He’s an advisor to a financial services company and periodically teaches at Stanford. So Clarence Jones is clearly not living in the past. Despite battles with prostate cancer and cataracts, Jones's memories are indelible, the images still clear.
"Some of them are like yesterday, some of them seem like a lifetime ago," says Jones.
You want memories? How about mediator during the Attica prison riot of 1971, legal advisor for the Ali Foreman fight in Zaire in 1974, former owner of the Amsterdam News, successful businessman, the first African American to be named partner of a Wall Street investment firm.
But Jones is absolutely clear on the most important part of his past.
"Things I accomplished in the movement are 1,000 times greater than anything I accomplished or could accomplish in business world,” says Jones.
The Civil Rights movement.
From 1960-1968, Jones served as an advisor and speechwriter for Martin Luther King, Jr.
You’ll never see Jones in the footage from the civil rights era, because most of his work came behind the scenes.
As a young successful attorney with a family in Los Angeles, Jones initially turned down King's request for him to come to Alabama to provide legal advice. But Jones then heard King preach to an L.A. church filled with black doctors and lawyers and other professionals.
Suddenly, and without naming names, King singled Jones out, saying he'd forgotten his roots.
"All I can say is you do not want to have Martin King publicly try to persuade you to do anything in front of a thousand people. That you do not want to have, 'cause you don't stand a chance,” jokes Jones. "I never said anything — just kept walking to him, extended my hand and I said, ÎDr. King when do you want me to leave?’"
Part of Jones’ job was to raise money.
In 1963 in Birmingham, a lot of money was needed to bail out young protesters who were intentionally filling the city jails. A speechwriter for then New York governor Nelson Rockefeller told Jones to be at Chase Manhattan bank at 9 a.m. Saturday morning.
With the bank closed, Jones was taken to the vault.
"They open this door and there, my brother, from floor to ceiling, nothing but money,” recalls Jones. “I thought, ÎOh my god.’ Nothing but money in bags and cellophane. Rockefeller walks in, takes a bunch of money, counts it out, $100,000."
Jones signed a promissory note, took the $100,000 back to Birmingham, bailed the kids out and received the note a few days later marked: "paid."
Later in the year, in the weeks leading up to the march on Washington and the “I Have a Dream” speech, King and his family were guests at Jones' home in Riverdale.
Jones believes that visit led to his phone being tapped.
"He’d call me after I’d had one or two martinis and talking on the phone, I would say, ÎMr. FBI man or Mr. FBI woman, I know you’re listening, so I just want to be sure, do you have a pencil and paper now? ÎCause Martin King and I are going to start talking and I want to be sure that whatever you put down, you get down accurately. And Martin would laugh, and I’d say, Îhold on are you ready, can we start?’ I would start many conversations like that."
Jones reached the heights of the civil rights movement and the financial world. But his beginnings could not have been more humble. He was the only child of domestic workers in the Philadelphia area. He says his parents put him first in foster homes and then a Catholic boarding school so that he could get an education.
"I never doubted,” says Jones. “I didn't understand, but I never doubted that my parents loved me. What it must have been for my parents, particularly for my mother, to take her only child and put him somewhere away from her in order that he would have better opportunity. Think about that.”
He has fond memories of the Irish Catholic nuns who raised him, and insisted that he go to college. In 1949, he entered Columbia.
"The pursuit of excellence was my one way ticket out of the ghetto,” says Jones. “My one way ticket out of impoverished, poor circumstances, to better opportunity. I didn’t know any better. I just thought that’s what you did. I had to do it.”
After college, the service, law school and a promising young legal career, Jones met Martin Luther King Jr. and worked as King's legal counsel and speech writer for eight years.
His association with Dr. King would be the highlight of a long career as a lawyer and businessman. But it is a life with many other compelling moments and associations.
He knew Malcolm X and was with him the night before Malcolm was murdered at the Audubon Ballroom in 1965.
"I remember during the course of switching cars and so forth, that he opened the trunk of the car and there were shotguns in the back of car,” says Jones. “He says, ÎThese are difficult times, so I don't want you riding with me.’ So someone else drove me home."
Years later, Jones was at the scene of another seminal moment in American history: the 1971 Attica prison riot in Upstate New York. Then Governor Rockefeller asked three men to go to the prison to try to mediate, including Jones.
"As I was leaving, inmates would give me notes, pieces of paper with the name and the telephone number of person I should call in their family in case they don't make it,” recalls Jones. “And many of the people who gave me the names, they didn’t make it. They were killed.”
After Governor Rockefeller authorized the taking of the prison, Jones went on TV and said the hands of the governor were dripping with the blood of the 42 people killed. When he got home, he got a phone call.
"Phone rings; governor’s on the phone. He says, ÎI saw the show. You were angry, I know you're angry. I understand. I still say I appreciate everything you've done; thank you very much,’" says Jones.
By this time, Jones had become the first African American to be a member of the New York Stock Exchange, and the first to be made partner of a Wall Street investment firm.
"This was not their feel good, nothing to do with that,” says Jones. “It had to do with collective judgment that having this person who happened to be Negro to come into our firm and join us and put his talents along with ours may make business sense.”
But in the early 80s Jones was disbarred and ordered to pay $20,000 restitution in connection with a fraud case. He wouldn't discuss the details, but Jones claims the FBI framed him because of his past civil rights work.
"I had decided rather than fight, it would be best in interest of my children to essentially negotiate a plea, not because I thought I was guilty, Îcause I thought I was absolutely innocent," says Jones.
At 76, Jones still serves as a financial advisor for an insurance firm, does some teaching as a scholar in residence at Stanford, and is working on a book.
He is occasionally reminded by young African Americans in the business world not only of King's legacy, but his legacy, too.
"One of them said to me, ÎClarence, when you were on Wall Street, there was no ladder. But after you got there, you put down a ladder,” says Jones.
— Budd Mishkin