A Seventh-day Adventist woman can be spotted on stage beside Martin Luther King, Jr., during arguably the most pivotal event of the civil rights movement—his “I Have a Dream” speech to a crowd of 200,000 to 300,000 people in Washington, D.C., in 1963.
But who is she?
Yolanda Clarke, who will turn 90 in a few months, says her presence on the stage is a testament to the power of God to help African Americans, and a reminder to Adventists that they must, like Jesus, actively engage in the world around them.
This is the message that Clarke wants to convey to fellow Seventh-day Adventists as the United States celebrates Black History Month.HISTORIC SCENE: A view of the packed National Mall from the podium where King spoke." class="img-right" style="float: right;">
“I would stress two things,” she said in an interview. “First, we as African Americans need to remember that the only thing that has helped us as a people to survive and prosper in America is God’s unchanging hand. It has been our relationship with God that has gotten us through.
“And second, we as Adventists are too withdrawn from what’s happening around us. We must change that. Jesus was among the people—that’s where His ministry was. And so we also need to be a part of what’s going on. That’s the only way our light will shine.”
Clarke’s road to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom provides a glimpse of God’s leading in her life.
Yolanda Clarke was born in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1925, several years before the Great Depression. Her father, A. Wellington Clarke, of Kingston, Jamaica, was an early Black Adventist minister. Her mother, Jennie Josephine (née Bowman) Clarke, of Lawrence, South Carolina, was a trained pianist and music teacher.
Groomed for a career in music, Clarke studied at some of the most prestigious schools in the world: Boston Conservatory, New York University, Columbia, and the Royal Academy of Music in London. In 1948 she graduated from NYU.
As a young musician in New York City, Clarke had a hard time finding work. “I was eminently qualified but was often turned down because of the color of my skin,” she said.
However, Clarke possessed a determination that was greater than any setbacks. She took jobs playing the organ at churches across the city, and in no time her musical talents were in demand. Although her membership was at the Ephesus Seventh-day Adventist Church, she performed at renowned churches such as St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Abyssinian Baptist Church.
“There were members at Ephesus who thought that I shouldn’t play for Sunday churches,” she said with a smile. “But whatever I did, I was going to shine for Jesus.”
Clarke did indeed shine. She became known in circles as a Seventh-day Adventist who held distinctive beliefs yet was friendly and down-to-earth.
“I am an SDA through and through,” she said. “Been one my whole life. Everybody learned sooner or later what I believed.”
During this time in Clarke’s life she recognized that civil rights was not just a Black issue, but a human issue. She was drawn by the example of Adam Clayton Powell, a Christian minister who was the first African American to win a seat on the New York City Council and the first Black New Yorker to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Clarke was music director at Union United Methodist Church in Brooklyn when she first heard of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, to take place on August 28, 1963. She hoped for an opportunity to attend, but nothing presented itself.
That is until a couple of weeks before the event. Eva Jessye, a larger-than-life musician in New York City who founded and directed the legendary Eva Jessye Choir, wanted Clarke to join them to perform at the March on Washington. It was to be the official chorus for the event.
“I jumped at the opportunity,” Clarke said.
So at 4:00 a.m., Wednesday, August 28, Clarke and the other choir members climbed into a bus in downtown Manhattan.
When Eva Jessye Choir members arrived at the Lincoln Memorial, they were given passes to be on the dais. Clarke ascended the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and looked out over the tens of thousands of people assembled.
“Being on the dais was one of the most marvelous experiences of my life,” Clarke said simply.
Interestingly, at least two other Adventists were also on the dais: Dickie Mitchell, an Oakwood University graduate who played the organ for singer Mahalia Jackson; and Gordon Barnes, a minister who later served at both Washington Adventist University and Newbold College.
As the members of the Eva Jessye Choir were preparing to perform, Jessye pulled Clarke aside and told her that she needed her on the organ, not singing with the choir. Clarke was disappointed, but expertly played the organ for the songs “We Shall Overcome” and “Freedom Is the Thing We’re Talking About.” The large audience joined in with the Eva Jessye Choir, the swell reverberating across the Mall.
When the songs were finished, Clarke rose from the organ, which was a dozen or so feet behind the podium, and began to make her way through the crowd to her seat. Clarke finally broke through the crowd after King had been introduced and had risen to the podium. She found herself standing near him.
“I did not realize how close I was to Dr. King until everyone told me later that they had seen me next to him on TV,” Clarke said. “The only person between us was the park ranger.”
And of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which has become one of the most legendary in American history?
“I was enthralled by Dr. King’s speech. Everyone was spellbound,” she said.
Intriguingly, the part of the speech that is most well known was not in the script that King held that day. Clarke was a first-person witness as to how King came to utter those memorable words.
“When Dr. King appeared to be nearing the end of the speech, I heard Mahalia Jackson say, ‘Tell ’em about the dream, Martin.’ Then Dr. King told us about that dream,” Clarke said.
In fact, King had employed variations of “I Have a Dream” before, including at Oakwood University about a year and a half earlier. But the dream King conveyed that day was to be immortalized in history. Footage of the speech shows Clarke wiping tears from her eyes.
“I teared up because it was so beautiful,” she said.
When King concluded the speech with “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” to deafening applause, he was escorted away, leaving Clarke to ponder what had just taken place.
“After the speech was over, I just stood there and watched,” she said. “I felt that God was using everybody that was at that march to speak for all of those people who couldn’t speak for themselves—the Africans who had died on the Middle Passage, the Blacks who were enslaved, the poor who had no voice. It takes everybody—from the lowest to the highest—to bring to focus the things that are vital to humanity.”