Learning From History: A Conversation with Dr. Clarence B. Jones

Change is the only constant in an ever-evolving world. But embracing change requires courage and acceptance. And achieving real results takes passion and honest efforts. I recently had the great honor of talking with Dr. Clarence B. Jones, who played a decisive role in helping to shape the civil rights movement in the U.S., including serving as a legal counsel, strategic advisor, and draft speech writer to Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Jones was a close confidant of Dr. King, and had a unique insight into his views on diversity and inclusion. Most notably, the 91-year-old Dr. Jones credits Dr. King with teaching him that we are all human beings with shared humanity and the capacity to love rather than hate, no matter what superficial differences exist between us.

AHA! Moments in D&I: Love is All You Need

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AHA! Moments in D&I: Love is All You Need

Even when your enemies denigrate you and spew hate, Dr. Jones said, “you can look beyond that and recognize that no matter what your sexual orientation is, no matter what the color of your skin, there is something so common to being a human being.”

Inspiration

The message is inspirational and sets the foundation to believe in oneself. During the conversation, Dr. Jones shared about his upbringing as the only son of parents who worked as domestic help. His deeply religious mother sent him to a Catholic boarding school when he was six, where he developed fearlessness as a Black child in part due to the Irish nuns who taught to love and value himself. This fearlessness led to a strong self-confidence that held him in good stead when he went to a primarily white public high school at 14.

Initially, he admitted that Dr. King’s advocacy of non-violence didn’t sit easily with him. “I used to say to Martin, you need to go see a psychiatrist, brother […] you mean to tell me you want me to love this segregationist calling me [names] and trying to kill me?” Dr. King would say, “Yeah, unfortunately, I am because you have to look beyond that. He’s just the creature of his temporary condition — that’s not who he really is; that’s what he’s been conditioned to be.”

Dr. Jones said one of the reasons he is never seen in pictures of any demonstrations is because Dr. King wouldn’t permit him to join the protesters because he knew Dr. Jones wasn’t disciplined enough.

Dr. Jones’ “Aha” Moment

However, about a year before Dr. King’s assassination, Dr. Jones had an “aha moment” when he began to understand how powerful Dr. King’s message was. He learned that while all white people may seem to be alike from a distance, “they are not all alike when you get up close.”

He gave the example of the Jewish volunteers he met in the civil rights movement. He said most of them looked like any other white person, but when he asked them directly about why they had joined the movement, they always referred to their grandparents or somebody in their family who had lost their lives in the Holocaust. “It was very moving,” he explained.

Dr. Jones also recalled smuggling paper into Dr. King’s Alabama jail cell in 1963 so that Dr. King could write his famous “Letter from an Alabama Jail.” He also successfully raised the bail money for Dr. King’s release from David Rockefeller in New York.

Transcending Fear

One of the things he said he learned from Dr. King was that he was not fearless. “He was very afraid, but he had this kind of inner religious, moral gyroscope that grounded him,” Dr. Jones said.  “At the end of the day, he knew he could bleed, and he could be destroyed, but something gave him a courage that transcended that.”

He recalled Dr. King telling him and civil rights leader Andrew Young that they could not protect him, advising them not to waste their time.

Tragically, Dr. King was fatally shot in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968. He never doubted that the key to achieving civil rights was to embrace diversity and celebrate our shared humanity. That is a timeless message and something we all can relate to.

Dr. Jones also pointed out that it is difficult to affect positive change if there is a lack of knowledge about history.

As I wrapped up my conversation, I noticed a shift in my mind – my own “aha moment.” I reflected that Dr. King and Dr. Jones stand out because they were courageous beings who loved themselves and others. Their love for humanity, diversity, and inclusion kept them going.

It is upon us as corporate organizations to foster an environment where our colleagues operate without fear and with love for each other. Let love lead the way.


Supriya Jha is chief diversity and inclusion officer at SAP.