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Clayborne Carson: King's Chronicler

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By Jack Feuer

Published Jan 1, 2014 8:00 AM


The man who edits and publishes Martin Luther King’s papers isn't just a scholar of the civil rights movement. Historian, documentarian, playwright and scholar Clayborne Carson lived it.

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At least 200,000 people came to D.C. in 1963 to hear Martin Luther King declare, “I have a dream.”
Photo courtesy NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

In 1985, Coretta Scott King asked historian Clayborne Carson ’67, M.A. ’70, Ph.D. ’75 to edit and publish her late husband’s papers. Since then, Carson has been the director of the King Papers Project at Stanford University, where he also is a history professor. The Stanford resource is the absolute last word on King scholarship, to date producing six volumes of the civil rights leader’s speeches, sermons, letters and writings.

While most historians only study history, Carson — founding director of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute — has lived it. He was 19 in August 1963 when he hitched a ride with the Indianapolis NAACP to attend the March on Washington, the largest political rally for civil rights in U.S. history, at which King delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

During his undergraduate years at UCLA, Carson participated in civil rights and antiwar protests, and many of his subsequent writings reflect his experiences. Carson’s scholarly publications have focused on African- American protest movements and political thought of the period after World War II. His other publications include Malcolm X: The FBI File and African American Lives: The Struggle for Freedom (2005, co-author), a comprehensive survey of African-American history.

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Clayborne Carson
Photo by Michael Collopy

But Carson is much more than a historian. He also is a playwright and documentarian, serving as senior advisor for the award-winning, public television series on the civil rights movement, Eyes on the Prize; for Freedom on My Mind, which was nominated for an Oscar in 1995; and for many other documentaries about human rights in general and the African-American experience in particular.

The prolific Bruin scholar recently sat down with UCLA Magazine to talk about the movement and the man to whom he has devoted much of his adult life.

Practicing a Bottom-Up Philosophy to History Scholarship

When I arrived in grad school, I met professors like [UCLA Professor Emeritus of History] Gary Nash who were talking about history. I recognized it was something I was already doing, shaped by my contact with street workers. They were trying to change society from the bottom up, not the top down. I found that idea easy to understand and almost commonplace when I entered grad school. I had already been doing it in my personal life. My question is, why did it take so long for the history profession to catch up and make that kind of examination acceptable in the academy?

The Necessity of Being a Multiplatform Historian

I think it has become an integral part of scholarship. You see people like [Harvard University professor] Henry Louis Gates, a media figure as well as a scholar. He’s producing a new TV series on African- American history. And Eyes on the Prize reached a thousand-fold more people than I would ever reach in the classroom.

But I also like it. I didn't go into the field of history because I just wanted to teach in a classroom. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to reach an audience. And I was doing that before I ever went to grad school. At UCLA, I audited film classes. The film department was right near Bunche Hall, and I used to know a number of the filmmakers. I still think today that if I had been offered a graduate fellowship in film as well as history, I might well have taken the one in film.

The Advantage of Being Both Witness to and Participant in History

I know many of the people as acquaintances as well as their public images in the movement. And when you know someone who’s in the news, you know another side of them. It helps you keep things in balance. For example, I knew that the evening of the day that [SNCC leader and Black Panther] Stokely Carmichael gave a Black Power speech on the Berkeley campus, he was at a multiracial party [that I also attended] in Haight- Ashbury. And of course knowing Coretta King and being able to speak to her on a regular basis for 20 years gives you some insights about her late husband.

Why the Civil Rights Struggle May Be the “Most Audacious Occupy Movement the World Has Ever Seen”

When the Occupy Movement started, it seemed to me that tactic went back to 1968, when Martin Luther King tried to occupy the National Mall. That was far more audacious than anything the Occupy Movement of the last few years has tried to do. In the response to the economic crisis we’re in, if people seriously proposed occupying the National Mall until Congress acted, we would truly understand how radical MLK was in 1968.

How MLK Reframed the Discussion

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King spends some time at home with Coretta and two of their four children.
Photo courtesy of Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

He always put the immediate issue into greater context. In all of his great speeches, what he does is say we’re here, engaged in this immediate struggle, but the broader struggle is global and historical. The movement for human rights is taking place on a global level. And it has deep historical roots. It’s been going on since the time of slavery and after the passage of civil rights legislation, and if he were alive today he would say it’s still going on. That’s why he was an inspiring, visionary figure. He understood the larger context.

At the March on Washington, many people there thought it was about passing Kennedy’s civil rights bill. [King] doesn't even mention it [in his speech]. Instead, he goes back and almost has a dialogue with Thomas Jefferson. Have the rights in the founding of the country been realized? He says they haven’t been. He’s calling on them to be made a reality. We haven’t created a society in which all people are seen as being endowed with inalienable rights. If we were, we wouldn't even be debating anti-immigration legislation [today]. The answer would be obvious.

A Major Misconception About King

That he directed this movement. That’s not true. The people I knew admired King, we all did, but he offered guidance to a movement that was not in the control of any one person.

What We Don’t Know About King

What I try to emphasize in my work is how deeply rooted his ideas were and how radical they were. Look at love letters he wrote to Coretta in 1952, which I quote in the book. If those letters had been revealed in the late ’50s — where he’s talking about his anti-capitalism orientation — he probably would have been seriously damaged as a leader. That’s why Coretta kept the letters hidden — rumored to be under her bed — almost to the end of her life. She realized how politically damaging they could be to him.

What King Would Think of Obama

I think he would obviously be proud that something that would have seemed almost inconceivable in 1963 was possible less than a half-century later. When you look at the veterans of the movement, most of us feel that way. I was there when Obama was inaugurated [in 2008] and was very proud to be there. But I think we all recognize that’s not the end of the struggle.

The State of the Struggle Today

I think it’s still the same struggle. Our goals were not likely to be enacted by Congress. That’s closing off what should be the real objective: understanding that human rights are constantly being redefined. You need the redefinition first, and then you get government to protect the rights you redefine.

Our goals were much more about economic justice, our concerns were national. We didn't limit them to the issue of desegregation. And I found that King is like this, too, when you know him better. To me, he’s a social gospel minister who took a detour because of Rosa Parks. And after 10 years, he returned to structural change.

In one of the King papers, he laid out his mission as a minister. And it was to deal with unemployment and other issues. He doesn't even mention civil rights.

From my perspective, we’re still trying to create a world in which people everywhere have the right to pursue happiness. A good job. A decent place to live. Being treated with dignity. All the broad goals of equality. It’s much more than the right to eat in a segregated restaurant.

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