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PHS to honor hometown civil rights icon

Palmyra High School Library to be named after Clarence B. Jones, co-writer of the “I Have a Dream” speech.

Palmyra Sun, Kelly Flynn, April 5, 2017

Hometown Civil Rights icon recognized at Palmyra High School

Palmyra High School will honor Dr. Clarence B. Jones, attorney and advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr., with the dedication of the Dr. Clarence B. Jones Library on June 6.

Historian Valerie Still (left), Superintendent Brian McBride (center) and history teacher Daniel Licata (right) stand in front of Palmyra High School’s Library on Tuesday, April 4. The three have been working to rename this location the Dr. Clarence B. Jones Library.

When history teacher Daniel Licata tells his students the co-author of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech walked the same halls they stroll each day, the reaction is usually one of disbelief. A quick Google search proves Dr. Clarence B. Jones went to Palmyra High School, but Licata got to thinking about a more permanent way to commemorate Jones at Palmyra High School.

Licata, along with Palmyra resident and historian Valerie Still, has ensured Jones a place in Palmyra’s history by organizing the renaming of Palmyra High School’s library to the Dr. Clarence B. Jones Library, which will host the Dr. Clarence B. Jones Institute for Social Advocacy.

Jones will return to Palmyra for the first time since his graduation in 1949 for a two-day event that starts on June 6 with the dedication of the “Dr. Clarence B. Jones Institute for Social Advocacy” followed by a fundraising dinner. On June 7, Jones will lead a roundtable discussion, and a proclamation ceremony will take place for Jones at Borough Hall.

Jones graduated as valedictorian from Palmyra High School in 1949 and attended Columbia University. After serving in the Korean War, he studied law at Boston University and left the East Coast to practice law in Pasadena, Calif.

When Martin Luther King Jr.’s secretary approached him to work on King’s tax fraud case, Jones was hesitant to get involved, but after hearing King preach, Jones felt called to action. From that point, Jones became King’s attorney and advisor as well as a key player in the Civil Rights movement.

Jones brought paper to the Birmingham jail where King wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” He co-wrote the “I Have a Dream Speech” and was one of the observers trying to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the 1971 prison uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility. Jones was even by his friend Malcolm X’s side the night before his death.

Jones, 86 years old, is a scholar in residence at Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute.

“He was certainly a behind-the-scenes logistical genius,” Licata said. “He was instrumental in organizing the March on Washington. He’s a civil rights icon.”

A few years ago when Licata heard the co-author of the “I Have a Dream” speech attended Palmyra High School, he was intrigued and began incorporating Jones’ book “Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation” into his classes. He said students were far more inclined to read a book with a local connection.

In light of Jones’ pivotal historical role, Licata was surprised there wasn’t anything in the school dedicated to Jones, but little did Licata know he wasn’t the only historian in town contemplating ways to honor Jones.

After her mother passed away in 2010, Still returned to Palmyra and decided she wanted to institute a scholarship at Palmyra High School in her mother’s memory. Over the course of getting the scholarship set up, Still learned one of her mother’s classmates was Martin Luther King Jr.’s attorney.

After doing a little research, Still contacted Jones to talk about her mother and what it was like growing up in Palmyra during the 1940s. She learned Jones grew up on the same street as her mother, and after speaking with him, she created two scholarships through her nonprofit, the Dr. James Still Preservation Trust in 2013. One scholarship was in her mother’s name, the Gwendolyn A. Ricketts Scholarship, and the second was in Jones’ name, the Dr. Clarence B. Jones Scholarship.

Still kept in touch with Jones’ over the years, and this past year, when Still contacted Jones, she got to thinking about Jones’ important role in Palmyra’s history. Over the course of their conversation, she asked him if he would return to Palmyra for some sort of dedication if she were to organize one through Dr. James Still Preservation Trust. He agreed.

So, Still contacted Superintendent Brian McBride to talk about honoring Jones. McBride informed her that there was a history teacher trying to do exactly the same thing, but he was unable to get in touch with Jones. With that, Still and Licata combined forces.

The students have also been in on the ground floor. Licata said he wanted to show students how to initiate a project and see it through until the end. He said his history students helped craft a press release and designed the art for a plaque that will be affixed to the wall of the library detailing some of Jones’ biography.

“It makes it more real to them if they can be involved,” Licata said.

They are also looking into having a painting or mosaic related to Jones’ legacy outside of the library.

In addition to the library’s new name, Still and Licata have worked to create a registered nonprofit to continue both Jones’ and King’s legacy. The “Dr. Clarence B. Jones Institute for Social Advocacy” will educate students and give them opportunities for service.

“It’s all about our little community and how we can make things better,” Still said.

The institute’s first event will be a roundtable discussion with local civic and spiritual leaders on June 7. She said the goal is the same one King and Jones preached in 1963: bringing people together.

“[Dr. Jones] is beyond sex, age, race, religion, social and economic boundaries,” Still said. “That’s what we should be aspiring to be — beyond the boundaries that separate us.”