Beaten by police during the Watts Riots in 1965, Stanford’s Clayborne Carson says things are improving, but not fast enough

Clayborne Carson, director of the The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, speaking on the Stanford campus in 2018. (Photo by Charles Russo)

The killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers continues to incite mass demonstrations around the nation. As these turbulent protests surface in a multitude of cities throughout the U.S., our national political leadership is sadly adrift, glaringly oblivious to the core issue at hand.

So eager for a bit of poised insight and longterm context surrounding these recent events, we reached out to Stanford historian Clayborne Carson. An activist and Civil Rights demonstrator himself, Carson was in Los Angeles during the Watts Riots of 1965, which were predicated on all-too-familiar circumstances tragically similar to our present situation more than 50 years later. (The riots lasted more than six days and Carson himself was beaten by police during that time period.)

In 1985, Carson had been specifically chosen by Coretta Scott King to pull together Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s papers and archives into a comprehensive and official collection (which ran seven volumes). Later, the project evolved into The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute on the Stanford campus, where Carson continues to expand upon Dr. King’s legacy and issues of human rights.

With this historical relevance on our minds, we caught up with Carson briefly over the phone today for some much-needed clarity and historical perspective.

Center to right: Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Martin Luther King Jr. & Rev. James Lawson annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference staff workshop Penn Center, Frogmore, SC, 1966. (Used with permission from the Bob Fitch Photography Archive © Department of Special Collections, Stanford University.)

So it’s the Monday after a turbulent weekend of protests stemming from the death of George Floyd, and not to saddle you with too broad of a question here to start, but I’m just curious what’s foremost on your mind right now after the past few days?

Well I’m very pleased that thousands of people across the nation have protested against this pattern of police abuse against black Americans. And I think that it shows that people of all races were deeply affected by what they saw, and also what they’ve seen since the invention of cell phone cameras. So I think this is overdue and that it is very encouraging.

I think it’s unfortunate that millions of people that protested peacefully will get somewhat overshadowed by the violence of a few people who have used the protest as a cover for looting and other things that have nothing to do with the issue. But that too is understandable in the broader context of the economic inequities in our society.

The LA Times quoted a woman who said: “I was here for Rodney King…nothing has changed.” And I can imagine back in ’92 someone having the same sentiments about the timespan since the Watts Riots which occurred in ’65. So as someone who has experienced all of these events, do you see any genuine progress between those generational moments of upheaval or is there just an overarching stagnation that remains?

Obviously someone my age can see evidence of progress.

I was in Watts in ’65 and one of the major differences was that the police were using real bullets then, not rubber bullets. I don’t think I had ever heard of a rubber bullet back in 1965. And 34 people were killed that weekend. And I was badly beaten up by the police.

So I can look and see that police are acting with a greater deal of restraint and making it clear that the normal process of policing values lives more than property, and that’s the way it should be (…even though our President doesn’t seem to agree with that). I think that that’s evidence that policing may have gotten slightly better since those days, when I could get harassed and beat up without any consequences. Today there’s more likely to be at least some consequence—in part because someone is likely to be filming it and putting it on Facebook—but back in 1965 it was just police testimony against unarmed people and all of those 34 deaths were deemed “justifiable homicides.” That’s actually the official term—justifiable homicide.

But if you think about it: in 50 years, is that the measure of progress? That we’ve moved from lead bullets to rubber bullets? And that there is an occasional investigation rather than a quick judgement that homicide was justifiable? Only someone my age can see that as evidence of progress.

Carson speaking with a conference attendee on the Stanford campus in 2018. (Photo by Charles Russo)

So, I had to look it up, because I knew the quote but I didn’t realize that it was JFK who said: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” In that regard, I’ve been thinking about that quote a lot this weekend in relation to Colin Kaepernick trying to spark a national dialogue about police brutality a few years ago…and now we’re watching American cities burning this weekend. So I’m curious if you have any thoughts on how we can get to making progress by having a national dialogue rather than this kind of unrest?

It’s difficult in this country. We have a history of violence. One of the things I did last week was just look at the statistics of law enforcement killings. There were over 800 in the United States and 3 in Great Britain. And Great Britain is a multi-racial country with its share of crime. In many countries, the number is zero; they get through the year without their policemen killing a single person. So there has to be something about American history. And as a historian, I know a lot about that history and it’s a history of violence. We think of ourselves as a peaceful country but probably no other country has had such a violent internal history and [external history] towards others.

It’s partly what I think is the irony of American history…that we were a country born on the idea of human rights—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—and from day one it has been a history of killing millions of people and killing each other. It’s a country that routinely takes away life and liberty (we have the largest incarceration rate in the world). So there’s a lot of irony: it’s a land of opportunity, but more opportunity for some than for others.

I would hope that this will allow people to recognize that the events of the last few days are shocking, but they’re not shocking to anyone who understands American history.

Martin Luther King Jr., Atlanta, GA; Southern Christian Leadership Conference office, 1966. (Used with permission from the Bob Fitch Photography Archive © Department of Special Collections, Stanford University.)

The last time we spoke, you said you were encouraged by the modern social justice movements of our era but you believed that Dr. King would have found it important to identify the inter-connectedness of various struggles. Do you see that as applicable right now or is this moment specifically about addressing police brutality and racial inequality?

Yeah, I look on television and see people of all races marching together. The encouragement is that people see past their own repression and recognize that other people have their own sense of being oppressed.

So I think we’ve come a long way in understanding that the route to human rights is a very difficult one. As I said, we’re a country founded on a human rights principle, yet we’re also founded on domination and submission. And that’s the dilemma of American history. How do you reconcile those two different versions of American history? I think we’re still working that out.

The killing of Mr. Floyd…this is a pattern. When does the pattern stop? When do we get to the point where the United States has no police killings during the calendar year? When will we have policing that’s respectful? And this is the 21st Century.

One of Dr. King’s most famous quotes is that “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Right now in America…that arc is feeling exceptionally long. How do you think he would encourage people away from despair and mobilize them towards progress and optimism?

I really think that human rights is a very difficult project…How do we make up for past injustice? It’s a difficult question and all of us face it. It’s a sense that all of us should feel some obligation to make the world better than when we came into it. And that’s all we can really do.

I think that there are more people now who kind of understand that. And one of the reasons that they get it is that protests like what happened in the last few days remind them that the world is not ok. The coronavirus has exposed all of the inequities that are with us every day. The things that were tolerable before that become intolerable or deadly when you add a pandemic.

So I would just hope that we try to do what we can with what we have. And that notion that “the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice”…that’s the hope: that it bends towards justice. But the question that we have to resolve is how quickly does it bend and how many people have to die before we get to that ideal.

Learn more about the The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.

Front row, from left: Willie Ricks (Carmichael aide), Bernard Lee (Martin Luther King Jr. aide) Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael, Andy Young, Hosea Williams, Meredith March Against Fear, 1966. (Used with permission from the Bob Fitch Photography Archive © Department of Special Collections, Stanford University.)

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Charles Russo

Award-winning writer and photographer with extensive experience across mediums, including videography, investigative reporting, editing, advanced research, and a wide range of photography.

Author of Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America; represented by Levine Greenberg Rostan Agency.

Freelance clients include Google, VICE and Stanford University.

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