How to Become a Changemaker: A Conversation with Dr. Clarence B. Jones

Young people have always stood at the epicenter of social change. Many of the social movements in American history have been led by and for young people. This is true of Freedom Summer of 1964, and all the young adults who volunteered to help register African-American voters. It is also true of our Vote Everywhere Ambassadors who ensure that young people have a voice in our democracy by registering them to vote and educating them on how to become active and engaged citizens.

Creating systemic change, instead of temporary solutions, is an incredible challenge. That’s why The Andrew Goodman Foundation (AGF) connects its Vote Everywhere Ambassadors to the expertise of our social change veterans who can prepare for long-term advocacy work.

We recently sat down with civil rights icon, Dr. Clarence B. Jones Esq., to discuss the political climate, how civic engagement has transformed, and why young people still need to get involved in their communities to create change.

“Clarence has been an inspiration to all of us at The Andrew Goodman Foundation and a dedicated supporter of our organization and our mission,” said AGF President, David Goodman.

Clarence B. Jones, advisor and speechwriter for Martin Luther King Jr., lectures AGF Ambassadors at the retreat.

Students learn from Clarence B. Jones, advisor to Martin Luther King Jr., during AGF’s National Civic Leadership Training Summit

A successful legal advisor and celebrated civil rights leader, Clarence B. Jones was born on January 8, 1931, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He graduated with a Bachelors of Arts degree from Columbia University in 1956 and later attended Boston University School of Law in 1959, where he obtained his LL.B. degree. Afterward, Jones moved to Harlem, New York to work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He became a partner and confidant to Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., disseminating King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963) and contributing to the “I Have a Dream” (1963) and “Beyond Vietnam” (1967) speeches. Jones was also the first black man to make partner at a Wall Street investment bank. Currently, Clarence B. Jones is a visiting professor at the University of San Francisco, a public intellectual, and a scholar-in-residence at Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Institute.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with us. You’ve accomplished so much in your career and mentored countless students who aspire to be changemakers who follow in the footsteps of civil rights leaders like Dr. King. What are your current priorities in the civic engagement sphere?

Dr. Clarence B. Jones:  Recently, I took a leave of absence from teaching and speaking engagements to complete my memoirs. I will also be participating in the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Both of these projects will be another set of milestones for me so I want to make sure I allocate the necessary amount of time and commitment to them.

The amount of social and political challenges we face on a daily basis is overwhelming. In your opinion, what’s the most pressing issue that we face today?

Dr. Clarence B. Jones:  There are many pressing issues today such as access to healthcare for all, a non-racist criminal justice system, economic disparity across a broad spectrum of our population, the squandering of tax revenues on foreign misadventures, and much more.

However, I believe none of these issues can be addressed without the acquisition and collective exercising of voting power. That’s the most timely and crucial issue–others’ ability to acquire, use, and preserve the vote. It is impossible to truly make meaningful progress in other areas until that issue is resolved.

In your experience, what’s the best way to sustain momentum and engagement around a cause or issue, even when it’s not an election year?

Dr. Clarence B. Jones:  In my experience, the best way to sustain momentum and engagement during non-election years is, first and foremost, to assure that you are eligible and registered to vote and that of all persons similarly eligible are also registered to vote.

Whatever the issue that may confront you, you want to make a material and political difference; this will require that you have the POLITICAL POWER to do so.

As an author of several books and groundbreaking speeches, you’ve been revered for your prolific writing. Can you share with us a quote that informs how you think about civic engagement and participatory democracy?

Dr. Clarence B. Jones:  To paraphrase the great African-American abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass in 1857, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Power concedes nothing without a demand… it never has and never will.” Political power in our country still comes from one person and one vote. This means in today’s 2017 internet digital social media environment, you must seek to register like-minded persons who share your points of views–block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, precinct by precinct, county by county, state-by-state, and congressional district by congressional district.

What advice can you offer to students and young advocates who are passionate about creating social change?

Dr. Clarence B. Jones:  My advice to young advocates today is to remember some important political truths: As I mentioned earlier “power” concedes nothing without a demand.

Additionally, to paraphrase Victor Hugo in Les MiserablesMore powerful than the March of mighty armies is an idea whose time has come.”

One cannot be serious about advocating for social change, if all one does is stand around and talk about it, tweet about it, Instagram it, and Facebook post about it. You need to head to the streets to organize so you can acquire the needed political power by registering to vote and registering other people to vote. Simply “talking about change” won’t do it.

About the Author

Kevin Hurtado is the Communications and Development Associate at Andrew Goodman Foundation. He graduated from Ramapo College of New Jersey with a Bachelor’s in International Studies and a minor in Human Rights and Genocide. Previously, Kevin worked as an Executive Assistant and Office Manager at Newark Charter School Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting educational equity in the city of Newark.