Stanford historian and Martin Luther King Jr. scholar Clayborne Carson offers a personal perspective on King's legacy

In his new memoir, Martin's Dream, Stanford historian Clayborne Carson recounts his personal journey from a young civil rights activist to preeminent Martin Luther King Jr. scholar.

Mesut Dogan / Martin Luther King Jr. Monument in Washington DC, at night.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Monument in Washington D.C., at night. The most memorable section of the civil rights leader's 'I Have a Dream' speech was an extemporaneous addition, prompted by the enthusiastic response he was receiving from his audience.

Stanford historian Clayborne Carson has been researching and documenting the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. for nearly three decades.

From Carson's trip to Washington, D.C., in 1963 to hear King give his famous "I Have a Dream" speech to his personal relationships with members of the King family, Carson's involvement with the American civil rights movement has been much more than an academic pursuit.

In 1985, Coretta Scott King asked Carson to edit and publish her late husband's papers. Carson subsequently founded the King Papers Project, which is producing the definitive record of King's writings, from speeches and sermons to personal correspondence and unpublished manuscripts.

Drawing from his personal journals and records, Carson offers a personal and candid account of his evolution from political activist into a self-described "activist scholar" in his new book Martin's Dream.

In a conversation with Corrie Goldman of the Stanford Humanities Center, Carson talked about the book and his experiences.


After so many years chronicling King's life, what was the most challenging part of writing about your own experiences?

Although much of my career has been spent assembling the documentary records of King's life, I found it difficult at times to find the documents relating to my own activities as King's editor. The King Papers Project's records were not as well organized as the King Papers, but fortunately my notes and correspondence were stored in boxes. In recalling my own activism, I relied on the fact that I wrote many journalistic articles in the 1960s, and kept a journal at times. My thousands of photographs and recorded interviews also proved very useful.

L.A. CiceroClayborne Carson portrait

Clayborne Carson, professor of history and founder of the King Papers Project.

You were a 19-year-old black student from a working-class family in New Mexico when you decided to go to D.C. to see King speak in 1963. What were your impressions of King then, and what compelled you to hitch a ride across the country?

I was intensely attracted to the civil rights activism of the early 1960s and eagerly took advantage of the opportunity to attend the march shortly after attending a student conference at Indiana University. Although I wanted to see King's concluding remarks, I was also drawn to the younger activists in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

In 1965, while you were a UCLA student and part-time activist, you witnessed a mass uprising in Los Angeles that you say "revealed the limits of civil rights progress." How did that experience alter your trajectory as an activist?

The event that my activist friends called the Watts Rebellion reaffirmed my sense that the black struggle was about more than civil rights reform. I remain convinced that our struggle was part of an ongoing global struggle for social justice as well as human rights. I believe that King had a similar vision.

What motivated you to develop your involvement in activism and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee into an academic endeavor?

My decision to become a historian resulted from my earlier decision to write about the African American freedom struggle. Going to graduate school became a way to move from being a poorly paid freelance journalist to becoming a somewhat better paid – and more skilled – academic. I've managed to keep the secret – until now at least – that I would do what I'm doing even if I didn't get paid.

You were a professor of history at Stanford in 1985 when Coretta Scott King entrusted you with her late husband's papers. What did it feel like to realize that you would be responsible for the canonization of King's legacy?

​I was surprised when she asked me, because I had always focused on the grassroots, bottom-up dimension of the freedom struggle rather than King's leadership role. I feel some ambivalence about focusing even more attention on King, given that I believe that people like Rosa Parks made it possible for King to display his singular leadership qualities. The movement would have happened even without King. Without the movement, King would have been an articulate, activist Baptist minister with no holiday named after him.

Are there any conflicts of interest between being an "activist scholar" and being a historian?

[After starting work on the King Papers Project] I continued to divide my time writing for other scholars and writing for more diverse audiences, including activists seeking guidance and students at the high school level. I believe that each type of writing ultimately enriches and enlivens the other types.

Through the course of your research you have had conversations with many key African American civil rights activists, including dedicated organizers such as Ella Baker and Bob Moses. How did you choose which anecdotes to detail in Martin's Dream?

It was difficult to decide what to include. It was painful, for example, to cut a chapter about my experiences in India, including the overseas seminar I taught there and the official congressional delegation I participated in to commemorate the 50th anniversary of King's trip to India. I suspect I could write another memoir with all the material I had to leave out.

In the introduction to Martin's Dream you write that you will "likely spend more years studying King's life than he spent living it." What moments during the course of your research have given you the most clarity about who King was, flaws and all?

Certainly my most important new discoveries about King have come from the large quantity of materials I found during the 1990s in the home he had once shared with Mrs. Coretta King. She had always described these papers to me as "personal" and of no historical value, in part because many of them concerned his career as a preacher rather than as a civil rights leader. But these documents have provided many revealing new insights regarding King's spiritual and intellectual life. I also uncovered the politically infused love letters he wrote to Coretta when they were courting in the early 1950s.

Your work on The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. and in-depth familiarity with King's papers have allowed you to see the March on Washington through his eyes. What would people be surprised to learn about King's perspective?

Many people would be surprised that King's prepared remarks did not include any reference to his dream. The most memorable section of his most famous speech was an extemporaneous extension of his speech – prompted, he recalled, by the enthusiastic response he was receiving from the audience.

In addition to your scholarly publications you wrote the play Passages of Martin Luther King, which has been performed in places like China and the Middle East. What inspired you to transform King's story into a dramatic performance?

I've always wanted to write more than historical scholarship, and the play served as a way to bring my research to people who would never even know of the existence of our multi-volume edition of The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr. I also have welcomed and learned much from these opportunities to introduce King to other cultures and to work with very talented, dedicated artists.

Knowing King's work as intimately as you do, what messages do you think he would want to impress upon Americans today?

He would want people to know that his Dream was still unfulfilled at the end of his life and remains unrealized even now. He would be a persistent critic of any nation – and any president – that tolerated extensive poverty and continued to waste precious human and material resources on war.

For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit the Human Experience.

Corrie Goldman, director of humanities communication: (650) 724-8156,

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965,