28 August 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, one of the biggest political rallies for human rights in the history of the United States, which included that famed speech of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoratory celebrations across the world are beginning to take shape, including here in Kyiv. Invited to speak to those at the American Embassy as well as Kyiv’s Mohyla Academy, Clarence B Jones arrived in Kyiv last week on a whirlwind visit.
An Air of Excellence
Our meeting at the InterContinental Hotel where Dr Jones is staying is set up by a mutual friend. I arrive on my own, but it doesn’t take long to spot out this distinguished-looking man, who is sitting relaxed and collected in an armchair, amid the hotel commotion. He is impeccably dressed in a dark blue suit with matching tie and pocket square; only later do I notice the earing.
We waste little time with trivialities and dig right in. “I have always been concerned that there be more factual information about the icon that I was privileged to spend so much time with.” Clarification about whom he is speaking is not necessary. “I feel a heavy responsibility [of disseminating Dr King’s message]. Particularly because of the closeness of the advisory relationship we had.”
At first part of a team of King’s lawyers, Dr Jones quickly became a friend, confidant and personal advisor to the civil rights’ activist, consulting him on various issues, including helping draft a letter to President John F Kennedy regarding the Cuban Missile Crisis. “My role was to help shape opinions on certain critical issues,” says Dr Jones. “I was Dr King’s political advisor, lawyer and speechwriter.”
Giving me an example of the way they would work, he starts, “Let’s say there was role reversal,” and says, as if he were King, “You know Clarence, I’ve been invited to Ukraine. I know a little bit about it and I want to try to speak to the people there about our movement in the US and I want to be in a position where I can appear intelligent and comment about the country.
“So I would say, now commenting as myself, you can’t understand current Ukraine unless you understand where it comes from. Formerly part of the Soviet UNI0N, 1991 was really the official start of Ukraine. That doesn’t mean that the history of Ukraine prior to that day is no longer valid. It just means that politically, that history is carried over into a new political form."
He then jumps 13 years ahead in Ukraine's history as he continues: “The other thing I would say is I recall seeing on American TV during the Orange Revolution some of the younger students singing in English We Shall Overcome – the national anthem of the civil rights movement in the US. And the other thing I noticed was that the leadership of the dominant component of the Orange Revolution seemed to publicly commit itself to non-violence.
“And so I would point his out to him and I would say that he should feel justifiably proud that he now has the opportunity to go and speak in a country that recognised and adopted his commitment to the non-violent struggle.”
Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow
I wonder how many issues these two brilliant men saw eye to eye on, or whether there was ever any disagreement in terms of how to broach a certain topic. Jones picks up the theme: “There may have been 40% of instances when what he would say would be different from what I would say, and I would have to tell myself that this is not you, you have to be consistent with what he would say. Today, I think those differences would be much more narrow. I don’t know if I’d have moved closer to his position or he’d have moved closer to mine (laughs), but they’re certainly less.”
Dr Jones has written two books, numerous articles, and is an oft-requested speaker at events around the world. He says his message is the same, regardless of whom he is speaking for or with. “The message today goes back to the sermon of the Nobel Peace Prize when they awarded the prize to King in 1964: to recognise the political, moral necessity for non-violence. His position on a world basis is either non-violence or non-existence. Or non-violence or co-annihilation – there is no choice.”
Our time together is coming to an end – he is a very busy man after all. And while there is so much more I would love to learn, I put one final question to him. If he were to have the attention of all of the young people here in Ukraine for one moment, what would he say? “I would say that the extraordinary transformational changes in access to information, the dissemination of information through the various technologies we have today – the Internet, Facebook, Google – provides you with unprecedented opportunities to communicate your ideas with one another and that this technology properly used and in your hands can also make a difference, and possibly giving you greater access to economic opportunity. To take advantage of that you have to commit yourselves to what I would call the 21st century legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr: the pursuit to nonviolent conflict resolution and the pursuit of personal excellence.”