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Americans Reflect on Evolution of King’s Legacy

On the evening of April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on the balcony of a Memphis hotel, leaving the civil rights movement he led to forge its own path. A panel of analysts discuss King's complex legacy and how U.S. race relations have evolved since his death.

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    We get four views now on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, the progress made since then, and the challenges ahead, as seen through the eyes of black Americans.

    Clayborne Carson is the founding director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. He joins us from Los Angeles. Cory Booker is the Democratic mayor of Newark, New Jersey. Camille Charles is professor of sociology and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania. And John McWhorter, he is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book "Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America." He joins us from Philadelphia.

    Thank you, all four.

    And I want to turn to you first, Professor Carson.

    You've studied Martin Luther King so closely as head of this institute. Tell us how far along he was in his life work, in his mission, when he was gunned down?

    CLAYBORNE CARSON, Founding Director, Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute: Well, I think the way I look at it is that he had completed part of his mission.

    He had achieved a great deal in the field of civil rights. And we kind of remember him as a major part of the civil rights struggle that culminated in 1965. But I think what we often forget is that, the day after the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, he went back to work. He continued his struggle.

    And I think that other part of his struggle was the most important part for him, the struggle for international peace, the struggle for social justice, and on a global scale. These were major concerns of him throughout his life.

    And I think that, after he had achieved his civil rights victories, he went to Watts. He went to — ended up in Memphis, launched the Poor People's Campaign, took his stand on the war in Vietnam. These were very controversial and challenging actions. And I think the kinds of things he was concerned about at the end of his life, these are still the concerns of the country today.


    How much tension was there between these other goals that you describe and then that original drive for racial equality?


    Well, he was — I think his initial drive, he was a social gospel minister before he was a civil rights leader. He was concerned about economic justice.

    You know, one of the things that we published in the last volume of the King papers was a paper that he wrote in 1948 in which he laid out his mission as a minister. And he made it very clear that his goal was to deal with unemployment, slums, economic insecurity. These were the major concerns. He didn't even mention civil rights.

    So, in some ways, what Rosa Parks did to his life, in turning him in a different direction and making him focus on the issue of civil rights, that 10-year stretch was a departure. And when he got back to his original mission, I think that's where he felt that he — that's what he was born to do, was to deal with these problems that we are still dealing with today.

    If he were back here, as a 79-year-old, I'm sure that he would be reminding us that international peace is still a goal in the — for the future. We're still involved in a war. And the gulf between rich and poor on a global scale has become worse, rather than better, in the years since his death.

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