Stanford Today Edition: May/June, 1996 Section: Features: Martin Luther King WWW: Stanford Today - A Sudden Call

A Sudden Call

By Diane Manuel

CLAY CARSON’S LIFE hasn’t been quite the same since he answered the phone at 10 p.m. on a January evening in 1985.

Coretta Scott King was calling from Atlanta to ask if he would consider heading up the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project. Although Carson had some initial doubts about the feasibility of directing the project from Stanford, he gradually was won over.

“There are times when you begin to identify with King being thrust into a role that he never asked for,” he says quietly. “In the same kind of way, I never applied for this position ­ it was something that kind of dropped out of the sky. I feel like my life has been to a large extent taken over by forces beyond my control, and all I can hope to do is my best.”

Carson has matured in the decade since Mrs. King turned to him as an up-and-coming young academic, and his hair and neatly trimmed beard now are the color of finely buffed pewter. He often wears an expression that is part squint, part question mark, and his dark eyebrows tend to furrow when he digs for answers.

Carson’s work for the Papers Project is all consuming. Research doesn’t end at 5 p.m. or on weekends, and when he isn’t on a plane bound for Atlanta, he’s often meeting with prospective donors to ask them to fund yet more research.

Appointed to the history department at Stanford in 1974, the 52-year-old professor is a specialist on the civil rights movement who has written two works on that period, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s and Malcolm X: The FBI File. He also served as co-editor of Eyes on the Prize, a guide to the 1987 PBS television series about the American civil rights movement. In 1993, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination, he wrote Passages of Martin Luther King, a play that debuted at Stanford and was performed this winter at Dartmouth College.

Behind a classroom lectern, Carson is a forceful speaker whose well-organized presentations reflect the preparation he puts into his undergraduate lectures and graduate seminars. Put him on a faculty panel and he doesn’t hesitate to speak up. After a recent campus lecture by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., dean of the nation’s historians, Carson challenged the Pulitzer Prize-winning author on the meaning of “radical” multiculturalism in restrained but insistent tones.

Carson has written extensively about the influence of family life ­ and lack of it ­ on Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. His own growing-up days with five siblings in New Mexico, where his father had retired from military service after World War II to become a security guard at the civilian laboratories in Los Alamos, left him with “a sense of being from outpost black America,” he says.

“I had this really strong curiosity about the black world, because in Los Alamos the black world was a very few families,” he says. “When the civil rights movement started, I had this real fascination with it, and I wanted to meet the people in it.”

As a 19-year-old freshman at the University of New Mexico, Carson had been selected as a delegate to a 1963 national student meeting in Indiana. There he met Stokely Carmichael, leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and heard about the upcoming march on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. would deliver his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech. The following day Carson was hitching a ride east.

One of only 150 black students on the Albuquerque campus of 20,000 undergraduates, Carson was stunned to suddenly find himself among 250,000 African Americans gathered for a common purpose in Washington, D.C.

“I have a lot of vivid memories, but not of King’s speech,” he says of the experience. “I think [what impressed me most were] the people I met there.”

In his junior year, Carson transferred to the University of California-Los Angeles. There he joined the Non-Violent Action Committee, an offshoot of the Congress of Racial Equality. When Watts erupted in flames, he rushed to that inner-city neighborhood to help victims of the riots but was beaten by police wielding nightsticks.

When Carson reflects on his undergraduate days as an activist and writer for the Los Angeles Free Press, he says he had the feeling at the time that he was seen as “someone in the middle.”

“I think I’ve always had this dual relationship of being close to the activist community, but also kind of backing away and trying to look at it more critically and more objectively,” he says. “When I was a journalist, I tried to mix the insider’s view that I could get because I knew all of these people with some degree of objectivity.

“I think I was seen as an activist ­ but not quite ­ and as a journalist ­ but not quite. And that’s the place where I wanted to be.”

Carson was attracted to the rhetoric of Stokely Carmichael and wrote his doctoral dissertation at UCLA on him. That paper evolved into the book In Struggle, which won the Frederick Jackson Turner Award of the Organization of American Historians.

As director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project, Carson guides student researchers in compiling,
annotating and publishing King’s significant correspondence, sermons, speeches and published writings.

With three volumes now finished and 11 still to come, Carson says that King is becoming “more of a person who is part of my life.”

“Something happens when you look at somebody’s essays that got a ‘C’ in school, or when you recognize that King was a person who had doubts and insecurities, just like the rest of us,” Carson says. “That awareness reduces him to human scale, but also, for me, it deepens my appreciation for what he was able to do.”

During the past 10 years Carson has faced a number of challenges as director of the Papers Project. There has been criticism, for example, from those who think the research should be conducted by a professional staff, rather than students.

“But I don’t accept the notion that the role of students in research is to be go-fers who start out doing fairly mundane things and then gradually are given more and more responsibility,” Carson says. “I’ve really come to enjoy the process of getting the work done, and it’s a unique opportunity to work closely with intelligent, dedicated and highly committed students.”

It was a student researcher, in fact, who in 1988 discovered plagiarism in King’s doctoral dissertation at Boston University. Assigned to check footnotes in that paper, the student found that some of the material that King was utilizing as a source was not cited in the footnotes.

“Once we discovered that, it became a process of determining how extensive it was,” Carson says. “Was this something accidental, or was it more of a pattern?

“And that’s what we spent the next two years investigating, not only for the dissertation but for every student paper that King handed in.”

Carson and his students found a pattern of “borrowing” and “textual appropriation” that dated from King’s early days at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. In October 1990, after the Wall Street Journal published an article about the plagiarism, Carson announced the findings at a campus press conference. The revelations did not help Carson’s relations with the King family, he says, and he grimaces at the amount of coverage that continues to focus on the civil rights leader’s student plagiarism.

As Carson looks down the research tunnel at the years of work ahead, are there times when he thinks the project will never end?

“Oh, yeah,” he says with a sigh. “There are a lot of days when I fully question whether we will be able to finish it. I think that a lot depends on whether the resources will be there, through to the end.”

But whenever his enthusiasm flags, Carson says he draws strength from the example King set in his early days.

“The thing about King is that you think of him as someone who is very familiar,” Carson says. “But the fascination for me is that as we go through the volumes, [we] keep seeing him in new ways.” ST