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History Professor Clay Carson to publish King autobiography
"My life without you is like a year without a spring time which comes to give illumination and heat to the atmosphere saturated by the dark cold breeze of winter."
With those words, the 23-year-old Baptist minister launched a love note to his intended. But in the following paragraph, the romantic overture shifted to a political discussion, prompted by a book that Coretta Scott had sent to Martin Luther King Jr., then a Boston University graduate student.
"By the way (to turn to something more intellectual) I have just completed Bellamy's Looking Backward. . . . I imagine you already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic."
Excerpts of that 1952 letter from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Corretta Scott, the aspiring mezzo-soprano concert artist he had met only six months earlier, will be published for the first time in The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. Due out in November from Time Warner Books, the book is edited by Clayborne Carson, professor of history and director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project at Stanford.
"I thought it was very revealing about the early relationship between them, particularly about how their relationship was always this mixture of personal and political," Carson says about the letter.
"People tend to see Coretta Scott King in relation to her husband, as somebody who was completely in the background, but she was just as politically engaged as Martin was. When you look at the pictures of the major protests of the 1950s and '60s, she's right there by his side, leading the marches."
As a student at Antioch College, Coretta Scott was active in the peace movement and attended the 1948 Progressive Party convention.
"She was a strong Henry Wallace supporter at a time when that was not a typical thing for college students to be involved in," Carson adds. "Indeed, she was more politically active at the time they met than Martin was."
The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. is the latest product of Carson's long-term effort to assemble and publish King's most significant papers. He began his monumental work on King in 1985, when Coretta Scott King telephoned him from Atlanta on a January evening to ask if he would consider heading up the Papers Project. Since then, he has edited three volumes of King's correspondence, sermons, speeches and published writings, from his early life through the 1956 Montgomery boycotts. The fourth of 11 projected volumes, which covers events in 1957 and 1958, is due out next year.
King's papers prior to 1962 are housed at Boston University, but the remainder of his lifework is at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta and also scattered among 200 archives worldwide. Carson has now photocopied all of the documents that relate to King's public life and also has had unprecedented access to his widow's personal papers.
"There's not a lot that Martin wrote about his relationship with Coretta, but I knew I needed to have something which would convey the depth of the relationship," Carson says. "That's why I went to her and urged her to allow me to use one of his early letters to her."
The excerpt of the 1952 letter that will be published next month follows an earlier note in which King tried to overcome Coretta's reluctance to stay a few days with the King family in Atlanta when she returned from Boston to her parents' home in Alabama.
"They had been courting for only five or six months, and he wanted to marry her, but she was holding back," Carson says. "So in a previous letter he had gotten really angry at her and threatened to call off the engagement.
"As a result, she wrote a letter that mollified him, agreeing to go to Atlanta, and she also sent him the Bellamy book. In the letter I've included in the book, he is affirming their relationship, and what you see is a reaffirmation of both their love and their common political commitment."
In the letter, King tells Coretta how capitalism has "out-lived its usefulness," and that "like most human systems it fell victim to the very thing it was revolting against." Bellamy's emphasis on evolutionary rather than revolutionary change, King adds, "is the most sane and ethical way for social change to take place."
Carson says he has been impressed by way in which the letters he wrote to Coretta reveal King as a multi-faceted individual who could get angry and who was aware of his own limitations and vulnerability. The 1952 letter, in particular, gave him yet another insight into the couple's relationship: "How many young people in love today would be sending each other books on Edward Bellamy's ideas about socialism?"
Carson has been working on the King autobiography for the past two years, drawing on interviews, sermons and speeches to tell the story of the civil rights leader's life in his own words. With two Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies of King already in circulation - David J. Garrow's 1986 Bearing the Cross and Taylor Branch's 1988 Parting the Waters - Carson says he had to take a different approach.
"I like the idea of doing something unique," he says. "There may be other biographies, but the autobiography has not been done before, and will never be done again. I became convinced, after studying King's papers for more than 13 years, that he wrote his autobiography, but that these autobiographical writings were dispersed among the several hundred thousand documents that comprise his papers. I knew that King's papers illuminated his childhood, his academic experiences and every significant episode of his public life."
"My task, therefore, was not to create an autobiography but to assemble King's dispersed autobiographical writings into a coherent narrative. My resulting edited work is King's autobiography in every sense that is, a comprehensive narrative of his life written by him and enriched by his reflections about the meaning of his life."
Also included in Carson's new book is a letter King wrote to his wife in 1960 from Georgia's Reidsville State Prison. The King Estate has made the letter available to scholars in the past, but it has not been published previously.
King writes about being arrested for a minor traffic violation, and then being transferred from the DeKalb County jail to the state prison at 4 a.m. He assures Coretta that "it is extremely difficult for me to think of being away from you and my [children] Yoki and Marty for four months," but adds that "this is the cross that we must bear for the freedom of our people."
"It's from a crucial historical episode," Carson says. "When [Robert] Kennedy intervened on King's behalf, to get his release, that helped to determine the outcome of the presidential election in 1960."
In addition to its historical interest, Carson says King's letter from prison also adds to the personal portrait he is painting, as an editor, in the new autobiography.
"What I sensed in the letter was that combination of the political and personal, the way in which it conveys the impact of Martin's action on Coretta, who was pregnant at the time. The letter demonstrates the mutual involvement of the two in the civil rights struggle."
By Diane Manuel