the baddest dude & pursuit of personal excellence

Once again this week my colleagues and I had opportunity to partake in the Orlando Mayor’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Commission. It’s an opportunity to come together with the larger community to promote Dr. King’s legacy; it’s an opportunity to strengthen our community, focusing on what Dr. King focused on: faith, equality and nonviolence. To omit any of the three, would compromise a significant component of Dr. King’s advocacy.

Let’s face it. Many today are passionate about strengthening community, yet are wholeheartedly ok with omitting some of the aforementioned components. I was thus intrigued with the recent interview with Clarence Jones, an attorney and speechwriter for Dr. King, by Francesca Block, a journalist with an Intramuralist fave resource, The Free Press. Block sat down with Jones two weeks ago. 

Jones is 93 now, living in Palo Alto, California. I love it; he says that “Martin Luther King Jr. was the baddest dude I knew in my lifetime.” He also quickly conveys a similar line of thinking in regard to what we too conveniently omit today. “Regrettably, some very important parts of his message are not being remembered.” Jones specifically refers to the radical nonviolence and also to King’s passion in building allies across ethnic lines. 

Block tapped into Jones’s assessment of current racial progress. Writes Block:

When asked if America has made any progress on race, Jones is dumbstruck. “Are you kidding?” he said, with shock in his voice. “Any person who says that to the contrary, any black person who alleges themselves to be a scholar, or any white person who says otherwise, they’re just not telling you the truth.

“Bring back some black person who was alive in 1863, and bring them back today,” he adds. “Have them be a witness.”

But after the death of George Floyd in 2020, 44 percent of black Americans polled said “equality for black people in the U.S. is a little or not at all likely.” And “color blindness”—the once aspirational idea of judging people by their character rather than their skin color, which King famously espoused—has fallen out of fashion. The dominant voices of today’s black rights movement argue that people should be treated differently because of their skin color, to make up for the harms of the past. One of America’s most prominent black thinkers, Ibram X. Kendi, argues that past discrimination can only be remedied by present discrimination.

Jones makes it clear he doesn’t want to live in a society that doesn’t see race. “You don’t want to be blind to color. You want to see color. I want to be very aware of color.” 

But, he emphasizes: “I just don’t want to attach any conditions to equality to color.”

He adds that it’s possible to read Kendi’s prize-winning book, ‘Stamped from the Beginning,’ and “come away believing that America is irredeemably racist, beyond redemption.”

It’s a theory he vehemently disagrees with. “That would violate everything that Martin King and I worked for,” he said. It would mean “it’s not possible for white racist people to change.”

“Well, I am telling you something,” Jones adds. “We have empirical evidence that we changed the country.” 

The interview continues with Jones admission that “there’s no way in hell that he or we would have achieved what we achieved without the coalition support of the American Jewish community.” Such acknowledgement again prompts thought of current day — and the tension we’ve witnessed since Hamas’s terrorist attack against Israel last October. “It pains me today when I hear so-called radical blacks criticizing Israel for getting rid of Hamas. So I say to them, what do you expect them to do? A black person being antisemitic is literally shooting themselves in the foot.”

No doubt learning from the wisdom of an elderly man who had such proximity to Dr. King is full of great value and opportunity. He knows what it means to truly strengthen community. Sharing with Block how he now sees his mission clearly as ever, he didn’t hesitate to share a message for young black Americans — and much of his message, for us all…

“Commit yourself irredeemably to the pursuit of personal excellence. Be the very best that you can be. If you do that… our color becomes more relevant, because we demonstrate ‘black is beautiful’ not as some slogan, but black is beautiful because of its commitment to personal excellence, which has no color.”

So much each of us can learn… always… what an opportunity…