STANFORD — Martin Luther King Jr. played roles in many lives, directly affecting thousands. One of them was Stanford historian Clayborne Carson, who first heard King speak during the March on Washington in 1963.
Carson now edits the civil-rights leader's papers; the first volume of King's life and works, to be published by the University of California Press, will appear in 1990. Much as he acknowledges King's influence, Carson warns against remembering the man only as an icon, turning him into "a simplistic image designed to offend no one"--as officially approved nostalgia tends to do. The risk is negation of King's real message: That each person can make a difference by working to create a better world.
King should indeed be remembered for his "I Have a Dream" speech and for leading Southern blacks on countless protest marches, acknowledges Carson, who has taught at Stanford since 1974 after years of civil-rights work in Los Angeles. "But I'd be hard-pressed to recall when I've seen segments on television of the Riverside speech or King talking about poverty or South Africa." In the 1967 speech at Riverside Church in New York City, King spoke not only of the immorality of the Vietnam War itself but also of its devastation of the hopes of the poor at home and its impact on black and white youths sent "to die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools."
Almost worse than remembering only some aspects of King's life, Carson implies, is creating a mythological image so great that individuals dare not try to do their part. "King grew out of a movement that involved lots of people, ordinary people, and his greatness is not that he caused that movement but that he rose to that occasion," Carson said in an interview in his office at Stanford's undergraduate library.
"I think it is important for young people not to have this idolatry about leaders, that somehow the people who emerge as leaders are different categories of human beings. They certainly are different, but everyone has unique qualities and what is very, very important and what I think the civil rights movement brought out were the best qualities that many people had.
"Many people, myself included, feel that that period gave us an opportunity to grow in ways that we would have never thought possible. I am absolutely sure that I would not be where I am in terms of being a professor if it had not been for that movement, that I might have achieved certain things, but it gave me a sense of possibilities that could not have existed in another climate."
Was King pushed into leadership or was he called? Can one tell from reading his papers whether he felt the movement sought him out--or that he sought it?
"King always had a strong sense of calling, a strong sense that he was destined to play a leadership role," Carson answered. "That's why he wanted to preach at a Southern black church. He could have gone and become a university professor or taken over a Northern church, but he consciously wanted to move to a Southern church. He was always very socially aware. From the earliest documents we have about him, he had a very strong social conscience, a very strong awareness of social inequities and the need to do something about them.
"He was also a leader. He was elected president of the student body at Crozer Seminary (Chester, Pa.). Other people saw him as something special and of course he was very bright. He was someone who entered college at 15 and was already out of graduate school by the time when most people may be entering."
Carson, 43, did not always hold the view of King as a daring man. In the 1960s, when Carson was a student at UCLA and active in protests locally with the Nonviolent Action Committee, he, like others of college age, viewed King as too cautious.
Later, writing his dissertation on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee--which became the book "In Struggle" (Harvard University Press)--Carson explored the SNCC view of the civil-rights movement. SNCC leaders like Robert Moses saw the movement as one with direction from the people up rather than from the leaders down, as King's organization operated.
Has Carson's view changed since Coretta Scott King selected him to edit her late husband's papers?
"I think for me as for many of the other people who would have described themselves as black militants during the 1960s, King has gotten wiser as we have gotten older. There was a degree of arrogance and maybe youthful impetuosity in our belief that somehow we could change the world through our own militancy.
"I guess that during the '60s I would have been counted among those who would be a critic of King as being too cautious and too wedded to integration and nonviolence. As time goes on, I don't think that my goals have changed that much, but I think I've become more aware of methods that are both humane and that are not counterproductive over time."