With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Understanding the Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King in 1964.

In 1985, Dr. Clayborne Carson, a professor of history at Stanford University, received a phone call that changed his life. Coretta Scott King called and asked if he would edit the papers of her late husband, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. Carson was initially reluctant, but eventually agreed to take on the monumental task. He has been studying the life of this American icon ever since. Under Dr. Carson’s direction, the King Papers Project has issued six volumes of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., -- a projected fourteen-volume edition of King’s most significant speeches, sermons, correspondence, publications, and unpublished writings.

In his new memoir, Martin’s Dream: My Journey and the Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Palgrave MacMillan), Dr. Carson chronicles his own life from his boyhood in Los Alamos, New Mexico, to his admiration for the brash activists of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and then to his rapid rise from history student at UCLA to “activist scholar” focusing on what he calls the modern African American freedom struggle. He details his work on the vast number of King documents he and his colleagues have assembled, his complex interactions with the King family and others, and his evolving view of Dr. King -- from an African American civil rights leader to a farsighted visionary and revolutionary advocate for global peace, economic fairness and social justice. He also calls attention to the significant discoveries of the King Papers project that have received little public attention.

Dr. Carson is currently a professor of history and founding director of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. In addition to the King Papers, and The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., his books include In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s, winner of the Organization of American Historians' Frederick Jackson Turner Award; Malcolm X: The FBI File; and African American Lives: The Struggle for Freedom (co-author). He has also written an internationally acclaimed play, The Passages of Martin Luther King. And he has served as historical advisor for the award-winning public television series on the civil rights movement Eyes on the Prize and many other documentaries. To bring attention to Dr. King’s legacy and related issues, Dr. Carson has appeared on many radio and television shows, including Good Morning America, NBC Nightly News, CBS Evening News, Fresh Air, Charlie Rose, Tavis Smiley, and Marketplace.  

* * * * *

You grew up in the overwhelmingly white town of Los Alamos, New Mexico, in the late 1940s and the 1950s. What was that like for an African American boy then?

Dr. Clayborne Carson: I didn’t have anything else to compare it to, but I always knew I grew up in a very special environment. It was like growing up on a military base that was isolated from anything else. The nearest town was thirty miles away and it was in the mountains. You had to have a pass to get into the town.

Did you feel you and your family were treated differently than white people in Los Alamos?

It’s hard for me to put it in those terms. That’s all I knew, given that my family moved there when I was four years old.

One thing I realized when I was writing the book was I never had that sense of being of a black family moving into a white neighborhood. We were the first to be in our neighborhood, and the entire town didn’t exist before I was born. There was a sense of newness, and I never had a sense of being marginal or socially excluded. We were the pioneers, and we were the people there before our white neighbors started arriving.

You write that you felt politically isolated in Los Alamos, but you also had a sense of identification with the growing civil rights movement.

Yes, that happened as I reached my teenage years. As a child, I saw the fence [around Los Alamos] protecting us from the outside world and, as I reached my teenage years, I saw the fence keeping us in. Even as the fence came down -- when they allowed people to enter the residential area without a pass -- there was still a sense of isolation from the outside world. I knew a lot of exciting things were going on out there involving black Americans. At first I couldn’t participate in that heroic movement out there, except vicariously. through Martin Luther King, the Little Rock Nine, and the students involved in the sit-ins.

At age nineteen you were at the March on Washington in August 1963. Didn’t you meet Stokely Carmichael and other activists in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) even before that?

Just slightly before. I was at a National Student Association (NSA) meeting in Bloomington. That’s where I met Stokely.

One of the remarkable things was that two of the first people I met in SNCC were Stokely Carmichael, who was at the NSA meeting, and Bob Moses. I must have thought they were typical of civil rights people, and it took me a long time to realize they were not.

They were extraordinary individuals even within the SNCC environment. It wasn’t just pure coincidence. Stokely was a student at the time, and he was knowledgeable about SNCC, so he was a good person to be speaking for the organization. And at a subsequent New Orleans conference, of course, Bob Moses was speaking for the Mississippi Summer Project because that was his project.

All of this came in a very short time and, because I was at these two conferences, I met these two extraordinary individuals. Who couldn’t have been affected by them?

What do you recall about listening to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” in August 1963?

For many of us who watched his speech live, we didn’t know it was a famous speech. It was just the concluding speech of the March. The meanings that have attached to the speech in the years since are part of the legacy of the speech, and that’s what I wanted to convey in my book.

I have two chapters on the March on Washington. One is on what it was like to actually be there when I’m nineteen years old and don’t understand what’s happening because I was distracted by everything around me -- including the young women in the crowd. There were a lot of distractions. It was difficult to pay strict attention to the speeches, especially with couple hundred thousand people around you.

Afterwards, I was proud of the fact that I had seen Martin Luther King and that he was a very impressive speaker. But, if someone had told me that fifty years later we’d still be talking about the speech, I would not have predicted that.

In some ways it’s probably like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Some of the people there thought it was a letdown because in those days speakers would give long orations, and this was just a few brief remarks that Lincoln made. And now, 150 years later, many Americans know it by heart. It’s the same with King’s speech. It got the audience aroused, which you expect of a skilled preacher, but few sermons are remembered, even a day later.

In my later chapter, when I was writing about the King autobiography , I was trying to get into King’s head and look back at the speech from his perspective. I had a greater understanding by then of why it has longevity and why it became the famous “I Have a Dream” speech -- even though he never planned to say those words at the march.

You comment to the effect that the older you get, the wiser King gets.

Yes. Some say that history is wasted on young people, and that is partly true. Until you have some perspective, it’s hard to appreciate what you’re experiencing at a historic event. You don’t have any context for it. That was certainly true with me. I appreciated King’s speech just as I appreciated John Lewis’s (of SNCC) speech, but I also just appreciated being there and seeing all of these famous people. If someone had asked, What’s the significance of what you just heard, I wouldn’t have been able to come up with any decent answer.

Was your sense then -- like many in SNCC -- that King was too cautious in his campaign for civil rights?

I was beginning to feel that at the March, because of the influence of the young people in SNCC. They were somewhat cynical about King. For a time in my life, I shared the sentiment that he was the principal spokesperson of the movement but that he was very cautious and didn’t want to take a stand on the most controversial issues. That’s why he waited so long to take a stand on the Vietnam War.

One of the reasons I wrote the book was to give readers who came of age in the post-sixties era a sense of what it was like to see King through the prism of the sixties activism when there wasn’t as much of a mystique about him, and there wasn’t a sense that he overshadowed everything else. Some of us young activists thought he was following us rather than that we were following him.

How did you decide to forge a career in history?

I’d always been interested in history. I enjoyed reading history even as a child. I was a voracious reader and I read a lot of history, fiction and science fiction. Books expand my imagination and make me more aware of the world outside my hometown.

To the extent that there was a pattern in my self-education, it was situating myself in the world. I grew up in a small town in the mountains of New Mexico, and the things that mattered to me were where I was in terms of history and where I fit. And I was always interested in geography -- where I am in the world. Another theme was spiritual. I wasn’t very religious, but I was concerned about bigger issues of what is right and wrong and how you make the world better.

Your concern for social justice comes through in the book even before you participated in the March on Washington.

I wondered about when that happened. It wasn’t that I had activist parents, but I did develop a strong sense of a social conscience, even though there were contradictions. I wanted to go to the Air Force Academy, and I worked during summers at a weapons laboratory.

I wasn’t like the precocious “red diaper babies” -- the ones I met later who had grown up in leftist homes. I grew up as a conventional, middle-class American. That’s one of the things that defines my identity. I’m a rebel in a sense, but a rebel who also grew up with Little League baseball and scouting and all the conventional aspects of being American.

You had prominent mentors when you studied history at UCLA and began your academic career.

I was fortunate to be at UCLA with Gary Nash and Steve Thernstrom before he became a neocon. Stanley Coben was my adviser. They were all very affected themselves by the sixties and made dramatic changes in their own lives. At that time, I could walk out my door when I worked there as a computer programmer and see Angela Davis or Ron Karenga.

I didn’t say much about it in the book, but [before graduate school] I did computer work for Steve Thernstrom for his book The Other Bostonians, a quantitative history. He needed someone to process all of the data. I got a quick introduction to how history had changed from what I had learned in school, and met people were doing this exciting social history. And I could use my mathematical and computer skills. I was good at statistics, and I could apply them to history.

The accident of being connected with Steve made me think seriously about applying to graduate school. Then I sat in on Gary Nash’s a class on race relations in American history and Ron Takaki’s first African American history class. Since I was working on campus, I could sit in on those classes, and eventually was recruited as an unofficial teaching assistant. It was an enormously exciting environment., With the political activism going on, we were studying social change as it was going on outside the classroom.

It was a period when I felt I could bring the lessons I’d learned through my own activism into the study of history. Surprisingly, I always thought of activism as being a detriment to being a good student, but by the late sixties, I could see that it was an asset. It gave me a historical perspective that would set my work apart. I didn’t have to read E. P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, and the new social historians to understand the concept of history from the bottom up. That was second nature to me.

And your academic career was remarkable.

Yes, my short academic career as a student was unusual. I think I probably set a record for the least amount of time as a student in graduate school.

You become an assistant professor almost immediately.

I was hired in the middle of my second year of graduate school. At the start of my third year, I was teaching some of the students I entered graduate school with, and that was definitely an unusual situation. And it wasn’t because I was super bright, but mainly that the campus was overwhelmed with activism, and the notion that UCLA could get along without a black person teaching African American history wasn’t going to happen. I think they saw me as the best of the alternatives.

Jumping ahead, by 1985, you were an established professor of history at Stanford, and Coretta Scott King called and asked you to edit the Dr. King’s papers. Wasn’t that a surprise?

Yes, but not a total surprise. I knew about the project, but the idea that I would be a good choice to be editor of King’s papers would not have occurred to me. I thought of myself as a bottom-up historian, and King offered the top-down perspective. And I had never taken an interest in him as a biographical subject. As I write in the book, I turned her down at first, and then had second thoughts about that -- with urging from my wife.

Your journey in dealing with all of the issues involving the King papers is complex. Your book should be required reading for all historians who deal with the papers of eminent historical figures. You describe challenges and obstacles in dealing with the King Center and the King family and others as you’ve worked on the papers -- and you’ve persisted.

I wanted to convey the reality that being King’s editor is by no means the ivory tower notion of an academic life where you go off to an archive and don’t have to deal with the real world. My experience in studying King is that you’re always dealing with a contested legacy, and lots of people have an interest in it -- in shaping and defining it. Certainly the family.

And it tested my skills. There were times when I felt I didn’t have sufficient skills to deal with it. Right from the beginning, when Coretta demanded that I move to Atlanta, we faced a conflict over that. As soon as things settled down over that issue, we had the plagiarism issue. And when Dexter King took over, we went through other concerns. And then the 1999 trial in Memphis on the assassination of Dr. King.

My effort to launch the King Papers Project showed how complex it is to deal with a figure who still matters a great deal. It’s not often that you can study a person and then turn on the television and there is his image. He’s very present in the world.

And your work was also making news at times.

Yes. What was striking is the work itself was an intense engagement with documents to the extent that most historians don’t even do. A lot of history is based on a very small number of documents or a narrowly conceived question. I immersed myself in hundreds of thousands of documents, but, in addition to that, I had to raise money and negotiate a relationship with the King family.

But what’s so wonderful about it is that I also got to meet so many people from all over the world -- I could have filled a book with stories about those people.

You mention Dr. King’s “astounding sense of history.”

That sets King apart from other leaders. There were other African American leaders who were better at mobilizing people, and there were certainly people who were better at running organizations. But his strength was his vision. His vision was always broad. You can take the March on Washington as an example. For many people who were there, it was about getting a civil rights bill through Congress, but King’s speech doesn’t mention a civil rights bill. He’s concerned about linking the march to the Declaration of Independence and the ideals of the American democratic experiment. And he ends with his dream oration and his vision of what America might look like in the future through struggle. He reached back into the past, from the biblical prophets Amos and Isaiah and through Jefferson and Lincoln and looked forward to the future. Are we living King’s dream, or is that dream still in the future, as I think it is? He looked at the whole sweep of history.

He did the same thing in his final speech [on April 3, 1968] in Memphis. He went into the past and into the future in ways that are inspiring and allow us to understand the historical significance of where we are. Where that vision comes from is still somewhat of a mystery to me. It’s not like he had way more history than anyone else. Somehow the combination of his theological training and his exposure to philosophy and history enabled him to offer that vision. And then, of course, he had a global vision. He did not see himself simply as an African American civil rights leader.

I appreciate these things more and more after thirty some years of studying him. The more you go through the documentary evidence of his life, the more you come to see the way he synthesized knowledge from all of these sources: biblical, historical, literary, the African American church tradition -- and he brought together this collective body of knowledge and expressed it more clearly and succinctly than any other leader of his time. That to me is the essence of King’s greatness.

You see Dr. King as a leader like Gandhi or Mandela of one of the most significant social transformations of the twentieth century.

He belongs in that company. In some ways, he’s in a position by himself, even with respect to Gandhi who is his only real equivalent on the world stage. King was able to pull Gandhian ideas into his own synthesis, and that made him the person who conveyed Gandhian ideas to the world more than Gandhi himself was able to do.

There were lawsuits that the King family brought against CBS and some other organizations for reprinting the “I Have a Dream” speech.

Yes, the “I Have a Dream” speech is copyrighted. The only thing that makes copyright law consistent with the First Amendment is the idea of fair use. I think the historical profession and publishers are deficient in under utilizing fair use. The only people who seem to push fair use are rappers who want samples for songs. The historical profession should be at the forefront of affirming our right to publish.

If you take an absolutist view about copyright, the histories we’re used to writing could not be written.

I understand both sides of the issue. I represent the estate, and we publish Martin Luther King’s sermons and speeches and autobiography and so forth, and I do it through the estate. You wouldn’t necessarily want King in the public domain, because that would mean that every advertiser could use whatever they wanted for commercial purposes.

There’s always a tension between ideas as property and ideas as the property of humanity. For the most part, in my dealings with the family and the estate, we’ve handled that well. King is more available than ever before. His ideas are more widely distributed.

You can’t just go to a publisher and say I want to publish an anthology of King’s speeches. That’s a commercial issue. But you should be able to publish a biography or a study of King without having to get the approval of the estate. So the question is how do you balance those interests.

\When you took on the King papers project you wondered if you could learn more about King’s life from his papers. But you’ve uncovered a treasure trove of new material -- as in Coretta’s basement where you found Dr. King’s notes and sermons and the love letters between him and Coretta.

That’s my favorite chapter on the love letters. And actually, I had published one of them in the sixth volume of the King Papers.

But in publishing the papers, I find that a lot of people who should know better and are interested in King don’t really bother to look. We’ve published a large number of documents that were not previously available to scholars. Maybe we just don’t toot our own horn enough

I find that papers projects are one of those things that are admired because someone is doing them, but very few people pay enough attention to the work. We’re uncovering documents that I think are as newsworthy as was King’s plagiarism. We put them out there and hope somebody will notice.

The love letters were not only informative about Dr. and Mrs. King’s personal relationship but also on their political beliefs before they were married, before the Montgomery bus boycott, before King became a civil rights leader.

Yes. Martin Luther King was talking in 1952 about the nationalization of industry.

As you stress, King wasn’t thinking about the civil rights movement but about global social justice even that early.

Yes, and both of them were. Coretta sent the Edward Bellamy book to him [the socialist utopian novel] Looking Backward.

After passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, as you note, King lost popularity and was increasingly criticized, even by civil rights leaders, especially as he spoke out against the U.S. involvement in Vietnam and for economic justice and social transformation.

I wanted to point out that those values were deeply rooted. He was a Social Gospel minister before he was a civil rights leader. He spoke of capitalism being on its deathbed. He didn’t predict right, but he said to Coretta that feudalism has been on its deathbed for five hundred years. And in the first chapter of the autobiography, King talks about being anti-capitalist.

Some King family members took up the cause of Dr. King’s convicted assassin, James Earl Ray, and his attorney in the late 1990s. Dexter King announced that he believed Ray was innocent and had been framed as part of a complex conspiracy. From what I’ve seen, the evidence that Ray assassinated Dr. King was overwhelming.

I wasn’t negative about Dexter taking a stand on that issue. Knowing how strongly he felt about it, it was right for him to speak out. If a member of the Kennedy felt as strongly that there was a conspiracy that resulted in John Kennedy’s death, I would hope they would not hesitate to air that publically.

At the same time, because Bill Pepper was Ray’s lawyer, he had a special obligation to not only to say there was a conspiracy, but to say that James Earl Ray had nothing to do with the conspiracy. He couldn’t go into court and say that you should release my client because there were other people involved. He had to say that you have to let my client go because he was not involved with these other people. That’s a hard argument to make, it seems to me. It strains credulity to think that James Earl Ray just happened to bring a rifle to a hotel across the street from where King was staying and was simply duped by other people as a patsy in this conspiracy.

I admire Dexter and other members of the family for standing by their beliefs, but that’s not where the evidence would lead.

I felt there was a lot of valuable information conveyed through the 1999 civil trial, and I wish the press had taken the trial more seriously. Even if organized crime or military intelligence had nothing to do with the assassination, it still is a subject of enormous public concern. What were these forces doing? Why were there military intelligence people spying on King in Memphis? You don’t need to argue that they had something to do with the assassination to still ask the question: shouldn’t we know more about them?

It’s well-documented that the FBI did all it could to undermine Dr. King from keeping him under constant surveillance to disparaging him and his advisors in countless attacks. The Memphis Commercial Appeal ran an FBI-produced editorial as its own shortly before the assassination.

A lot of that was stimulated by [FBI Director] J. Edgar Hoover.

To bring us to the present, hasn’t President Obama adopted some of King’s rhetoric in terms of his view of more inclusive, united national identity -- Obama’s vision of “One American Family.”

I wrote the Obama chapter before the election. I think Obama understands King in the same way he understands Lincoln or Jefferson -- as someone who has something important to say about the American experiment. He’s by no means as willing to put his presidency at risk in the way King put his own career at risk in terms of the poverty issue and the war issue.

To me, the critical speech for Obama was the one he gave in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize where he said, “I’m not Gandhi. I’m not King.” He basically said he can’t be them. In the book, I disagree in the sense that he said he can’t be them that because he has to deal with this radical evil called terrorism. But King and Gandhi had to deal with the radical evils called colonialism, the Jim Crow system and white supremacy. I’m not so sure that that becomes a reason why you cannot follow through on your principles.

But I admire Obama because he seems to understand the complexities of King.

Is there anything you’d like to add about what you hope readers take from your memoir?

I just hope they read it. In some ways, one thing I wanted to accomplish with the book is to draw attention to the work I’ve been doing. I spent so much time doing the work and getting the book edited, I haven’t spent much time saying why readers should be interested in this work.

Related Links

HNN Hot Topics: MLK Day