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Daily RC Article 149

The Art of Persuasion: Insights from Clarence Jones, Martin Luther King Jr.'s Speechwriter


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Nearly 50 years ago Clarence Jones stood behind Dr. Martin Luther King as he told over 250,000 civil rights supporters about his ‘dream’. As King"s adviser, lawyer and speech writer from 1960 until King"s assassination in 1968, Jones had the unique opportunity to influence the course of American history.

Jones, a fan of argumentative writing, has dedicated his life to carefully choosing which combination of words will best persuade the particular audience he is writing for – a task he says is particularly daunting in the English language.

"The greatest repertoire of words for a writer in the English language comes from two sources – the King James version of the Bible and works of William Shakespeare" said Jones. "Those two books fundamentally transform the magnitude and the options for writers to use".

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Beyond those two sources, Jones believes that one of the best ways one can learn how to write or get a sense of writing is to look at some of the great speeches. Quoting speeches from Pericles, Emile Zola and Mark Antony, among others, Jones showed how historic speeches teach not only the importance of persuasive content, but also the impact of cadence and rhythm.

According to Jones, speechwriters face the unique dilemma of writing for someone else. "I think that someone is better equipped to do that have a trained background in music". He said. A Juilliard-trained clarinettist, Jones spent many years training his ear to listen to a note and immediately recognize it, which helped him to become a speechwriter. "If your ear is sensitive to the sound, to the cadence of somebody you are writing for, you will write much better," he said.

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As the March on Washington quickly approached in 1963, Jones and King, who was living in Jones" house at the times, began to talk about what King would say. According to Jones, while some believed that people were coming to hear King preach, others thought this was the time to make a declarative statement on the direction of the civil rights movement. On Aug 27, the night before the speech, Jones wrote "a summary of the things which we had discussed, but I put them in a form that he could possibly use as spoken in a speech". Looking back on his unique position at the height of the civil rights movements, Jones said, "I was blessed. I did not fully appreciate it at the time. I just thought he was a gifted Baptist preacher." That was until Jones heard King speak at the March on Washington.

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While Jones had heard King speak many times before, he had never witnessed the oratorical power that was evident at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial that day.

Midway through his speech, Dr. King moved his speech to the left side of the lectern, grabbed the podium and relaxed his stance. Jones turned to the person next to him and said, "These people don"t know, but they are about ready to go to church," and, sure enough, from then on, the speech was completely extemporaneous.

Clarence Jones, once an advisor and speechwriter for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., reflects on the art of persuasive writing. With a belief that the King James Bible and Shakespeare's works provide an unparalleled linguistic repertoire, Jones emphasizes the significance of historic speeches in understanding persuasion's nuances. He suggests that sensitivity to rhythm and cadence, honed through musical training, is vital for effective speechwriting. Recalling the historic "I Have a Dream" speech, Jones reveals his behind-the-scenes role in framing the initial ideas King presented, underscoring the transformative power of King's oratory during the March on Washington. Jones' unique perspective sheds light on the intricate craft of speechwriting and the impact of Dr. King's unforgettable delivery.
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