As the valedictorian of Palmyra High School’s Class of 1949, Clarence B. Jones used his graduation speech, titled “A Better Tomorrow,” to address racial barriers and breaking them down.
Since then, the prominent civil rights activist has been fighting racism, working during the 1960s alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a lawyer, adviser, and speechwriter. Jones, 86, is currently a scholar-in-residence at Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute.
He lost touch over the years with Palmyra High because of his busy legal career and the deaths of his parents early in his adulthood. His mother died in 1952 and his father in 1962.
On Tuesday, Jones will return to the high school in the Burlington County river town for the first time in almost 70 years, for two days of events to honor him. It will mark the culmination of a multi-year effort by the school to reconnect with Jones, who helped write King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Jones attended Columbia University as an undergraduate and Boston University’s School of Law. In addition to his years working with King and as an attorney, Jones also served in the 1970s as editor of the New York Amsterdam News, an African American newspaper.
Palmyra High will rename its library after Jones and dedicate the Dr. Clarence B. Jones Institute for Social Advocacy. Also, Jones will speak to students and participate in a round-table discussion with Palmyra School Superintendent Brian J. McBride and Mayor Michelle Arnold.
“I’m very touched,” Jones said. “And I’m very much looking forward to coming back.”
Jones has returned a few times to South Jersey to visit his daughter, who lives in the area, but never went to the school. Jones’ parents were live-in domestic servants in the Philadelphia area, and as a child he lived with friends of his parents’. He was later placed with the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, a Roman Catholic order in Pennsylvania. When he was in high school, he moved to nearby East Riverton with his parents when they finally got their own home.
Jones experienced racial discrimination growing up. He recalls being called racist names by other children when his family would take trips to the Jersey Shore. Palmyra then was essentially segregated (Race Street separated African American and white neighborhoods), and Jones said there was racial tension in Palmyra High School. Together, those circumstances inspired his graduation speech and, later, his civil rights career, he said.
Palmyra High’s effort to honor Jones began five years ago, when McBride was notified that Jones was an alumnus by Jean Butler, a local activist,
McBride enlisted the help of Valerie Still, a Palmyra resident and historian who runs the Dr. James Still Preservation Trust. Named after her great-great-grandfather, the “Black Doctor of the Pines,” the trust works to preserve history related to people of color. She also is a great-great-niece of the abolitionist William Still, and her mother attended Palmyra High School with Jones.
Valerie Still reached out to Jones, mentioning her relationship to William Still, and Jones immediately got back to her, beginning their friendship. She contacted him again this year not long after the election of President Trump, which Still said sparked tension in Palmyra.
“I was just kind of talking to him about it,” she said. “And so I also asked, ‘Would you be willing to come back?’ And he said yes.”
From there, “one thing led to the next,” Still said.
Daniel Licata, a history teacher at the high school, said he approached McBride in January with the idea of naming the library after Jones. Licata, who has incorporated Jones’ book, Behind the Dream, into his course curriculum, said that as a history buff, he was particularly interested in Jones and his relationship with King.
“I thought it was unbelievable that this guy went to our school,” Licata said.
Jones started working with King in 1960, while the civil rights icon was in the midst of a tax evasion case. Jones, then 29, was one of a handful of prominent black lawyers at the time, and was working as an entertainment lawyer in California. King asked for Jones not only to help with the tax evasion case, but to become his personal attorney.
He worked with King for about 7½ years as an adviser, lawyer and speechwriter. He contributed to King’s famous speech in August 1963, helping to write portions of the beginning.
Jones said he wrote the section in which King discussed a “promissory note” and said, “America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ ” That line was influenced by an experience Jones had at Chase Manhattan Bank, where he took out $100,000 for King’s bail after King was arrested in Birmingham, Ala., earlier that year. To do so, Jones had to sign a promissory note.
Jones said he also helped write the second paragraph of the speech, in which King noted that the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed roughly 100 years earlier.
“I remember using that to dramatize the importance of the event,” Jones said.
Jones will fly from the West Coast on Monday. He will give a speech to the student body Tuesday morning, and in the afternoon there will be a formal ceremony to name the library. The school will later dedicate the institute, though McBride said the school and Jones are still figuring out exactly how it will operate. On Wednesday, Jones will participate in a round table meeting at the high school, when the panelists will answer questions submitted by students from the elementary school and high school.
The high school’s roughly 350 students are 56 percent white, 24 percent black, 12 percent Hispanic and 8 percent other races, according to the New Jersey Department of Education.
Jones said he plans to share with school officials that he credits the education he received at Palmyra – in addition to the upbringing he received from his parents – for his success.
“Palmyra should feel very proud, not so much of me, but that one of its sons was able – by the preparation that it gave me – to transition into a relationship” with King, he said.