‘The Fierce Urgency of Now’
By Tracy Seipel
MLK friend, adviser Clarence B. Jones urges Santa Clara University law students to commit to racial, social justice.
At 91, Clarence B. Jones doesn’t mince words about the resurgence of U.S. voter suppression laws that will make it harder for many Americans to vote, especially people of color.
So when Santa Clara law student Molly Karasick ’24 this week asked the close friend, personal attorney and adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. to reflect on the new laws’ effect on democracy, she got an inspired answer: Bring the fight to the doorstep of Congress.
“I go back to Martin Luther King,” Jones told a Zoom audience Tuesday at a SCU Law School webinar event honoring MLK Day. “I know what he would say—I don’t have any doubt.”
As King long ago helped lead 250,000 demonstrators in the 1963 March on Washington to advocate for the civil rights of African Americans—rights they later achieved—Jones advocates using the same tactic to fight voter suppression.
“Let’s bring one million people around the Congress of the United States, non-violently, and no business will be done or conducted whatsoever until voting rights are granted,” Jones said. “When you shut down Congress and no business can be done, then they will pay attention to you!”
Citing American abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ famous quote, “Power concedes nothing without a demand,” Jones said the history of his civil rights experience reflects Douglass’ point. It’s also why he admonished the Biden administration for “playing with kid gloves” in its approach to voting rights under siege in many GOP-led states seeking to influence the outcomes of the 2022 midterm and 2024 presidential elections.
“You cannot play with kid gloves,” Jones said.
Tuesday’s webinar, “The Fierce Urgency of Now,” highlighted these and other lessons from the legendary civil rights champion during his conversation with law students who posed questions about social and racial justice, and how King’s moral clarity and vision might guide all of us in these troubling times.
The slain civil rights leader, who would have celebrated his 93rd birthday on Jan. 15, first uttered those five words as part of his famous “I Have A Dream” speech delivered at the March on Washington, in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
“We have also come to his hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now….
“Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.”
Asked by SCU law professor Margaret Russell to share what those words mean to him, Jones replied:
“‘The fierce urgency of now’ implies a toughness, a fireceness, a determination not to be overwhelmed by the past or afraid of the future, but recognizing you have a responsibility to deal with what’s at hand,” he said.
“The urgency is that if you don’t make it happen, that it is unlikely that it will happen, in some reasonable time, to make a difference in your lifetime.”
Just as he helped King draft talking points for that speech, Jones talked about secretly aiding his client—jailed in Birmingham, Alabama after a nonviolent protest against racial segregation—with enough paper (hidden under his shirt when visiting King in his cell) so his friend could finish writing “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”
King’s letter was a reply to eight white clergymen who had published a statement in the Birmingham News, condemning the protest. But in his missive, King defended his use of nonviolence to oppose racism, and his belief that people have a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.
As they do every year, members of SCU law school’s Black Law Students Association recite parts of that powerful letter during an annual event they host to honor King on the Tuesday after MLK Day.
Prior to the event, Professor Russell noted that King’s inspirational letter “always leads law students to a discussion of the central theme of ‘when do you know to disobey an unjust law,’ and for students to think about that, and that our moral imperative for justice comes first.”
“It’s as relevant today as it was in April 1963,” said Jones after listening to BLSA co-president Leah Mesfin ’22 read a particularly compelling section of the letter where King appeals to the white clergymens’ sense of fairness and decency after Black Americans had patiently “waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our God-given and constitutional rights.”
Yet persistent institutional racism, police brutality, and today's renewed voter suppression efforts, among other indignities, would suggest that America is back-pedaling on the progress it made during the civil rights era.
As Jones told the audience: “Authorities are saying that Blacks are too impatient; why can’t we wait? And particularly now, when are we ever going to get enough? When will Black folks ever be satisfied?
“Well, Dr. King would say we’re never going to be satisfied until we have all of our God-given rights.”
Students like BLSA co-president Alexis Hatcher ’22 spoke of their frustration with the world, asking the guest speaker his advice to law students who are disillusioned with the shortcomings of the law where it concerns racial discrimination.
Jones noted that King also struggled with these kinds of profound, “quasi-judicial, moral questions.” And while he could not counsel students to break laws, Jones could offer them a guideline to identify unjust ones.
“Laws in which, in our case, African-Americans have an opportunity to participate in passing, those are just laws,” he explained.
“Laws where we were totally excluded—and those laws then defined our conduct—and we have nothing to say about that law, that’s when he (King) says it is an unjust law.”