Exclusive Interview with Historian Dr Clayborne Carson - Part II

21 Jul 2009


P.T.: What do you think can be done to make sure that kids know more about MLK and Gandhi?

Dr. C.C.: Well, I devoted my life to do this. I try to make sure that people know about their methods. For Gandhi and MLK, the nonviolence methods apply as much to people in power than to those who are not in power. During the war in Vietnam, King said that you can’t tell oppressed people in the US not to use violence when, ten thousand miles away, you use violence to fight communism. It was recognized that there was a contradiction and a paradox. You have to be consistent. It is only when poor people or oppressed people are upset that people in power tell them to be pacifists.

I encourage the readers to go to the King’s institute web site to know more about non-violence and the tools which can be used.  We have a curriculum program.  We publish books to inform people.

P.T.  For the 40th anniversary of the death of the icon MLK, the well-known French magazine L’histoire presented several specialized articles on the subject.  In their March 2008 issue we learned in the article by well-known French historian Pap Ndiaye that at the time of MLK’s death, his autopsy revealed that his heart resembled that of a sixty year old man.  At the time, however, MLK was 39 years old!  Do you think that MLK was aware of the consequences of oppression in its entirety? 

Dr.  C.C.  Even if I am not a physician, I believe that Dr.  King had stress fighting against oppression around him and the African American people. Dr King was constantly under surveillance by the federal police from 1960 to his assassination the 4th of April 1968.  So, that definitely added a lot of stress.  Civil rights workers were frequently killed and Dr. King received many death threats.  He had threats made against him and his family every single day.  So, this consistent state of stress had an adverse effect on his health.  He knew about the impact this had on his own body.  He went to doctors many times and was told that he needed to slow down, but he took the cause to heart.  The physicians let him know that he needed to get rest, to take more vacations.  He tried to do that to some degree.  He did go off, usually to the Caribbean for vacation.  He tried to get away.  He thought about retiring from his role as the leader of the civil rights movement.

P.T. Oh, really?

Dr.  C.C.  Oh, yes he considered becoming perhaps a theologian on a campus.  He decided in the end that his role was to be involved in the struggle which was not over.

P.T.  I know that even before the King couple decided to be involved in the fight, they had the possibility to teach in Northern Universities.  For example, the late Coretta Scott King had the possibility to be a professional singer but the couple thought that they had to get involved to improve the condition of the African American people. 

Dr.  C.C.  Exactly.  The couple discussed about the possibilities in the North of the country.  They went for example to Montgomery.  MLK had job offers.  Several colleges offered him positions on their faculties.  MLK and his wife finally decided to commit their lives to the cause.  They could not close their eyes to this very serious struggle.

P.T.  The late notable writer James Baldwin stated in an interview that Dr. MLK had greater moral authority in the South of the country than in the North.  As an historian, how would you explain this situation?

Dr.  C.C.  Well, Dr King was a religious leader and religious leaders had greater authority in the South because a larger proportion of African Americans in the South went to church.  Also, there were fewer other kinds of leaders in the South but in the North there were lawyers, elected political leaders, intellectuals of various types:  professors, etc.  In the South, there were fewer types of those people especially lawyers and elected politicians because in the South it was much more difficult for black lawyers to practice their profession.  It was much more difficult for black politicians to be elected and to end up in political office because their people were not allowed to vote.  In the North, there was a greater and wider variety of leadership in the black community.  There were newspaper leaders, business leaders of various types.  In the South, there was also a variety of leaders but just not as much variety.  In the Southern part of the country, the Black Baptist leaders particularly had the advantage of being in a church where their jobs depended on the congregation.  It meant that they could only be fired by the members of their church.  Each congregation was able to choose their own leaders.  Black Baptist ministers were selected by other Black people and that gave them more authority.  Black Pentecostal ministers were selected in that way and a large part of the black community endorsed them.  

P.T.  You collaborated with the Roma Design Group of San Francisco to create the « winning proposal » in an international competition to design the national King memorial, currently being built in Washington, D.C.  An Asian sculptor was later selected to create a statute of King for the memorial.  What is your position regarding the fact that some African Americans and Americans thought it should have been their duty to build this memorial, and about the fact that none of the memorials in Washington, D.C were designed by African American sculptors in the past? Also, what are the new developments at this time regarding the MLK memorial in Washington, D.C, and what is the timeframe for the completion of the design?

Dr.  C.  I can’t answer the last question because I was just involved in the design part of the memorial and not in the building process.  The King memorial foundation is responsible for building it.  They have made it very clear that they are making the decision about the construction process and the selection of the sculptor and other aspects of the building of it.  I don’t believe that the nationality of the sculptor is an issue.  For me, what’s important is to assess the quality of the sculptor, whether the sculptor’s competency is appropriate for someone like King.  I think it is always better that the sculptor has some understanding of the subject, familiarity with Black American culture.  I don’t know how much consideration was made to those factors in the selection of the sculptor.   I wasn’t involved in that process either.  I think that being Chinese should not be a criterion to eliminate the sculptor.  It should be an open competition to select the best sculptor.  Dr. King was color blind and his philosophy was about universality.  However, I think the real question is about transparency.  There wasn’t an open competition.  Nor was it at least a public competition where candidates could submit ideas. I read the newspaper and this is how I learned the name of the sculptor for the memorial.  I was one of the members of the design team of the memorial and I feel I should have been consulted.  I should have been informed about why the decision was made and I should have been involved in the decision process.

When the decisions were made, the reasons of the choice should be clear to everyone.  So, as a person involved in the design of the memorial I would have preferred a situation where we as the designers of the memorial along with the collaborators would have been included in the selection of the sculptor, because the sculptural design could clash with the ideas of the design itself.  The only way to prevent that is to have the original designers working with the sculptor to make sure that the original concept was maintained.  But that hasn’t happened.

P.T.  You researched MLK and Malcolm X.  How could you explain the fact that up until now, a big screen movie about MLK (one of the greatest American men) was never made, unlike for Malcolm X?  If such a movie is done in the future, who do you think should portray MLK, and why?

[Note: The interview with Dr Carson was conducted in March 2009.  In May 2009, Dreamworks production acquired the rights for the biopic’s MLK movie.  It will be a Steven Spielberg production.] 

Dr.  C.C.  I don’t have a real opinion on who should portray him.  I hope that a film about him is made in the future and probably a number of African American actors could do a great job portraying him.  I think that Malcom X’s life is perceived as more exotic (laughs).  A lot of people think they know much more about MLK than Malcolm X.  I believe they are wrong and that there is a lot that they don’t know about Dr. King.  I would love to write the script.

P.T.  You received an Oscar nomination for the documentary Freedom on my mind and a Grammy award for the recording of the Autobiography of MLK Jr.  What do these recognitions mean to you?

Dr.  C.C.  I did those projects as part of a group.  I can’t take all the credit because it wasn’t a personal accomplishment.  So, these awards are not in my home.  It is nice to see this recognition for all of us who worked hard on this story of struggle.  The biggest award that I can get for the work I have done is for people to read the autobiography and watch the documentary.  

P.T.  Here is my final question:  What do you think Martin Luther King would have said if he were still with us regarding the election of Mr. Barack Obama?

Dr.  C.C.  Dr. MLK always believed in this nation. Dr.  King the dreamer got killed but it was impossible to kill the dream. MLK’s aspiration was global peace with social justice. He believed in change of mentality.  He knew that Jewish people, WASPs, Black people and others could coexist and work together.  I think MLK would be very pleased by the fact that many Americans chose a candidate on the basis of the content of his character rather than the color of his skin.  The world wanted a change.  Obama’s stature as a unifier gave him international reach.  However, I also think that MLK would criticize the American foreign policy regarding the war in Afghanistan. Dr.  King would like the US to make a strong fight against poverty (both domestic and international) a priority.  MLK and Gandhi, the soldiers of nonviolence proved that it is possible to bring about changes through pacifism.  Dr.  King would expect the Americans to uplift themselves, to focus on improving the situation of people at home.  The United States of America is among the industrials countries with the greatest number of youth living below the poverty line.  MLK would say they are the future hope of the country, not the military industrial complex.  Dr.  King was the defender of the oppressed, and he was for the redistribution of resources.  His commitment to nonviolence was the defining ideology of his life.

I am going to leave you with this quote by Dr. King after his visit to Gandhi’s family in India (1959):  “ I am more convinced than ever before that the method of nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity”.

P.T.  Thank you so much, Dr. Carson, for this rich interview and for your outstanding work in keeping Dr. King’s legacy alive.  It was an honor to interview you.



The Autobiography of Martin Luther King. Jr. Editor. New York: Warner Books and Time Warner AudioBooks, 1998. • Martin Luther King Autobiographie. Paris: Bayard Éditions, 1998 (Traduction and notes by Marc Saporta et Michèle Truchan-Saporta). • «I Have a Dream» L’autobiographia del profeta dell’uguaglianza. Milano: Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, 2000 (Traduzione di Tania Gargiulo). • Eu Tenho um Sonho: A Autobiographia de Martin Luther King. Lisboa: Editorial Bizâncio, 2003 (Tradução de Francisco Agarez) . Other foreign language editions: Finnish, Japanese, Korean.

Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited with Peter Holloran. New York: Warner Books and Time Warner AudioBooks, 1998 (foreign language edition: French).

The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Volume III: Birth of a New Age, December 1955 – December 1956. Edited with Stewart Burns, Susan Carson, Pete Holloran, Dana Powell. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume II: Rediscovering Precious Values, July 1951-November 1955. Edited with Ralph E. Luker, Penny A. Russell, and Peter Holloran. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume 1: Called to Serve, January 1929-June 1951. Edited with Ralph E. Luker and Penny A. Russell. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.



International Fellowship of reconciliation (IFOR)

Gandhi Institute:  http://www.gandhiinstitute.org/

The King Institute: http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/

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