Exclusive Interview with Historian Dr Clayborne Carson - Part I

28 Jun 2009


Clayborne Carson spent his university years involved in the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam war protests. He earned his B.A. in 1967, M.A in 1971 and Ph.D in 1975 from University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). In 1985, Mrs. Coretta Scott King asked him to establish the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project. As founding Director Carson oversees the compiling and editing of 14 volumes of Dr. King''s sermons, correspondence and unpublished writings. He has also published works outside of the Papers Project based on King’s writings, such as the Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., 1998 (the recording of this book was awarded a Grammy award later in 1999 as the best documentary CD). Many of Carson’s publications have been translated into other languages.

Dr. Carson is currently professor of history at Stanford University, where he is also founding director of the King Research and Education Institute. In 2005, the professor created the King Institute''s enormously popular website , which appeals to a diverse, global audience.  In addition Carson is the King Distinguished Professor at Morehouse College, where he also serves as Executive Director of the Morehouse King Collection.  Dr.  Carson was senior adviser for the remarkable award-winning public television series, Eyes on the Prize:  America at the racial crossroads –1965-1985, a 14-hour PBS video (1989).  He served as historical advisor for the Oscar nominated documentary Freedom on my mind (1994). Dr. Carson''s publications shed expert light on African American protest movements and political thought during the post-World War II period. His work has appeared in many leading historical journals and numerous encyclopedias, as well as in popular periodicals. His first book, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s, a study of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was published in 1981 and won the Frederick Jackson Turner Award of the Organization of American Historians.

Dr.  Carson is regularly invited to appear on several notable shows such as The Charlie Rose Show, Tavis Smiley Show, Fresh Air, Goodmorning America, CBS Evening News, and others.  We spoke to Dr. Carson, the 30th of March 2009, who graciously shared his expertise in history with us.  By the freelance reporter and legist Patricia Turnier, LL.M 

Patricia Turnier, LL.M. talks to Dr. Clayborne Carson, Ph.D:

P.T.:  Your fascination for history started with the beginning of the civil rights movement.  Can you tell us more about this passion?

Dr.  C.C.:  As a child I enjoyed reading history books even though at the time I wasn’t thinking about becoming an historian.  I loved to read not only about African American history, but also the history of the world.  I remember reading about the early settlers in this country.  As a teenager, I read the classics of Richard Wright such as Black Boy and Native Son. When I began college, I studied Latin American history and majored in this field.  I was fascinated by Brazil, a multicultural society, as an undergraduate.  Not until I graduated did I have a special interest in African American history.  By that time, I was involved in the African American freedom struggle.  So, I became more interested in recent African American history. I didn’t think about becoming an historian of the civil rights movement because it seemed so recent to me.  I always considered history as something far back in the past.  So, I never really considered studying the period that I lived through.  But one of my professors reminded me that I had written many articles as a journalist during the 1960’s.  He suggested that I write a dissertation about the civil rights movement. I really didn’t consider this a possibility.  I even asked my professor if it was really history.  So, I wrote a dissertation about the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  The title of my thesis was “Toward freedom and community”.  In graduate school, I realized that African American history was the area which interested me the most.  I loved to write about how oppressed people were fighting for freedom.

P.T.:  As an historian, do you think that there really is a difference between the left wing and the right wing regarding the interests of Black America or is it an illusion?  For example, we tend to forget that the abolitionist Abraham Lincoln was a republican.  From that period until the 1930s (during the Roosevelt era) Black America voted for the Republicans most of the time.  Now, 90% of Black America votes for the Democrats.  How do you explain this historical shift since the 1930s and what is your opinion about the two parties regarding the defense of civil rights and economic justice concerning Black America?

Dr.  C.C.: Well, I think what changed is not Black America but the party.  During the era of Abraham Lincoln, his party used its power to free the slaves.  For Black America, the Republican Party was the party of Lincoln.   Black Americans thought in the 19th century that the Republicans were looking out for their interests so they voted for this party from the time of the reconstruction era. After 1930, the African Americans believed in the New Deal with its social and economical reforms.  This is how the allegiance shift happened.  During the 1930s, it appeared to Black Americans that the Democrats would be more effective in dealing with the crisis of that time.  So, the African Americans changed their allegiance.  They believed in the programs offered by the Roosevelt party:  minimum wages, social security, etc.  This faith became stronger in the 1960s with the civil rights legislation of the Kennedy and Johnson years.  The Democratic Party showed that it was a stronger force for social justice.  So, African Americans historically supported the party that would make their lives better.

When Lyndon Johnson was able to pass the civil rights act of 1964 and the voting act of 1965, I think from that point on at least 80% of Black voters chose the Democrats. At that time the Republican Party didn’t demonstrate a concrete will to change things for the African Americans.  They supported the Southern segregationists with their right wing ideology, so it would have been difficult for Black America to endorse them.  The former US president Lyndon Johnson was responsible for designing legislation that included civil rights laws, Medicare, Medicaid, aid to education and the “War on poverty”.  In the 1960s president Johnson was a positive force for social justice. The opposing candidate in the 1964 election, the Republican Barry Goldwater, was adamantly opposed to the civil rights bills. Thus, with time, the Republican party became more right wing, more conservative.  However, it was possible at that time to find progressive people in the Republican Party.  For example, people like Nelson Rockefeller were for the civil rights.  They encouraged civil rights reforms, but they were a minority.  So, I believe throughout history that Black America’s allegiance was always giving support to the party which would best defend their interests.

P.T.:  Dr. Clayborne Carson, you devoted your professional life to the study of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the movements King inspired. You were 19 years old when you listened to one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century, « I have a dream », the 28th of August 1963 in Washington, D.C.  Can you tell us about this event and share with us what it meant to you?

Dr.  C.C.: I was 19 at the time.  It was one of the most exciting events I had ever attended by myself  And it was my first time in Washington, D.C.  I see this event as a turning point in my life.  It allowed me to decide for myself what I wanted to do politically.  I was able to identify with this very exciting movement developing in the South.  Actually, I was not a Southerner, I grew up in New Mexico.  When I read articles about the protests which were going on, I could identify with the protesters; many of them were my age so I wanted to be part of it.  Going to the march was my way of being part of that movement.  I made longtime friends from that moment such as Stokely Carmichael who became the head of the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee, Bob Moses who was one of the leaders of the voting rights campaign in Mississippi.  I met people like that.  I admire them very much, as much as MLK.  I saw Dr. King from a distance.  I never was able to speak to him personally.  He was on a pedestal and I admired him, but people like Moses and Carmichael were models in my personal life.  They were closer to my own age and it was easier for me to identity with them.  I imagined myself becoming one of them.

P.T.:  But how did you feel when you heard the famous speech the 28th of August 1963?

Dr.  C.C.:  I was very impressed with the size of the crowd.  There were 250 000 people.  As I said before, it was my first time in Washington, D.C.  I never went to the Lincoln Memorial, so everything was impressive to me.  This might surprise you but at the time King’s speech was to me just another speech.  It is only later that I realized I was there when Dr. King gave a speech considered as one of the most important in the 20th century.  I heard this speech so many times afterwards that it is difficult for me to remember how I felt the first time.  When I heard Dr. MLK that day, I wasn’t very familiar with people giving speeches so I could not compare.  I had never before heard Dr. King, so, I could not know it was one of his best speeches.  Also, when you are surrounded by so many people in a big crowd, you can become distracted by things around you.  It is like the Obama speech; you could hear and see it better on TV without the distraction of being in a large crowd. I am sure that people who went to the inauguration probably heard less than people who heard it on TV.  You are distracted by a lot of things that are going on and the sound varies depending on how far away you are.  So after the 28th of August 1963, I understood the magnitude of the speech.  I realized later the depth of the powerful words I heard.  This event was the largest civil rights demonstration in American history.

P.T.  I know that you didn’t personally know Dr.  King, but what can you tell us about MLK, the man and the myth?

Dr.  C.C.:  I learned more about him as a man.  To some degree, I identified more closely with young people who were taking a lot of risks.  They could allow themselves to do that because they didn’t yet have their own families.  All of us admired Dr.  MLK, but I think the myth was that he was the leader of the movement.  To some people he was, but to other people he was one of the many leaders.  Some of these grassroots leaders initiated the sit-ins, they went to Mississippi to help register voters, they participated on their own initiatives in the freedom rides and marches, etc.  They got involved in the fight of other aspects of discrimination and segregation.  There were other leaders, men and women.  They didn’t ask for permissions, they were doing a lot on their own. They went into the Deep South.  They were more involved in the rural areas.  Dr.  King didn’t go often to the Deep South.  I consider that he was more of an urban than a rural leader.

P.T.:  This is very interesting.  I never had that impression.

Dr.  C.C.:  Well, this is part of the myth.  He had to think through seriously and carefully before getting involved in the freedom struggle.  When he went to jail, it was a big deal because he had a family to think about and other responsibilities.  When he ended up in jail, he stayed in as short a time as possible.  Sometimes he had to be bailed out immediately.  People of my age at that time didn’t have any responsibilities.  We didn’t have families to support so it was “easier” to go to jail and take chances.  John Lewis who was the chairman at that time of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) went to jail more than 25 times.

P.T.:  In China, an adaptation of your play Passages of Martin Luther King was made, in which MLK was portrayed by the actor Cao Li in Beijing.  How do you feel about the fact that your work is recognized in this emerging Asian country?

Dr.  C.C.:  Oh, I was very pleased.  It was a very emotional event for me to assist.  To see my play being performed by great Chinese actors who put all their passion into the play was wonderful and very meaningful. To have this recognition from the most populated and one of the largest countries on earth was great.  King’s words were a message to the world.  I was very emotionally involved and really moved.  Most of the audience was Chinese, and the Chinese actors were touched by King’s message.

P.T.:  In an interview with Tavis Smiley, you said that outside of the US, Dr. Martin Luther King is seen more as a universal icon and leader.  How would you explain that many Americans tend to see him as a Black Civil Rights leader, while King’s message was more concerned with colorblind brotherhood?

Dr.  C.C.: I think that is part of the legacy of America’s racial past.  We voted for Obama, but we have difficulty believing that Dr.  King can be also a leader of White people.  I have spoken to many White people who have been touched by King’s message, admired him and were very influenced by him.  However, it is difficult for some to understand that MLK’s message was for all people.  We don’t have trouble understanding that Black Americans can admire JFK because he’s not described as the White president but as the president.

P.T.:  It is perceived as the norm.

Dr.  C.C.:  Exactly.  Dr. King in the US was always described as the Black or the Negro leader.  He was put in that category, but MLK was beyond those boxes.  I actually think that he had as many White followers as Black followers.

P.T.:  In the Washington March, there were about 60 000 White Americans.

Dr.  C.C.:  Yes and probably many more wanted to be there. When Americans look at Gandhi, they don’t tend to see him firstly by his race.  The perception is different.  We understand that he transcends the race issue.  He’s beyond that.  But people in the United States perceive King otherwise.  In contrast, people in India who have heard about King don’t know a lot about the details regarding his work in Birmingham, Montgomery.  They probably don’t even know where those places are.  But they know that MLK stands for something universal, same thing for Gandhi.  They are aware that they stand for something very positive and constructive.  You can admire Gandhi without seeing him primarily in the role of someone who fought for India’s independence.  Similarly, outside the US, people don’t tend to see MLK as a Black leader.

P.T.:  We live in a society where we love to label people.  For example, during the past election, instead of talking in the media all the time about a black candidate or a woman candidate, it would have been more evolved to talk about human beings, period.

Dr.  C.C.:  Yes.

P.T.:  I find it unbelievable that so many people still don’t understand or don’t know about non-violent methods such as civil disobedience.  For example, in the Michael Moore documentary Bowling for Columbine, the first thing which came into the mind of one of the interviewees was to use a gun if he ever encountered a disagreement.  When the interviewer asked him what he thought about Gandhi’s methods, the man didn’t know who he was!  Gandhi inspired MLK. In a past interview, MLK told the very well known psychologist Dr. Kenneth Clark that some people think that non-violence is about stagnant complacency and passivity; however, non-violence is about strength. What do you think about the level of understanding in America concerning non-violent methods?  If you believe there is a problem, as a professor what could be done to correct this situation in schools, in order to ensure that young people know more about peacemakers like Gandhi and MLK?  Do you also think that we give enough alternatives to resolve violence in America or elsewhere in the world?

Dr.  C.C.: I don’t think that most Americans know much about nonviolence.  Nonviolence is defined more by what it is not, instead of what it is.  I conceive it to be constructive resistance—a strategy that can be used to fight injustice, and to seek reconciliation.  Nonviolence is about finding the change that we want in a positive way.  We haven’t explored enough how people can resist injustice constructively.  We don’t offer them many alternatives.  So, they think that the only option is to strike back.  Often people in power don’t like to use nonviolent methods. When the subject of nonviolence comes up, it is often linked to powerless people, not those in power .  So many people who are oppressed look at this as hypocrisy.  No one said, we should respond to 9/11 non-violently.  For those in power, it wasn’t considered.  “Of course, we are going to strike back and use all the violence that we have, because we have the power”.  That was the response.  There are oppressed people who experience 9/11’s all the time.  There is constant destruction done to oppressed people.

The message that the oppressed get from the actions, not the words, of the powerful is:  “When you have injustice done to you, the best thing to do is to retaliate.”  It is glorified; we can see this in our society everyday through the media, etc.  Yet, if someone asks the question: “What retaliation have you gained?  Have you actually eliminated terror?” the most honest and obvious answer is that we have created even more terror.  However, since there is such tension surrounding the idea of nonviolence, especially between those with power and those without, the ideology of MLK and Gandhi doesn’t get through people, and it becomes a difficult message.  Not everybody is ready to embrace nonviolence.

P.T.:  It is probably because we don’t have concrete tools to know how to apply it.

Dr.  C.C.:  Yes, definitely. We only explored the tip of the iceberg in terms of what’s available to us in nonviolence resistance.