Historian Clayborne Carson

On this King Day 2013 and the day of President Obama’s second inaugural, the man hand-picked by Mrs. King to edit and publish her husband’s papers shares stories from his new book, Martin’s Dream.

Historian Clayborne Carson, director of The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, has devoted much of his professional life to the study of Dr. King. He's published numerous works based on King's writings and, at Coretta Scott King's invitation, established the Martin Luther King Papers Project. He also helped design the King National Memorial. Carson has been a visiting professor at several prestigious universities and was an advisor for the public TV series, Eyes on the Prize. In his memoir, Martin's Dream, he traces his evolution from political activist to activist scholar.


Tavis: On this day when we honor the memory and lasting legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I am pleased to be joined by Dr. Clayborne Carson, director of the MLK Research and Education Institute at Stanford and author of the new text “Martin’s Dream: My Journey and the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.” He joins us tonight from Palo Alto. Dr. Carson, as always, sir, good to have you back on this program.

Dr. Clayborne Carson: It’s great to be with you, Tavis.

Tavis: And let me start by saying happy King Day to you. What do you make of the fact that on this day we don’t just celebrate the legacy and life of Martin King but the first African American president, inaugurated for a second time?

Carson: Well I think there’s so much to celebrate this day and so much for us to remember about a part of King’s dream that hasn’t been fulfilled, particularly the issue of poverty. There’s so many things that make us thankful that the civil rights reforms were achieved, but I think it’s important, particularly on this day, to remember that if King were around he would be pushing us to deal with that festering issue of poverty.

Tavis: Since you raised it, why is it that you think, with all the evidence supporting the notion that poverty is threatening our very democracy, with all the data suggesting that poverty is now a matter of national security; one out of two Americans either in or near poverty, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

The younger you are, the more likely you are to be in poverty. These were the things that King gave his life for in the end. Why after all these years, to your mind, at least, so little traction on this issue?

Carson: Because I think that the civil rights reforms were actually the easier part of King’s dream that didn’t cost anything. There was no appropriation associated with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act of 1965. There was not a major investment that was required.

But I think to deal with the issue of poverty you have to be thinking about a major investment in our declining public education system, you have to be thinking about the health issues of poor people, and that’s going to cost money. I think, quite frankly, that was the part of the dream that King found most difficult to deal with.

With all of his popularity after the March on Washington and the Nobel Peace Prize, his popularity declined once he turned to these issues that are still with us today, and that’s where he was at the end of his life.

Tavis: You’ll recall, of course, when Obama first ran back in 2008 for the White House, every Black person I know, basically, was wearing a t-shirt or a hat or a button or something that had a picture of Obama and King on it. So many Black people saw Barack Obama then, and I suspect again today many people still see him as the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream.

I’ve never liked that phrase. I think Obama is a good down-payment, a good down-payment on the King dream, but he is not the fulfillment of it. That’s my own assessment. I raise that only to ask, particularly inside of Black America, what you think of the journey that the president’s had to walk so far being paralleled in the Black community to Dr. King.

Of course, there’s a bust that he has of Dr. King sitting in the Oval Office, so even he is aware of that relationship. Assess for me in your own words how he has walked the line, as it were, of the King legacy.

Carson: Well, I think that we have to give him credit for trying to do the things that he could do, and I guess what they call in policy terms a “race-neutral” way. The passage of the health reform bill is enormously important to poor people in this country. Some of the job stimulus programs, some of the money that was put into reforming the education system.

These are things that are going to help all Americans, and I don’t think that they should be underestimated in terms of importance simply because they were not targeted specifically for Black Americans.

I think that there’s much that can be done in that kind of race-neutral way, and if that’s the way he prefers to do it then I think it’s up to others in the Black community to say certain issues have to be dealt with that are explicitly racial, and really focus on those issues during his second term.

Tavis: You have spent more time with Dr. King’s words and his thoughts and his ideas than anyone in the country, given that you are, as I said earlier, in charge of the King papers project at Stanford, personally selected by Coretta Scott King – an honor to undertake this seminal effort.

Because you’ve spent so much time with his work – these questions are oftentimes impossible to answer – but what do you have to say about the way that Dr. King, given his style, the way he would have engaged Obama on these difficult questions.

We know that King would have been pushing him and pressing him on these wars. As you said at the top, we know that Dr. King certainly would be pressing him on the issue of poverty.

Now, given what you and I know, and I certainly am one of the examples, so I’m not trying to hide behind that – I’m exhibit A of what can happen when you try to hold the president accountable and you happen to be an African American. There are other African Americans who take issue with that, and I’m not whining or crying about that.

I’m trying to get to a simple point, which is that if you happen to look like the president and you press a particular agenda, other folk who look like you and the president are going to push back on you.

So Dr. King, of course, was in a category all by himself, but were he alive today, how would he have done this dance? How would he be navigating his relationship with the president? We’d have to assume they would know each other, but how would he navigate critiquing the president in public spaces?

Carson: I think very carefully, just as he navigated that relationship with Lyndon Johnson. He went out of his way to avoid taking a public position opposed to Johnson on the war or on poverty issue, and I think it was only after a great deal of deliberation, a great deal of time had passed, and when he felt that he could do nothing else other than take a public stand.

So I think that that’s what’s going on in the Black community today, is that I think all of us recognize that the energy has to come from the grassroots. That those of us who feel that the president needs to go further – and I think that if Barack Obama were sitting here, he would say, “Yes, I’d like to go farther in terms of dealing with these issues of poverty and the specific issues of the Black community.”

But I think he would also say, “You have to push me.” That that doesn’t necessarily come from him deciding which are the greatest priorities that he has to deal with. Just as Johnson, I think, also said, look, I have a lot of priorities as a president. If you want me to deal with this voting rights issue, as King did in 1964 and ’65, you have to push me.

King went out and helped stage the Selma to Montgomery march, along with lots of other people, and that pushed Johnson to act on the issue of voting rights. So I think that we have to take on our responsible as citizens to say it’s not enough to go to the polls every year and vote.

Yes, when we got to the polls as African Americans, we’re going to vote for Barack Obama as the better of the two candidates, but our responsibility then begins on the day after inauguration to push the president in the way we want him to be pushed. Because other people are going to push him in other directions –

Tavis: Absolutely.

Carson: – as we’ve seen with the Tea Party. So I think that efforts like the Occupy movement are very important in terms of doing what – Barack Obama of course would understand as a former community organizer that you don’t get noticed, especially if you’re poor and disadvantaged, unless you do something to bring the attention of the nation to the issues that you think are important.

Tavis: I hear everything you’ve said and I take everything that you’ve said, except for one thing I want to press you on. When Dr. King did, in fact, push the wrong button for Lyndon Johnson – namely, the Vietnam War – you’ve heard the tapes. You’re the guy that is doing the work here on the King papers project.

Johnson has some nasty things to say about Martin King on those tapes. Once Martin pushed his button, other Black leaders – Whitney Young and Roy Wilkins and others – came out publicly against Martin.

So even if Martin tried mightily not to take a public stance, at some point he would have felt compelled to do so. Once he had done so, were he still around today, then what’s the response going to be?

Carson: Well, I think you have to expect that those in power don’t like people who speak truth to power. They would rather have the flexibility that comes from not having strong grassroots movements pushing them to do whatever things they want to do.

But I think that on some level, they understand that particularly when we’re talking about the Democratic Party and its relationship to its base, that unless that base is animated, first of all, they’re not going to vote in large numbers, and secondly, the possibilities for any kind of progressive agenda is not going to be that great.

Because something as important as healthcare reform, poverty issues, the education concerns that we have, all of those need pressure at the grassroots level, or else the lobbyists win, the status quo wins, and presidents have that ability to say, okay, I’m going to focus on foreign policy rather than on domestic policies.

All of that has to come, in terms of that dialogue that goes on between any president and the people who put him into office.

Tavis: This inauguration is special, as we said earlier, because the president is being or has been now inaugurated for a second time on this historic King holiday, but this is also the first time any president has been inaugurated while just steps from where he was inaugurated since a monument to Dr. King.

You tell a wonderful story in this book, your new book, “Martin’s Dream.” You tell a great story about your being with the president when that monument was unveiled. Take me back to that day earlier this year, and offer some reflections on what that experience was like.

Carson: Well, obviously that was a tremendous experience last year, when that monument I spent so much of my life, the last 10 years, helping to design it, and I tell that whole story about how we wanted it to be a monument not just to King but to this tremendous freedom struggle.

To be there and watch President Obama – I was interested in what he would have to say, because I think no one would question that Obama, from a very early age, through his mother, understood King’s importance and understood the importance of the movement.

So I’m always very curious to see how he interprets King’s legacy and how he draws inspiration from it. Now obviously there’s limits, as he showed when he gave his Nobel Peace Prize speech, and he specifically said that “I can’t, as president, follow King and Gandhi, because I have to deal with this issue of terrorism.”

Now to me that didn’t make very much sense, and if I had a dialogue with the president I would say, “Certainly Martin Luther King and Gandhi understood terrorism.” That wasn’t a word that was, or an idea that was invented in the last 10, 20 years. That’s been around for a long time, and King had to deal with that.

He had to deal with the evil in the world, and he wasn’t using nonviolence because he felt that that was a tactic that only could be used against vulnerable people. It was a tactic that he used against some of the most powerful people in the nation at the time.

So that question, I went there to try to see what Obama would say, and I think he said some interesting things about how we need to understand that King wasn’t the movement. I think in some ways he’s saying, “I’m not the progressive movement in this country.” That there has to be something at the level of neighborhoods and institutions and what we used to call the Black community.

I think a lot of things have happened in the Black community, but it still has some vibrant institutions that need to be revitalized in order to deal with the problems of the 21st century.

So I think what Obama was saying there was a reminder that even as president, his power is limited. Even as Martin Luther King, his power to control the movement was limited. There were other people out there that he had to deal with – Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, all these people in SNCC that I knew so well.

All of them, they didn’t see themselves as followers of Martin Luther King. They thought of King as following them, because they were the ones who were in the vanguard of the movement. We need a generation of people who have that feeling that they might admire Barack Obama, but Barack Obama needs to follow them, not the other way around.

Tavis: I hear your point loud and clear. King and Obama run in two different lanes. King is a prophet, Obama is a politician. A very good politician, but he’s a politician, he’s not a prophet. They run in two different lanes. I get that.

Yet the president, while he is constrained – clearly, Barack Obama as president has certain institutional and structural constraints that we have to be sympathetic to. I get those constraints. But he also has to make choices as well. But that’s not just true of Barack Obama. It’s true of all of us in the demos.

Which leads me to ask this question, which is how you think we are doing making the world safe, if I can put it that way, for the legacy of Dr. King, and I ask that against the backdrop of the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel – as you know, his dear friend.

Heschel basically said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that the future of this country is clearly and irrevocably, inextricably linked to how seriously we take the legacy of Dr. King. The future of this country is about how seriously we take his legacy. Those are the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. So I ask you now, how well you think we’re doing with making this country and the world safe for his legacy.

Carson: Well I think that starts at a really basic level. One of the things that Rabbi Heschel and Martin Luther King agreed on was the importance of the notion of justice as a basic element in the Judeo-Christian tradition, going back to Amos and Isaiah.

The idea that the main commandment, the central commandment of God is to do justice to those less fortunate. Sometimes, we – and particularly those who go to church every Sunday, go to church and learn about how to make their own personal lives better, sometimes forget that basic imperative of our religious tradition, and I think that unless we can recapture that – because there’s another part of the prophetic tradition.

That is nations or people who forget that imperative are doomed. Are ultimately doomed, because those who do not take care of the problems of those less fortunate will soon find that this is kind of like a cancer that will eat away at the ethical and moral foundation of the nation.

That’s one of the messages that Rabbi Heschel and Martin Luther King that you don’t see reflected in most of the sermons that you hear on Sunday morning in Christian churches today. You hear a different kind of message, which may be also important, but you don’t hear that basic message that is an essential part of that tradition.

Tavis: In this book, “Martin’s Dream,” you make the point that on days like today, where we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King, were he around today, he might not be welcome at some of the celebrations honoring him. Tell me more about that passage in the text.

Carson: I’ve had the experience myself of being invited to King holiday celebrations and hearing that other people were not invited because they were considered too controversial. Often, those who were considered too controversial were those who were saying precisely the things that I would think that Martin Luther King would be saying.

So I wondered whether Martin Luther King would be invited to his own celebration at many of these events, because he might have the bad manners to bring up the wars that we’re involved in. He might have the bad manners to point out that many of the people who came into the celebration walked past poor people who were in need outside, and never saw the connection between what was going inside the celebration and what is going on just outside the doors of the celebration.

Tavis: This book “Martin’s Dream” is both topical and timely; certainly timely, given that 2013 represents the 50th anniversary, as you well know, of the March on Washington. So we’ve got a few months to go to get to August to celebrate this.

But as we work our way toward August, what assignment Professor Carson, what assignment would you give to the nation with regard to reading, with regard to research, with regard to reflection? What assignment do you want to give us between now and August to get ready to be in the right spirit, the right frame of mind, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of this march?

Carson: Well, I could say just read my book “Martin’s Dream,” because in a sense, that’s why I wrote the book. I was asked to write something in the 50th anniversary about what has happened with the King legacy in the 50 years since then. What has my work as editor of his papers told me about the significance of that legacy?

I tried to develop a number of chapters that dealt with different aspects of first of all, my own experience coming as an admirer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and their grassroots approach, and how there was a lot of tension between that and Martin Luther King’s more top-down approach.

Going through my relationship with the King family and trying to speak candidly about that in terms of our role together with the family in terms of disseminating King’s legacy.

Then what did I learn from all of this? Going through thousands and thousands of papers, I gained a deeper understanding of who King is, what was his relationship to Coretta Scott King, to his father, to his family, to his colleagues in the movement, to people like Malcolm X, a very important relationship that has not been properly understood.

Then also taking King’s legacy to other countries, and that has helped me understand that King is not just an African American leader but he is a world figure. When I wrote a play about Martin Luther King and took it to China and more recently took it to the Palestinian territories, I began to understand how King can be translated, sometimes mistranslated, into other languages and other cultures.

How people understand him differently in ways that I think are useful for Americans to understand, because I think we tend to pigeonhole him as a Black civil rights leader. We don’t pigeonhole Gandhi as an Indian independence fighter. We tend to see him more broadly as a global figure.

Well, that’s the way King is seen outside the United States – someone who continues to inspire people on issues of human rights and democracy. So that was my goal in terms of writing this book, of trying to say here is my experience.

Maybe that will help you understand more about Martin Luther King, who he really was, not just this figure that we celebrate every year, but a real, living human being, with all of his flaws and all of his limitations. That’s what I wanted to present to readers.

Tavis: He’s the person selected by the late, great Coretta Scott King to be the editor of the papers of her husband, the King papers. His new book is called “Martin’s Dream: My Journey and the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.,” a memoir.

Clayborne Carson, an honor, as always, sir, to have you on this program. I’m grateful and indebted, as we all are, for your work down through the years to bring his words to us through the papers project, and I hope to see you sometime soon.

Carson: Good to talk to you, as always, Tavis.

Tavis: Thanks. That’s our show tonight. You can download our app now in the iTunes app store. I’ll see you back here next time on PBS. Until then, happy King Day. Good night from Los Angeles, and as always, keep the faith.

Last modified: February 12, 2013 at 6:35 pm