08/27/2012 05:14 pm ET Updated Oct 27, 2012

The Compliment

Tuesday, August 28th marks the forty-ninth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It is as good a date as mid-January's annual ballparking of his birthday -- if not better -- to celebrate the legacy of Dr. King.

It was the week before this year's MLK Day, on a surprisingly warm January evening, that I took my friend Clarence B. Jones out for a drink to celebrate his 81st birthday. We sat at the bar of Trattoria Dell'Arte on Seventh Avenue, and while we were waiting for the bartender to make his way over to us, I took out a couple copies of the new book I'd brought along for him to sign.

A group of middle-aged women at the other end of the bar noticed the elderly African-American scrawling away on the title page and had to ask Clarence, "Is that your book?"

Clarence flipped to the cover, Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation, which features a photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr. -- a man who was once one of Clarence's dearest friends. It also features the names of two authors.

"It's our book," Clarence told the women, putting his hand around my shoulder.

And while it was true I'd spent the better part of a year working to get Clarence B. Jones's story of the planning of the 1963 March on Washington and the creation of the "I Have a Dream" speech into print; while it was true that my name shares the cover with his; and while it was true that my endless stream of naïve questions may have helped shake loose some of the memories that shape Behind The Dream's narrative; Clarence certainly didn't need to say it was our book. It was he who had fought Jim Crow, suffered through discrimination, he who had been targeted by the FBI, he who had grieved for his many assassinated comrades. For eight years, Clarence was Dr. King's adviser, personal lawyer, confidant, and draft speechwriter. It is his story between those pages. If you're interested in the insider's view of the Civil Rights Movement, you're going to look right past the white kid and talk to the wizened old black guy with a hundred thousand stories to tell. And rightly so.

Which made it all the more powerful when, as we were leaving, Clarence again gave me a pat on the shoulders and announced to the women, "This young man, he gets it. This is one of the people who's going to carry on Martin's message."

For a white guy who grew up in northern suburbia in the seventies, this wasn't a role I would've imagined for myself. And let's not make any mistake, I'm well aware there are plenty of religious leaders, politicians, educator and of course members of Dr. King's own family who are much more well-versed in his legacy than I am. But I know Clarence's experiences with Dr. King inside and out, and it is this legacy that he is concerned will fade from living memory. The postage stamps, the monument in the National Mall, the federal holiday -- these are moving tributes in Clarence's eyes, but what is really important to him is that America and the world never forget Martin King the man. That's something no stamp can do. It sometimes seems that the iconography has somehow trumped the humanity, and that doesn't sit well with Clarence. Our book was written in part to shed light on the very real human trials of putting together the March on Washington. Our mantra was that readers should come to understand that nothing feels pre-ordained when you're in the middle of it. Trying to piece together as massive and untested a gathering as the March is not declaring you're making history so much as it's declaring, "We've got to try something." That's the part of Dr. King that Clarence is bound and determined to preserve. But at 81, he knows he has a limited time to accomplish that personally. He has to groom an heir for the job. And that, amazingly, is where he says I come in.

I met Clarence several years ago now. I was working on a screenplay for a well-known actor with whom I shared a talent agent. The project, like 99.9 percent of those in Hollywood, didn't come together, but this actor liked my writing and asked me if I was interested in an assignment. He had read a magazine article about Clarence and had been duly impressed. How had he, a studious and involved African-American, never heard of Jones until this point? He visited Clarence in New York and practically begged for the dramatic rights to his life story. Hollywood people had fished for those rights many times in the past and Clarence had always refused. But something about this actor's commitment, understanding, and passion sold Clarence. He agreed to participate in the project and let the actor portray him. All that was needed was a script.

The actor asked me if I would be willing to interview a man who was at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement and find the two-hour film in the long life Clarence had led. The job was on spec -- no movie, no pay -- but that didn't matter to me. I immediately realized the power of the opportunity. Not from a career standpoint, but from a life experience standpoint. A living, breathing confidant of Martin Luther King's -- a man of consequence -- sitting down for a one-on-one interview with me? Where do I sign up?

By this time, although I was in New York, the same city where Clarence had built his career in the aftermath of the King assassination (working on Wall Street, starting a media conglomerate, and coordinating a group of investors that bought and rehabilitated the Apollo Theater), I found myself having to catch up to the man in Northern California. He'd been appointed the first scholar in residence at Stanford University's Martin Luther King's Research and Education Institute.

I spent three days in Palo Alto interviewing. Clarence would be the first to tell you he doesn't suffer fools gladly... or at all, really. But I knew my history; while far from an expert on the black struggle, I had an iron-clad recollection of what I'd read. I knew about the murder of Viola Liuzzo, the open letter from the local clergymen criticizing Dr. King that precipitated the "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," George Wallace and "Bull" Connor. I was prepared, but more importantly, I was hungry.

Like many who came of age learning about the worst of segregation in history books, I couldn't help wondering how I would have behaved if I'd been around during the thick of it myself. It's easy to have a picture of yourself as the protector of the disadvantaged and maltreated with the comfort of hindsight. It's easy to be a big man in theory. Part of Dr. King's strategic genius was knowing that in a country where African-Americans were such a small percentage of the population, real change could not occur unless a significant proportion of majority white people like me could be stirred to action alongside their brothers and sisters of color. In truth, I don't know if I would've had the courage to be among those who cried out, "Not in my name."

Maybe this would be the closest I'd ever come to finding out. And maybe that hunger was what Clarence saw in the white guy half his age who was charged with telling the world his life story. The questions I asked and the honest answers Clarence gave in response helped us slide into an easy rhythm. Working on digging up the details for the screenplay that the article just didn't have the space to fill in, Clarence and I developed a deep respect for one another, and a partnership blossomed. While the film is still wending its way through the painful machinations of the studio process, we have written two books together and are working on a third, and I'm helping to produce a documentary about Clarence's life as well.

At one point, late at night in his office while we were working on Behind The Dream, I was arguing with him about some point that I felt he was hedging on, not going out on the limb and really calling it as he saw it. After some heated back and forth, Clarence sat back and looked at me hard.

"Martin would've liked you," he said.

It was something I'd never heard Clarence say to anyone. Certainly not something he would ever throw around casually. And then he gave me the okay to keep the sharp edge on the sentence.

I've given a lot of thought about my new responsibilities in the world of keeping Clarence's memories of his time with Dr. King alive.

Those women at the bar couldn't believe they'd never heard of Clarence when he shared some of his experiences with them. Not just stories of Dr. King, but his meetings with Malcolm X, his experience during the Attica prison rebellion, all of it... This reaction was something entirely familiar to me. Anyone I ever tell about the Clarence B. Jones story hits me with the same line: how have I never heard of this cat?

It's simple. Clarence doesn't want you to know about him. He is the messenger. He's remained in the shadows after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. because he couldn't bring himself to carry on the struggle under the leadership of anyone else. In his view there was no one within or outside of Dr. King's Southern Christian Leadership organization who came anywhere near having the insight, genius, and compassion to change America's relationship with her people of color. But as the years go by and he's watched people co-opt or twist the ideal and ideas of Martin Luther King, Jr. he's found himself unable to simply stand by. My job now is to help Clarence get the message out far and wide. And to make sure he knows that when he's gone (and God willing that won't be for some time yet) I'll be there to make sure people know the Martin Luther King, Jr. that he knows.

Dr. King gave Clarence something to live for.

Clarence has given the same gift to me.

"Martin would've liked you."

As we think back on the supreme social and political achievement the March on Washington, we could all do a lot worse than ask ourselves if we are the kind of person whom Martin Luther King, Jr. would've liked.