PALMYRA — The last time Clarence Jones was on the high school stage was his graduation in 1949, but despite the decades away, he was greeted like a hero upon his return to his hometown Tuesday.
“Few things have moved me as much as being invited back 70 years later,” Jones said.
Since his days as a Palmyra student, Jones has made his mark on the world. He most famously co-authored the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech with his friend Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
After graduating from Columbia University, which was known as Columbia College at the time, Jones got his law degree from Boston University, after which he became an adviser and then friend to the legendary civil rights leader.
Jones returned to the borough on a two-day trip to be honored for his work and to inspire the community. On Tuesday, Palmyra High School dedicated its newly named Clarence B. Jones Library in his honor.
Next to the name, and above the door, there is a memorial plaque describing his life’s work and accomplishments with King. Under his name, there is a portrait of Jones, with a quote of his that reads, “Anyone serious about changing an individual’s life for the better knows the answer lies in education.”
The portrait, which features him in front of the Washington Monument, left Jones nearly without words.
“You know I’m rarely ever speechless; I have words for everything,” he said. “But you’ve challenged me.”
Prior to the unveiling, Jones spoke to more than 100 people, including many alumni, and explained how he came to be the 86-year-old man standing in front of them on Tuesday afternoon.
Jones’ parents were domestic servants, and when he was 6, they sent him to a boarding school to get a better education from Irish Catholic nuns.
The nuns instilled in him a sense of self-confidence, telling him, “Master Jones, you are beautiful.”
Jones said that helped later in life when he was called derogatory names and slurs. He drew his strength to endure by remembering the nuns and the teachers at Palmyra who encouraged him.
He also told a story of when he was 11 and his family was at the beach in Longport, Atlantic County, at the house where his family worked. Jones ventured off the property to get candy at a nearby store, where he was met by a group of white boys, who called him racist names. He said he ran back to the house crying, and his mother put him in front of a mirror and told him to look at what he saw.
“Momma loves you, God loves you, and you are beautiful,” Jones recalled his mother telling him.
That memory stuck as Jones became part of the civil rights movement. He spent 12 years with King until his assassination on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee.
He said King’s life and death helped spur his work of studying the institution of slavery and the ideology of white supremacy, which have had an effect on the United States that has lasted until today.
Jones is an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco’s College of Arts and Sciences and scholar in residence at Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute.
He will be part of a roundtable discussion Wednesday at the high school called “Keeping Our Dream Alive: Awakening Peace, Love, Unity, Prosperity and Compassion in Communities in 2017.” It will begin at 6 p.m.
On Tuesday, Jones emphasized to the students in the crowd the importance of carrying on their own legacies.
“I stand here not as an exception,” he told them.
Jones returned to the school with the help of Valerie Still, president of the Dr. James Still Preservation Trust.
The trust, which operates out of Palmyra although Still’s office is in Medford, aims to preserve the legacy of James Still, who was known as the “Black Doctor of the Pines.” Through the trust, Valerie Still created two scholarships for Palmyra graduates: the first in honor of her mother, the Gwendolyn A. Ricketts “Resiliency” Scholarship, and the other in honor of Jones, Ricketts’ classmate.
“This has been a dream of mine for a long time,” Still said.
The 2017 winners are Ryan White, who received the scholarship in Ricketts’ honor, and Joshua Soto, who received the one named after Jones.
As Joshua posed for a photo with Jones, Still said it was rare to see someone who received the scholarship pictured with the person for whom it was named.
Superintendent Brian McBride said the district wants to carry on Jones’ legacy through the Dr. Clarence B. Jones Institute for Social Advocacy.
McBride said the work of the institute is not defined yet, but will serve as a reminder of the work and continual change that are needed in society.
“That is really to be discovered,” he said of the institute. “The institute is to be developed.”
Junior Jacob Wolfe, 17, was glad he has another year of school to take advantage of Jones’ legacy.
“It’s very special to say that I can come here and use this library, because I’ve been here, I’ve seen this happen,” Jacob said. “It’s something I’ll be able to share for many years.”
Jones will also be honored by Mayor Michelle Arnold with a proclamation at Borough Hall at 10 a.m. Wednesday.
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