Martin Luther King Jr. scholar Clayborne Carson reflects on modern activism
The Stanford historian notes lessons on lasting change, drawn from Martin Luther King Jr.’s work and the nonviolent legacy of the civil rights movement.
Seeking to explore the guiding themes of Martin Luther King Jr.’s achievements and the civil rights movement with employees, Mark Speltz, senior historian with the Wells Fargo Family and Business History Center, spoke with Clayborne Carson, director of Stanford University’s Martin Luther King. Jr. Research and Education Institute and editor of The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Carson began his journey when he boarded a bus to participate in the March on Washington and witnessed the “I have a dream” speech in 1963. His presence in various aspects of the civil rights movement led Coretta Scott King to tap him to edit her late husband’s speeches, sermons, writings, and correspondences in 1985. Carson has now led hundreds of researchers in analysis and historical contextualization of King’s work, as founding director of the King Papers Project and in partnership with the King estate.
Curiosity fuels his ongoing scholarship. “One of the things about learning about history is that you never reach the endpoint,” Carson said, “There’s always some document that you haven't seen, some aspect that you haven't explored. It’s a fascinating world.”
In the wake of protests following George Floyd’s death, the pandemic, and the attack on the U.S. Capitol, Carson reflected on how King’s messages and visionary ideas resonate in today’s America.
How have you seen King’s legacy and his activism and the understanding of who he was and what he symbolized change over time?
One thing I found is that there was a level of continuity over time, more than change. I remember a student paper he wrote when he was in divinity school in 1948. He was responding to a professor who was asking, “What would be your mission as a minister?” He described the ideal minister as someone who would be concerned about things like unemployment, slums, economic insecurity. He didn’t mention civil rights and yet, look at what he was doing in 1968. Had he not become a civil rights leader, he still would have had that desire to change the world for the better, with what he called the social gospel ministry.
What facts about King’s approach to racial and social justice would people be interested to learn more about?
I think the major thing is that he didn’t grow up committed to nonviolence, but he became committed to nonviolence. That was a very deep-level commitment that was based on his religious principles, which were influenced by the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi. People may be interested in finding out not just who (King) influenced, but who influenced him, and the religious tradition that came out of it.
Seeing the depth of his understanding that came from his father and his grandfather and his great grandfather — they were all preachers in some way — he had a deep grounding in that notion that the preacher was someone who was a leader not just on Sunday morning, but who had broader leadership within the Black community. And that was important. That was vital.
There is this misconception that most Black ministers were activists in the struggle, but that was just definitely not the case. He was probably, especially among Baptist ministers, one of the most educated people of his generation. That’s one of the reasons why I think he was not necessarily popular among Baptist ministers. He was more educated than most. He was one who would say that going to church means you have a deeper sense of obligation to your fellow man, and not to have a sense of superiority.
What should young people start to think about when it comes to leaving their own legacies?
I don’t think the young people today who are activists need my encouragement — they’re encouraging me. The explosion of activism after George Floyd’s death, I was so impressed. In 1963, I was impressed when I saw 200,000 people at the March on Washington. Within a few days of George Floyd’s death, probably 10, 20 times that many people were involved in protests. Many of them were using social media to mobilize in ways that would have been inconceivable back in the 1960s. Now, this is a global movement. Young people are activated as never before. But that’s going to be the question: Can you convert activism into lasting change?
What advice would King give to young people who are leading that change?
I think that he would, first of all, say to try to remain nonviolent. That’s central. Anything that you gain through violence, you have to maintain through violence. Because whomever you took it from by violence, they will want to take it back. I think he understood that. We have inherited this “world house” called the Earth and we’re living on it with people of lots of different faiths, backgrounds, and races. Somehow we have to learn to live together productively and peacefully. That’s hard to do.
Another lesson is how we are interconnected. I remember reading that for a long time in human history, people never ventured more than about 20 miles from where they were born. Well, we don’t live in a world like that anymore. One of the lessons of the pandemic is that this world is very interconnected. What affects one person can affect all of us. Part of the lesson of Martin Luther King Jr., I think, is to understand that interconnectedness and see that as a strength rather than a liability.
What do you think about the diversity, equity, and inclusion work being undertaken by corporations like Wells Fargo?
Most of us are far more affected by our employment than probably any other aspect of our lives. In return for the government-given privilege of limited liability, corporations need to demonstrate some social utility.