s thoughts at Bloomberg.com, tomorrow, on the anniversary of that march.