Clayborne Carson: Looking back at a legacy

Stanford historian Clayborne Carson reflects on a career dedicated to studying and preserving the legacy of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

When Stanford historian Clayborne Carson was a young college student and activist, he traveled to the nation’s capital to participate in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, one of the largest civil rights rallies in American history. As he listened to Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, little did he know then that their lives and legacies would become deeply intertwined.

History Professor Clay Carson in his office

Clayborne Carson, professor of history and director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Some two decades later, and well into his academic career at Stanford, Carson received a life-changing phone call in 1985: an invitation by Mrs. Coretta Scott King to edit the papers of her late husband, who was assassinated in 1968. Since then, Carson has dedicated his life’s work to editing the papers of Dr. King, an extraordinary effort that has culminated in seven volumes of King’s speeches, sermons, correspondence, publications and other unpublished writings. Carson has also lectured in more than a dozen countries and even collaborated on the design of the national memorial honoring Dr. King.

Now, after over four decades of service, Carson, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Centennial Professor of History and the Ronnie Lott Founding Director of The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, is retiring on Aug. 31, though he will continue to act as director of the Institute for another year.

“I sometimes wonder what I would have done if I hadn’t received the phone call, whether I would have written something that was more mine,” Carson reflected. “The best-selling book that I’ll ever publish is the Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. I can hardly take credit for piecing together his words. I’ll always know that Martin Luther King will always outsell anything I write, and his writings and speeches will be more lasting. But look, if you have to be overshadowed by somebody, it might as well be Martin Luther King.”

Preserving King’s legacy

When Mrs. King first asked Carson about editing the papers of her late husband, Carson was surprised. Initially, he was hesitant to take the project on and had many questions, including, “Why me?”

A year after naming Stanford historian Clayborne Carson to edit and publish her late husband’s papers, King Center Founding President Coretta Scott King visits the King Papers Project. (Image credit: Margo Davis, courtesy of the King Research and Education Institute)

While Carson was a scholar of the civil rights movement, his research up until that point had focused on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a civil rights organization that helped bring Black college students into the Southern freedom struggle of the 1960s. Carson had been close to SNCC as a young student at UCLA and was interested more in the ideas of younger activists of the Southern freedom struggle, such as John Lewis and Stokely Carmichael.

Still, Carson wondered – why not ask another scholar whose research already focused on King to edit his papers?

“I think the fact that I had been part of the movement made a big difference,” said Carson, who participated in other civil rights and anti-war protests after attending the March on Washington. He was affiliated with the Non-Violent Action Committee in south-central Los Angeles when rioting broke out in August 1965.

Moreover, Carson knew that the project would take many years to complete. Did he want to define his career by studying the life of one person, he recalled asking his wife, Susan. Her response: Did he want to be the person who declined an offer from Dr. King’s widow to become his editor?

After some negotiations, including ensuring that Carson could conduct the work from the Stanford campus – Mrs. King originally wanted the editor to be based at the King Library and Archives in Atlanta – Carson agreed to direct the King Papers Project.

Meticulous research

As Carson quickly discovered, the archives containing Dr. King’s work were extensive: There were hundreds of thousands of original items that, as the project’s editor, he had to analyze for their historical significance.

Adding to the challenge was the physically scattered nature of all the materials Carson needed to study. King’s original papers are housed not at Stanford but at the Boston University library, which holds more than 80 thousand documents, and the King Center in Atlanta, which houses even more papers related to King and the civil rights movement. In 2008, Atlanta’s Morehouse College acquired some ten thousand valuable and often private items that Mrs. King had kept in her home.

Carson realized that King’s papers had to be historically contextualized for readers and their relevance situated within the civil rights movement more broadly. Included in each of the seven volumes that Carson has edited so far are detailed headnotes and annotations, as well as biographical sketches, about the hundreds of individuals and groups that King interacted with in his roles as a theologian, a Baptist preacher and civil rights leader. The King Papers Project has also produced numerous other books and scholarly articles based on King’s papers.

When the project began, digitization was practically non-existent. Carson, who had worked as a computer programmer at UCLA before attending graduate school there, and Susan, a trained librarian, designed a comprehensive computer database to organize the thousands of photocopies and digital images that are now available to the King Institute.

Building and maintaining the project’s comprehensive filing system, locating, sorting and photocopying material – some of which had never been seen by anyone except Dr. King – and researching the various people and places featured within King’s papers was a huge undertaking, but Carson recruited a willing cadre of Stanford students eager to help.

“Students have always played a major role in the project,” Carson said. “One of the more rewarding aspects of editing the papers is the number of really great undergraduate and graduate students I’ve had a chance to work with.”

Some 400 Stanford students have participated in the research, according to the Institute. Another 300 or so students from other campuses across the country, such as Morehouse College and Emory University – where the project had a satellite office for over a decade – also contributed to the project, Carson said.

Carson’s research revealed some unexpected discoveries, including one unwelcome finding: King had plagiarized some of his graduate school papers. Carson found that King did not properly attribute scholarly ideas and would intersperse language from other theologians with words of his own.

When news of this finding broke, it made the front page of some of the nation’s top publications. Time magazine heralded it one of the top education stories of the year. But, after the initial flurry, Carson was relieved to see it had not overshadowed King’s impact as a champion for human rights. What King did that was more important than his contributions of a theologian was his ability to apply these ideas to social transformation, said Carson.

Creative imaginings of Dr. King

Carson is also committed to disseminating the ideas King espoused beyond the scholarly community and undertook creative endeavors.

Currently, Carson is hosting a podcast series about King and his beliefs.

Carson also wrote a dramatic production about King’s life, titled Passages of Martin Luther King, that was performed by Stanford’s Drama Department in 1993 as well as other colleges across the United States. Over the years, Stanford has hosted readings of the play with staff and faculty reciting various roles, including one performance featuring Condoleezza Rice as Coretta Scott King and former Stanford President Gerhard Casper as John F. Kennedy. The play has also been shown internationally.

Carson also collaborated with the Roma Design Group of San Francisco to design the King National Memorial in Washington, D.C., and he also served as an advisor to the King National Memorial Foundation. He has advised more than two dozen documentary films about King and the civil rights movement, including a 14-part public television series Eyes on the Prize and Freedom on My Mind, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 1995.

A new generation of scholars

When Carson joined Stanford’s history department in the fall of 1974, he was one of the first Black academics to teach at the school.

“The Black community at Stanford was much smaller than it is now,” Carson said, noting that he had not encountered many scholars of color on his academic journey – first as an undergraduate at the University of New Mexico then later at UCLA.

“I was one of these individuals who had never experienced an African American history course or encountered an African American historian of any subject before I entered graduate school. They had only just started teaching African American history when I was finishing my undergraduate studies,” Carson reflected. “So, when I started teaching, I had to create courses that I had never taken.”

Carson found role models in anthropologist James Gibbs, the first tenured African American professor at Stanford, and St. Clair Drake, the first chairperson of the African and African American Studies Program.

“They showed me how pioneering scholarship should be done and how important it was to produce publications that had significance both outside and inside the academy,” Carson said.

Advocating curriculum change

Carson was also instrumental in helping transform undergraduate education at Stanford, particularly reshaping Stanford’s Western civilization requirement to include more voices of women and minorities.

In 1987, Carson developed an experimental course, Western Culture: An Alternative View, to introduce undergraduates to a wide range of diverse viewpoints beyond the more traditional thinkers they studied in the classes for their Western civilization requirement.

“There wasn’t a syllabus that I could just pull off the shelf and say, ‘This is what you do when you want to teach an alternative perspective.’ I had to design it from scratch. It was probably one of the more challenging courses I’ve taught,” Carson reflected.

A year later in 1988, Carson worked alongside university administrators – including William Chace, the vice provost for academic planning – to transform the requirement to Culture, Ideas and Values, an early iteration of what students know today as Thinking Matters, a first-year requirement that challenges students to think critically and collaboratively about some major idea of social or academic significance.

“Professor Clayborne Carson has made tremendous contributions to Stanford as both a scholar and leader,” said Debra Satz, the Vernon R. and Lysbeth Warren Anderson Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, the Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of Ethics in Society and professor of philosophy.

“He has anchored our curriculum in the study of African American history and the U.S. civil rights movement for decades, has mentored generations of students and has done major scholarly work that shapes our understanding of the civil rights movement and its connections to global movements for human rights. By bringing the MLK Papers Project to Stanford and founding the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, he has left the university in a strong position to advance these essential studies long into the future. We are all deeply in his debt.”

Advice to other scholars

As Carson reflects on his various accomplishments, his advice to students and young scholars is to be open to new possibilities.

“Follow your heart,” Carson said. “One of the things that I am proud of is that I’ve never thought of my career as narrowly focused on a scholarly discipline. My activities outside Stanford have enriched what I can offer students. Studying King led me to travel to India to explore Gandhi’s legacy. Lecturing about King has taken me to many nations in Europe, Africa and Asia, where I’ve had the privilege to meet so many remarkable people.”