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Making the Dream a Reality

An Exclusive Interview with Clayborne Carson

Edwin Buggage | 1/11/2016, 8:36 p.m. | Updated on 1/11/2016, 8:36 p.m.
Clayborne Carson is a scholar activist who’s dedicated his life to chronicling the history of the Civil Rights Movement in ...
Clayborne Carson

A Life Dedicated to Chronicling the History of Civil Rights

Clayborne Carson is a scholar activist who’s dedicated his life to chronicling the history of the Civil Rights Movement in America. For the last four decades as a Professor of History at Stanford University he’s been one of the preeminent scholars shedding light on the movement that changed the lives of African- Americans and impacted future global struggles for freedom, justice and equality. He is the author of several books: In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (1981); Malcolm X: The FBI File (1991); African-American Lives: The Struggle for Freedom (2005, co-author); and a memoir, Martin's Dream: My Journey and the Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. (2013). He’s also served as a senior advisor to the award-winning documentary Eyes on the Prize and other surrounding issues of race and inequality across the globe.

In 1985 the late Coretta Scott King invited Dr. Carson to direct a long-term project to edit and publish the King's speeches, sermons, correspondence, publications, and unpublished writers. Under Carson’s direction, the King Papers Project has produced seven volumes of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. In 2005 Carson founded the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute to endow and expand the work of the King Papers Project.

“Mrs. King contacted me unexpectedly by phone one evening. We talked about the life and work of Dr. King and had a number of meetings and she decided to choose me as the editor of the King Papers,” Clayborne says of how he came to edit the King Papers. Continuing he says speaking of how he wanted to proceed to tell the story of the freedom struggle in a more holistic way, in what he calls bottom up history. He feels that re-framing the story of the movement is essential in telling the whole story. “When I took on the project I had to ask myself what did King supply to the movement. And I think he was the visionary of the movement. But it required people like Ella Baker, Fred Shuttlesworth and the young people of SNCC and many others. I think they were more significant at the grassroots level, but they were all interconnected parts which was the goal and that was freedom and equal opportunities for African-Americans.”

When we met Carson was in Paris speaking on the 50th Anniversary of Dr. King speaking at the American Church in Paris. Even then King placed the struggle of African-Americans on the global stage, as it was aligned with the fight for independence happening on an international scale.

“He talked about issues like social justice and placed the issues of the movement in a global framework; tying it to the Anti-Colonial Movements around the world and that allowed him to express ideas that still has a lot of relevance today.”

Achieving the Dream By Any Means Necessary

Carson, whose written books on both Dr. King and Malcolm X, says while both men were portrayed as polar opposites in the press at the time, he feels they were very similar and feels if both men’s lives were not cut short by an assassin’s bullet their ideas would have merged and perhaps took the movement in a different direction.