In the early 1950s, Clarence Jones was one of only a handful of African American students at Columbia College in New York City. The future adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. gravitated toward Jewish students, forming close friendships with several of them and picking up some conversational Yiddish during weekends spent with their families. When one of his best friends was denied entry to Columbia’s medical school because of its quota system restricting the number of Jewish admits, he took it personally.
“I blew a gasket,” he said in a recent phone interview from his home in Palo Alto, recounting how he marched into the dean’s office to advocate for his friend. “I said, ‘That doesn’t make sense. Either the person is qualified or he isn’t.’ The dean said, ‘Well, that’s the way it is.’ That left an enduring impression on me.”
Jones, 89, has spent much of his adult life working closely with Jews as a lawyer, civil rights activist, investment banker and academic.
On Oct. 21, he will lecture about the need for Black-Jewish solidarity in the interconnected struggle against racism and antisemitism during a webinar hosted by the University of San Francisco’s Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice. The USF Institute for Nonviolence and Social Justice, of which Jones is the director, is co-sponsoring the talk, “Racism, Antisemitism and Israel/Palestine,” which is free and open to the public.
As a young man, Jones served as King’s personal counsel and speechwriter. He contributed the first seven paragraphs of the “I Have a Dream” speech and smuggled out sections of what became the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which King quoted the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber in making his case against segregation. According to Jones, King had “more than a passing familiarity” with Jewish texts and history. “He was not only a scholar of the teachings of the Bible; he could reference certain portions of the Talmud,” he said.
Reflecting on the evolution of the Black-Jewish alliance in the United States, Jones said he will never forget about the Jewish clergy and other activists who “were there for us when we needed them” during the civil rights movement some 50 years ago.
He also expressed disappointment over the “souring” of relations between the two communities in recent years. He faulted leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement for alienating potential Jewish allies by failing to call out antisemitism emanating from segments of the Black community. “It reflects a certain political immaturity in terms of how you build a coalition,” he said.
“I’m old-fashioned,” he added. “Something’s either morally right or morally wrong. Silence in the face of evident antisemitism is equivocation.”
Asked what he expects from the Jewish community at a time of renewed protests over the extrajudicial killings of Black people, he responded: “I want them to reflect and look deep down into their history. However much they may disagree with a particular rising Black leader, that cannot become an excuse for your standing silent in the face of egregious acts of violence against Blacks. You’ve got to remember what your grandparents would’ve wanted you to do.”
Jonathan Greenberg met Jones when both taught at Stanford University, and the two co-founded the Institute for Nonviolence and Social Justice at USF two years ago. Greenberg described his colleague as “an immensely generous person” who is “relentlessly committed to civil rights, human rights and social justice.”
“He gets up every morning determined to do whatever he can to carry forward the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., and that is incredibly inspiring to me,” Greenberg said. “He won’t give up.”
Greenberg noted that Jones has spoken at synagogues around the country, including at Temple Sinai in Oakland eight months ago. He also shared some words of inspiration at Greenberg’s son’s bar mitzvah a few years ago.
I’m old-fashioned. Something’s either morally right or morally wrong.
On the topic of Israel, Greenberg said Jones, like King, has been vocal in his support of the Jewish state. “He also feels it’s very important to criticize the government of Israel when they fail to protect the rights of everyone in Israel, including Palestinians, as well as the rights of the Palestinians in the occupied territories” he said.
Jones told J. that while he may disagree with some of Israel’s policies, “it’s not for me to tell Israel what to do. It’s for the people of Israel to determine what their government should be. Israel is a state with political leadership, and the leadership that is engaging in policies that I may not like today may not be the leadership in Israel tomorrow.”
As part of his upcoming online talk, Jones will do a Q&A with Rabbi Camille Angel, USF’s recently appointed rabbi-in-residence.
“We think it’s important to contribute to the national conversation about racial justice issues in our country today, and we also recognize the importance of addressing the links between Jewish-Black solidarity and Black-Palestinian alliances,” said Angel, who led Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco from 2000 to 2015.
She added: “Dr. Jones has a profound legacy of advocating for nonviolent solutions to the world’s most challenging issues. We are very lucky to be able to be in conversation with this giant.”
After nearly 15 years in the Bay Area, Jones said he plans to retire at the end of 2020, right before his 90th birthday in early January. (Greenberg will take over as director of the nonviolence institute.) He is considering moving back to New Jersey, where he grew up.
His friendship with King, he said, will always remain close to his heart.
“There’s not a day in my unexpectedly longer life than his, not a single day, that I don’t think of him,” he said. “I think of my parents and Dr. King.”