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Clarence Jones: The Long Perspective

“What the protest movements of today have that we did not have is the magnitude of the reach of social media, with Facebook, the internet, cellphones, twitter, etc. I remain optimistic, because our reach should always exceed our grasp!”

While older generations are no strangers to activism, many older Americans who were active in 20th-century movement — the women’s and peace movements, the Civil Rights movement of the ’60s — thought their battles had been fought and won.

Among them is Clarence Jones, now 85 and a scholar writer in residence at the Martin Luther King Jr. Research & Education Institute at Stanford University. Jones was a close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as his personal counsel and draft speechwriter. His work during that era and his scholarship since that time give him a unique perspective on the recent presidential election and the protests that have resulted.

Besides his role at Stanford, Jones is also Diversity Visiting Professor and Scholar at the University of San Francisco and the author of several books on Dr. King and his speeches. We asked him for his thoughts.

What’s your take on the peaceful political action going on now—vigils, phone calls, emails, boycotts?

This is precisely the kind of political action that’s needed.

The essence of acquiring political power is organization. Thus, the lesson of Trump’s election is that those of us who do not share his apparent values must organize, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, precinct by precinct, county by county, state by state. This should be done through phone calls, vigils, emails, boycotts, whatever!

And we must register every person eligible to vote.

What do you make of the rise of white nationalist groups and other hate-tinged activities since the election?

While this was initially surprising, on reflection, not so. Whether intentional and pre-meditated or not, the bellicose rhetoric of Republican candidate Donald Trump was received by such groups as a vindication of their thinking and beliefs.

Trump’s public criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement and his strong public endorsement and support of the “Blue Lives of police, and his repeated statement that he was a “law and order” candidate — African-Americans and other people of color know these are code words for the enforcement of white “law and order.” The real-life irony is that African-American communities need 24/7 effective law enforcement as much or more than white communities.

Is the backlash to Obama’s presidency surprising? Have some of these feelings been simmering for years and do you have a sense of what that’s about?

Obama has been enjoying a comparatively high personal approval rating near the of his second term. Any backlash to his presidency therefore is most likely a result of a disapproval of one or more of his domestic or foreign policies

I believe the principal driver of any backlash is the issue of illegal immigration, aka ”undocumented persons,” and a growing unease over a domestic threat from ISIS-based “Islamic” terrorism.

The feelings about illegal immigration have been simmering for years. These feelings are about lost or diminishing employment opportunities, limited or no growth in household income among a large segment of our population, both white and people of color.

Added to this is a perceived cultural assault on “traditional values” by mainstream media and entertainment — the promotion of same sex marriage, environmental activism — and by the continuing conflict between the Black Lives Matter movement and the shooting of African-American men in many communities across our country.

You’ve lived a long life and seen a lot of change. What’s the big picture here, in your view, in terms of what’s going on in the post-election U.S.? Do you see any parallels to the nation’s upheaval in the 1960s? How does your long historical view shape your view of the present, do you think?

There is a stanza from a gospel hymn written by Rev. James Cleveland that says: “Nobody told me the road would easy. But, Lord, I don’t believe you brought me this far just to leave me.” We organized and worked tirelessly in the 1960s to achieve the 1964 Civil Rights and 1965 Voting Rights Bills in the then genuine belief that the protests and demonstrations of today would not be necessary.

What the protest movements of today have that we did not have is the magnitude of the reach of social media with Facebook, the internet, cell phones, twitter, etc. I remain optimistic, because our reach should always exceed our grasp!

And finally, nothing is more powerful than the power of love and ideas whose time has come!

Finally, what’s next for you in your career? Are you up to anything new?

I am trying to find the time and resources to devote to finish writing my memoir. And April 4, 2017, will be the 50th Anniversary of Dr. King’s major public speech, “Time to Break the Silence,” in which he voiced his opposition to the Vietnam War. April 4, 2018 will the 50th Anniversary of King’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee. God willing, I plan to write and speak about the two anniversaries on those dates in 2017 and 2018.

Photo (cropped): “Geneva Commemorates 50th Anniversary of “I Have a Dream” Speech” ©U.S. Mission Geneva/Eric Bridiers.

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