‘In the Midst of Legends:’ A Celebration of Clarence B. Jones

From left to right, Jenn Johns, Clarence B. Jones, Joan Baez, Lateefah Simon,  Bryan Stevenson, and Jonathan Greenberg sing “We Shall Overcome.” PHOTO BY ELISE EMARD/SF FOGHORN

Last Saturday, USF’s Institute for Nonviolence and Social Justice brought together generations of activists to honor Dr. Clarence B. Jones and his lifelong commitment to justice. Mr. Jones is a lawyer, activist, guest lecturer at USF, and co-founder of the institute honoring him — but he is most well-known for being the man who penned the “I Have a Dream” speech, as the speechwriter of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The 91-year-old was introduced to the stage following a video of his accomplishments, narrated by President Barack Obama and Warriors player Stephen Curry. In the brisk St. Ignatius Church, Jones removed a blanket from his lap and walked down through the pews, as renowned singer Jenn Johns performed her “Gospel Song.” More than 1,300 people rose to their feet as he passed by.

“Thank you Lord for using this man,” Johns sang as he stepped onto the stage. Tears formed in Jones’ eyes, and other attendees got quite emotional in the church. “This is like a second home to me,” he remarked. 

Jonathan Greenberg, the Director of the Institute for Nonviolence, told the Foghorn that, “Dr. Jones has made his mark in history alongside Dr. King. But of course, Dr. King was killed a long time ago, and in all the years since, Dr. Jones is still getting involved in all kinds of activism in many different fields to make the United States a more fair, just, and equal society.”

Along with 90-year-old Andrew Young, Jones is one of the last remaining members of King’s inner circle, Greenberg said. “We have a very short window of time to recognize the incredible role that they had in American history and to honor them.” 

This event established the “Clarence B. Jones Award for Kingian Nonviolence,” which Jones presented to Mr. Bryan Stevenson — a man he referred to as his godson. Stevenson is a lawyer and activist, best known for his work to end mass incarceration in the United States as the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. Stevenson’s work, based in Montgomery, Alabama, has helped 135 wrongly condemned prisoners be released from death row, and his team has achieved relief for hundreds more who were wrongly convicted or sentenced. 

“It’s very emotional, this passing of the torch of the leadership of social justice and racial justice from Dr. Jones’ generation, to Bryan Stevenson’s generation and to [students’] generation,” Greenberg said.

Stevenson gained national acclaim for his 2014 book “Just Mercy,” which detailed how he was able to release the wrongly convicted Walter McMillian. It was turned into a 2019 film of the same name, starring Michael B. Jordan as Stevenson. 

He gave an impassioned speech during the event, discussing radical love, mercy, and humanity as the antithesis of oppression onset by a “politics of fear and anger.” 

“Hopelessness is the enemy of justice,” he said. “There’s a power in the embrace you can give to those who are struggling.”  

The event maxed out at 1,300 guests. More than 400 USF students registered and other San Francisco community members paid $100 each to attend. 

Prior to the celebration at St. Ignatius, more than a hundred people gathered in Gleeson Library’s Atrium for drinks, appetizers, and conversation. Jones spent the time posing for photos with community members, many of whom had flown in from cities like Atlanta, Detroit, and Chicago to see him. Everyone appeared to be connected at this event. Even the pianist seemed to be an old friend of some attendees. 

In the clamor of conversation, the Foghorn spoke with Dr. Joseph Marshall, an activist, author, lecturer, radio talk-show host, USF alumnus, and former USF Board of Trustees member. He was the first ever Black Student Union President, and the Marshall-Riley Living Learning Community is his namesake. 

“I was the one that brought Clarence Jones to USF. I met him a few years ago and we got to talking,” Marshall said. Jones was the scholar in residence at the Martin Luther King Jr. Institute at Stanford when Marshall approached him. Shortly after, he moved his scholarly work to the Hilltop, where he later went on to co-found the Institute of Nonviolence with Greenberg in 2019.

“This event is the culmination of a lot of work by a lot of us who have been around USF for a long time,” Marshall continued. “To honor Dr. Jones, and to have him be in conversation with the legend that is Bryan Stevenson, it’s just wonderful.” 

“We’re in the midst of legends,” Marshall later told the group. One attendee of the reception, Victor Rodriguez, came with his wife and children because of the historical nature of it. He said that this kind of activism was familiar to him from earlier in his life, and that it was important for his children to see the kind of work coming out of Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative. “We had something to say then, and we have something different to emphasize now.” 

The cross-generational activism made the event important for not only San Franciscans to hear, but also for students, Greenberg said. “We are just thrilled that it’s going to be a major inclusive, community event with every student at USF invited to come for free.”

It did not begin as inclusive as it turned out, however. Stephanie Sears, associate professor and director of the Marshall-Riley Living Learning Community, was involved in the planning of the event. At the reception, she told the Foghorn that as recently as six weeks ago, there were discussions about having the talk off-campus, at the elite Commonwealth Club, where the entry fee would have been more than $100. “When [Greenberg] was talking about this event, I felt like it was something that all the Black students at USF should have access to,” she said. “We started talking about how to open this event up, not only to Black Students, but to all students and the San Francisco community. He really made it happen.” 

In addition to Foghorn staff members, there were students from the Black Student Union (BSU), other leadership organizations, and student employees from the Institute for Nonviolence at the event. 

“I didn’t know too much about Bryan Stevenson before, but after doing some research, I knew I had to come,” said Grace Yam, a third-year advertising and performing arts and social justice major. Yam was invited to attend the event thanks to her involvement in USF’s Women In Business club. “There’s such a cool group of people here. ” 

When Provost Chinyere Oparah gave her opening remarks at the gala celebration, she called out this student involvement and energy, particularly directed towards the members of the BSU in the crowd. 

Following a powerful performance from the world renowned Kronos String Quartet, Stevenson and Jones took part in a discussion moderated by Latifah Simon, a Bay Area community activist and President of the Meadow Fund, a $2 million dollar seed foundation to fund Black innovators. “Should you never meet Mr. Stevenson again,” she asked Jones, “What piece of advice would you give him?” Jones immediately burst into a refrain from “O Freedom Over Me,” a song popularized in the civil rights movement. By his third refrain, the entire church had joined him in song. 

The evening concluded with more singing, as Joan Baez, one of the founders of the folk movement and a civil rights activist, led a chorus of “We Shall Overcome.” Gospel singer Jenn Johns and third-year student musician Mikayla Jazmin joined the group on stage. 

“Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,” attendees sang in a multi-part harmony echoing in the church, “We will overcome today.” 

Megan Robertson is the Foghorn’s news editor and a third-year media studies and performing arts and social justice double major. She covers breaking campus news and can be reached at mrrobertson2@dons.usfca.edu

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *