Carson reflects on the 1963 march—his first demonstration—and one of its complex and multifaceted leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The March on Washington: 50th Anniversary – Historian Clayborne Carson
Tavis: Pleased to be joined by Clayborne Carson, director of the King Institute and a professor of history at Stanford University. Dr. Carson, good to have you back on this program.
Dr. Clayborne Carson: Great to be here.
Tavis: So I guess today officially concludes all the festivities that have been ongoing now for weeks, as it were, leading up to this historic day. Without going too far in our conversation, what’s your sense of how Martin has been treated over these last, treated and feted over these last few days?
Carson: I think it’s been great.
Carson: I’ve received calls from all over the world. This is not just an American celebration, but this is a world celebration. I think that that represents what Martin Luther King’s legacy still lives well into the 21st century.
Tavis: Yeah. When you say you get calls from around the world, we have a problem in our country where the overwhelming majority of us don’t have passports, as you know.
Tavis: So that we live inside of a bubble, as it were. Most of us don’t get out and see the world. We don’t see our country from outside looking back in; we just see inside looking out.
When one does travel around the world, give me some sense – I know this; I’m not naïve in asking you this – but from your perspective, some sense of how Dr. King is, in fact, regarded around the world.
Carson: I think you’ve asked the right question, because this is the way in which we see Gandhi. We don’t see him as simply an independence fighter. He’s a world figure. He’s a symbol for social justice around the world, and I think in a similar way, outside the United States, Martin Luther King is viewed not just as a Black civil rights leader.
He was that, but he’s so much more. They recognize that he’s a symbol for human rights, for social justice. Everyone is familiar with “I Have a Dream.” They all have their own dreams, but they see his dream as being symbolic of their own dreams.
Tavis: Again, I’m not naïve in asking this. I understand why it is that his rift on the dream resonated then and why it resonates now. I certainly get why it resonates around the world for people who have dreams, and so many of them want to come to this country because they believe that in this country they can make their dreams come to life.
So I get that, but why is it, you think, beyond that that even when it comes to the “I Have a Dream” speech, we tend to know the second half, as it were, and really the latter third, but not the first half, not the first two-thirds. Why is that? What is it about that first half that we really don’t want to wrestle with?
Carson: I think the first half has to deal with the gulf between American realities and the ideal. Martin Luther King was talking about the ideal, the Declaration of Independence. He was talking – in fact, I look upon him as carrying on a conversation with Thomas Jefferson.
It’s interesting, in Washington you can see the two memorials across the tidal basin from each other.
Tavis: Yeah, mm-hmm.
Carson: That was purposeful. The idea was to have this symbolic conversation between Martin Luther King and Thomas Jefferson, representing the Founders, and saying that each are trying to decide what is going to be the fate of American democracy.
Is it going to live up to that high ideal that the nation was founded on, of equality, even at the time when Thomas Jefferson had slaves? So since that time it’s been the function often of African American orators – Frederick Douglass, many others – to point out the hypocrisy of having a nation founded on these ideals and then you’re not living up to them.
Tavis: Speaking of Founding Father, I’m a regular reader of “Time” magazine. I’ve been honored to have been profiled in “Time” magazine, and even then, sometimes they do and say things I find a little off the mark.
But I can’t begin to tell you how my heart just leapt for joy when I saw the cover of “Time” magazine that’s been out for a couple of weeks now, celebrating the King era, the King years and the March, and those words they used on that cover: “Founding Father.”
I do believe that it does make a difference when you or I call Martin a Founding Father, but the “Time” magazine puts him on the cover and says “Founding Father.” I just thought that was a very, very -
Carson: I think we’ll have reached a point in our nation’s history when all Americans recognize that importance of understanding that the movement that Martin Luther King symbolized, that movement for social justice, was not simply a movement that’s affected African Americans. I think that that limits him, to say he’s a Black civil rights leader.
Carson: What he was concerned about was bringing about that ideal for everyone, and all the lives of Americans have been changed.
Tavis: Since you know his work better than anybody or as well as anybody doing the King Papers, how subversive would King’s message be today were he here?
It’s easy to talk about the dream part, but the King that I’ve read in the research that you have done over the years suggests to me his message would be a bit subversive and a bit too much for some people to handle right now.
Carson: I think you could say the same about Jesus.
Carson: In a way, what we’re talking about is when you have a visionary leader it’s hard to live up to that vision, and I think that’s what King challenges us to do, because he didn’t stop when the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965.
If he had simply been a civil rights leader he would have retired and gone on to an easier life. But instead he ended up in Chicago in ’66, Memphis in ’68. He was taking on the Vietnam War.
This was a person who understood that his mission extended far beyond getting a piece of legislation passed. I think that it’s our responsibility today, 50 years later, to understand that if King were here he would still be pressing us to close that gap between the ideal and the reality, because we still haven’t made that ideal real for many of the citizens of this country.
Tavis: I have three libraries. Two at my house and one in my office, and in every library I have the entire collection of the King Papers that have been researched and chronicled by Clayborne Carson and his wonderful team up at Stanford. There is no better anthology – I guess I can call it that – of work about what Dr. King said than the work they’ve done at the King Institute up at Stanford.
Dr. Carson’s latest book is called “Martin’s Dream,” and Clayborne Carson, thank you, as always, for the work you’ve done over the years, for the work ongoing, and for your keeping this legacy alive.
Carson: Thank you.
Tavis: Thank you, sir.
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