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King's roots in black community explored in new book
STANFORD - A firm sense of his roots in the black community, paradoxically, allowed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to break with tradition when necessary, according to a Stanford University historian.
"Being black was not problematic for King," said history Prof. Clayborne Carson, director and senior editor with the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project. "He grew up in a black community, was educated in black institutions and had an enormous variety of positive role models in his community. He knew he was accepted and respected in the black community."
King's roots are explored in the first volume of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Called to Serve, January 1929-June 1951, which is being published this month by the University of California Press.
The volume on King's youth makes it clear that his emergence as a national figure was not accidental, Carson said.
King's family had been associated with Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church almost from its beginnings. His grandfather, A.D. Williams, became its pastor in 1894, soon after it was founded; King was its pastor at the time of his death in 1968.
In addition, the King family had lived in the same area of Atlanta since the 1890s and King, like his father and grandfather, attended Morehouse College in Atlanta.
So when King emerged as a leader during the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, Carson said, he could immediately connect with the national Baptist network.
In an essay in his recently published book Malcolm X: The FBI File, Carson compared the two African American leaders.
"King, the integrationist, is firmly rooted in black culture and society, while Malcolm, the black nationalist, grew up in an integrated community and went to predominantly white schools," Carson said. "I think that suggests that his nationalism was a response to the negative aspects of his own formative experiences."
King never thought about the kind of break with the past made by Malcolm Little when he joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name, Carson said.
"King saw the institutions, particularly the religious institutions, of the black community, not as something to reject or break away from, but rather as something to build upon," Carson said. "Because he was an insider, he could take the church in a new direction. While Malcolm was on the outside criticizing, King could be on the inside, reshaping."
King and Malcolm, Carson said, "reflected the diverse needs within the black community for leaders who expressed both the optimism and the pessimism, both the successes and the failures of the American dream."
The King Papers Project was initiated in 1984 to collect and annotate King's most significant correspondence, sermons, published statements, published writings and unpublished manuscripts. The project is sponsored by the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, and is conducted there and at Stanford and Emory universities.
The projected 14-volume series, Carson said, will provide "a definitive foundation for King studies in the future."
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