Six decades ago, civil rights lawyer Clarence Jones was on a payphone coming back from the airport when his wife told him not to come home. Why? Martin, Coretta and the King children were staying at their south Riverdale home.
Before Jones was a negotiator at the 1971 Attica prison riot, he was one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most trusted advisors. When King was put on trial for tax fraud in 1960, Jones was one of his lawyers. When King was imprisoned in Birmingham Jail, it was Jones who smuggled out his letter calling for direct action against injustice. And it was in Jones’ South Riverdale home at 4635 Douglas Ave. in 1963, that he co-wrote what would come to be known as America’s greatest speech, “I Have a Dream.”
Sixty years later at the Holocaust, Genocide, and Interfaith Education Center at Manhattan College that dream was further realized as U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres presented Jones with an official statement placed in the Congressional Record.
“We are in a room full of people of every color and every creed,” Torres said on Wednesday, Aug. 30. “Black and white, Latino and Asian, Jews, Christians, and Muslims. We are a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious mosaic of America. Dr. Jones, we are collectively the realization of your dream.”
Torres described how for the first time in history the speaker of the City council (Adrienne Adams), speaker of the New York state Assembly (Carl Heastie), and the future speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives (Hakeem Jeffries) are all African Americans. Additionally, four of the largest cities in the U.S. have African American mayors, including Mayor Eric Adams.
“There are thousands of elected officials like myself of all races and religions who stand firmly on the shoulders of moral giants like Dr. King and Dr. Jones,” Torres said. “We owe these giants a debt that we can never repay. But it is a debt that we must never forget.”
From the ages of 6 to 14, Jones was raised by Irish Catholic nuns at a catholic boarding school, where he constantly heard the words, “Jesus loves you and who you are.”
Jones then attended a 70 percent white and 30 percent Black school where he graduated valedictorian and got a full ride scholarship to Columbia University.
At Columbia, a student warned him he would be in classes with people who were Jewish and went to the Bronx High School of Science. Jones was perplexed by the students’ warning. And for those four years he attended Columbia, with 3,000 boys in his class, it was those very same people he was warned about who he befriended.
“Guess what, brothers?” Jones asked the crowd outside the center. “Guess who do you think were my closest friends, who became my closest friends, and who and how did I learn how to speak Yiddish? You know how I learned to speak Yiddish, it was (Jewish students), friends who would take me home from the dormitory.”
Jones described the moment he found out the King family was staying at his Riverdale home.
“So when I see Martin, I said ‘now you know you should at least have the courtesy, Martin, to tell me,” Jones said.
His Riverdale home came to be known as “Command Post North” and was an important place in the lead-up to the “March on Washington.” When Jones was asked if he wanted to have a meeting he would say, ‘No, I’m not going to come and meet you in my house. You staying in my house and you want me to come and (meet)?’
Because of Jones’ roots in Riverdale, and contributions to “America’s greatest moral revolution and reconstruction,” he was the perfect choice for Torres to honor. And for Torres it was just as much of a touching moment as it was for Jones.
“Martin King sometimes had a repetitive phrase, ‘I may not be here with you sometimes but I know we’ll get there,’” Jones said. “...I may not be around, but remember you heard Clarence Jones say this in this place at this time.”
As Jones pointed to Torres, he said, “That is one of the greatest future leaders of America. I see it now. Little brother … you carry my love. You carry the respect of a Martin Luther King Jr. who would be just as proud of you as I am. He’s not here to say it so I’m going to speak for him.”
Annual ‘Dream” Award
In order to ensure the commemoration of Jones was not a one-time event, there will now be an annual Bronx tradition of presenting the Dr. Clarence B. Jones “I Have a Dream” award. This award goes to people who have championed civil rights and human rights, who combat bigotry, builds bridges among different communities and ultimately embodies the spirit of Jones.
The first-ever recipient of the award was a natural choice for Torres: the Holocaust, Genocide, and Interfaith Education Center’s director Mehnaz Afridi.
“As a director of a center with so solemn a mission, Dr. Afridi has passed an unsparing light on the greatest crimes against humanity,” Torres said. “Unspeakable crimes committed in every corner of the earth, crimes that expose human nature at its most menacing.
“But in the spirit of Clarence Jones, she has harnessed the lessons learned from the worst of our history to commit herself to building bridges and fostering interfaith bonds in the hopes of bringing out humanity at its most inspiring. Like Dr Jones, what she seeks is a revolution in our moral consciousness.”
As a young student, Afridi found herself at the Wailing Wall in West of Alassa in Jerusalem, praying for peace. As she ventured into Palestinian territories in Israel she came home thinking “all they want is peace.”
Like King, she carved out a dream, one that would bring Jewish people, Muslims, and Christians together.
“We are a Catholic Lasallian college,” Afridi said. “And as Congressman Torres said, I am a Muslim woman running a Holocaust center. This is a dream that nobody thought was possible when I was hired. It was our college that gave me unwavering support and students against resistance of so many.
“They offered their trust and I’m truly grateful. This dream would only be possible also in the United States. I tell my students in all of my classes, do not forget we have religious freedom. It is our constitutional right, no one can take that away from us.”
Part of Afridi and the college center’s goals are to ask for peace, solidarity, empathy, love, and care for one another.
Jones told The Riverdale Press he felt humbled to have the “I Have a Dream” speech further immortalized through the award, particularly to have it in the Riverdale community where he raised his children.
When asked what lesson Riverdale residents could learn from the “I Have a Dream” event, Jones said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand but you have to stay the course. Don’t give up because one day it doesn’t achieve what you want. You have to stay the course and believe in what you’re doing.”