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Carson on Carson

Although Clayborne Carson's passion for what he calls the modern African American freedom struggle is more than three decades deep, bringing the movement alive in the university classroom was the furthest thing from his mind in 1967.

Fresh out of UCLA with a bachelor's degree in Latin American history, Carson ­ now a history professor and senior editor of the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project ­ was a man with no clear direction, his livelihood garnered from taxi fares and tips.

"All I knew was the draft was after me," he said during a recent talk at Memorial Church. The Jan. 29 gathering was part of the lecture series "What Matters to Me and Why," in which faculty members have an opportunity to share their personal beliefs.

Back then, Carson thought the best course of action was to leave the United States and not come back. He and his wife, Susan, took off from Los Angeles with all their possessions in their backpacks. But Susan became ill, and like in a classic nightmare, the couple ended up back where they had started. Carson landed a job as a computer programmer in UCLA's Survey Research Center, where he worked on a program for a history professor. The job piqued his interest in the field.

Carson got a student deferment from the draft and entered graduate school at UCLA. He wrote his dissertation on the civil rights movement, something he knew about intimately. At 19, Carson had hitched a ride from Indiana to the nation's capital to participate in the 1963 March on Washington and from then on was involved in the struggle.

"One of the issues that I've dealt with in my scholarly career is that merging of the personal and the political and the academic," Carson said. "'Objectivity' to me means coming to that subject matter with some kind of sense of fairness and restraint. But also, the reason I am doing the kind of history I do [results from] my own personal life and the choices that I've made. One of the things that makes my history different from other people doing history is that they deal with people who are dead. I deal with people who can call me on the phone and say, 'I didn't like that last article that you wrote.' "

Carson says he once thought of himself as an activist who did some writing, but now he sees himself as a writer who "sometimes does activism." While he acknowledged that the change of focus might be a function of age, he speculated that a "stronger protest movement out there" might propel him into activist mode again.

For the time being his activism comes in the form of helping a new generation explore the question that has driven his scholarship for three decades: How do oppressed people living in conditions beyond their control improve their lives?

"I hope and certainly expect that the work that we are doing in Cypress Hall will lead to the establishment of a permanent institution here at Stanford where students can go and study about this issue that has driven my life," he said. "How did African American people survive and thrive in a situation where they were oppressed, did not have a great deal of resources, but innovatively developed ways of responding to their oppression in a positive fashion?"

Carson acknowledged that the goals of the King Papers Project could be accomplished much more efficiently with a small professional staff rather than students. But that would miss the point. "I've always felt the project should be something like the movement. We worked with the resources that we had. That's the way the project should be done. We try to involve as many people as possible and we try to do it through a process that makes sense. That reflects King's spirit," he said.

Carson added that poring over pages of religious texts as editor of the project has helped bring clarity to his own beliefs. He described himself as a "religious cynic. That is, an agnosticism that has come through a great deal of struggle with my [Baptist] background." Carson said he had rebelled against what he characterized as a European version of Christianity, imposed on the rest of the world as salvation. "I see in King a quite different notion," he said. Carson noted that in the "dozens and dozens" of King sermons he has read, not once did the late civil rights leader evangelize. "He was a systematic theologian, but his message was not 'I have developed the correct theology for you.' What he says is that Christianity has a message that can help make your life better by changing the world."

Asked to imagine what might have happened if King were alive today, Carson said the consistency of King's beliefs suggested that he still would be pushing for racial and economic justice. He offered examples of King's early moral commitment ­ a letter protesting racial murders in Georgia that King wrote to the Atlanta Constitution at age 15, and King's own description of himself as an anti-capitalist as early as age 20.

Carson said that King, like most long-term activists he has known, had the "impulse" to participate long before he developed a deeper ideology and long before an opportunity to express that impulse presented itself. With that kind of consistency, Carson added, "It seems to me almost inconceivable that he would be a burned-out activist who somehow in his old age discovered conservative verities and decided that the Establishment is great."


By Elaine Ray