Talking with King archivist and Stanford historian Clayborne Carson about our perception of MLK’s legacy and the dangers of “purposeful amnesia”
(Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in April of 2018.)
This month marks 50 years since the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
It can be a peculiar anniversary to reflect upon, as it teeters between the unjust tragedy of King’s death and the resonant hopefulness of his legacy. Even still, the commemoration arrives at a timely moment. As new waves of activism surface across social spectrums, King’s life and his work seem as relevant and as urgent as ever.
Interestingly enough, the Peninsula has some unique and notable connections to the Civil Rights icon. By our count, King gave three different speeches here. In 1964, he spoke to an interfaith rally at the Cow Palace, and then addressed the Stanford community that same year in the Memorial Auditorium. Later, in April of 1967, during the final year of his life, King returned to Stanford to deliver a speech that has come to be known as “The Other America,” in which he spoke to the stark disparity of social realities within the nation, as well as his late life emphasis on combating poverty, militarism and racism.
Stanford also houses King’s papers and archives at the The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. Its director, historian Clayborne Carson, was chosen by Coretta Scott King to head the project, which he has overseen for more than three decades now.
We spoke with Dr. Carson (during his busy preparations for the upcoming commemoration events on the Stanford Campus and in East Palo Alto) to discuss the nuance of King’s legacy, his relationship to modern struggles and the relevance of his 1967 speech at Stanford.
In thinking of current events, I’m curious how you view the modern social movements—Never Again, Black Lives Matter, Time’s Up—in terms of the legacy of Dr. King and his efforts more than a half-century ago?
I think that any time you see activism on behalf of social justice ideals, it is very encouraging. And I want to be as supporting as I can. I think the only hesitation I have is that contemporary movements focus on single issues, and I think we can only make breakthroughs when you begin to connect these issues to larger concerns, like global human rights and social justice, and realize that there are connections that you’ll need in order to build a movement that is really capable of changing large-scale inequalities and injustices.
So, it’s good to focus on these issues — guns, police shooting of unarmed black people—but I think MLK would say, “What is the connection there? What is likely to bring together Black Lives Matter, the movement on behalf of the DACA kids and Me Too?” If you look at all the people who are concerned of various facets of the social problems that are afflicting us in the 21st Century there are linkages that tie together these problems and can tie together the movements to address these problems. And I think it’s up to people involved to try to not narrow their focus, to try to see where you can build alliances, to see where you can make connections: What is the tie between the way we treat poor people and the way we treat immigrants? Once we begin to see that, we realize that the problem is much bigger, but also the movement to address the problem can expand.
I have heard you talk in the past about how Dr. King was viewed differently before and after 1965 in terms of popular perception, and I’m wondering if what you’re speaking to now plays into how his perspective expanded to a much wider scope over time?
Exactly. That represents the movement from a focus on Civil Rights, or Citizenship Rights, to a broader concern with human rights on a global scale. Martin Luther King was always a visionary on a global scale, when you go back and look he is always talking about not just what is going on in the United States, but throughout world. He is talking about how the problem of Civil Rights is linked to issues of economic opportunity. And he’s not alone in that — LBJ’s Great Society was kind of based around that idea. But oftentimes our energy as activists gets focused entirely on a single aspect of the problem. And that’s what brings people in to any kind of struggle.
In Montgomery they were concerned about getting a better seat on the bus, and it’s only gradually that you begin to see that it’s not just that. And that is the role of a leader like Martin Luther King, he can remind people that it’s not just about a better seat on the bus, it’s not just about a seat at the lunch counter, it is a struggle to bring about a better world. That is what his Riverside speech was all about—how was the war in Vietnam connected to the problems in America? And that is why they call him a visionary.
In that sense, I wonder if there is a danger of Dr. King’s legacy being reduced to a historical soundbite? Because I always hear those same lines from his “I Have a Dream” speech, but I almost never hear about his viewpoint against militarism. So have we lost the nuance for how his perspective expanded over time?
Well it’s easier to applaud King as a historic figure when you say that he accomplished something. I think that the reason we have a King holiday is not because he was addressing the problem of poverty, because we haven’t had our heroic figure with respect to poverty, so you focus on the things that he was able to achieve during his lifetime and that’s great enough.
But you have to realize that the week after the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, he was headed to Watts to deal with the economic problems of the urban areas of the country, and then a few years later he is addressing the war in Vietnam and launching a poor people’s campaign. So, I think it is almost purposeful amnesia to forget that in his last years he was talking about the unfinished dream.
With regards to his Stanford speech, there seems to be a tremendous relevance to it in terms of him speaking on the notion of two Americas.
That to me is why the speech is important—the issues he addresses in that speech ,and the speeches he was giving around that time, are still with us today. We are still dealing with economic inequality and wars that never end.
Also, you see him not just getting up to get the applause of a crowd, I think he was trying to get students to be concerned. It would have been easy at that time for him to come on the Stanford campus and simply talk about the war because that was a pressing issue for a lot of students at that time, but instead he said “you also have to be concerned about poverty, and what’s happening across the freeway.”
The Six Fifty produced a feature article on the Bob Fitch Archive, which you can view here: Remarkable (and rare) images of Martin Luther King Jr. and other Civil Rights leaders
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