Clayborne Carson: Interviewed about the MLK Papers project

Historians in the News

The historian Clayborne Carson is author of In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Harvard University Press, 1981), the definitive study of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He directs the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, housed at Stanford University, which produces The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.


[Q] When Coretta Scott King asked you to preside over the King Papers Project in 1985, did it give you pause?

[A] Initially, I said no. I felt there were other people more suitable, partly because I never really thought of myself as a King biographer. I was a SNCC person. Even before I first saw King, at the March on Washington in 1963, I had met Stokely Carmichael and other SNCC activists. At that time, the march was the most significant experience of my life. I am fairly certain that I would not be studying King and the African-American freedom struggle if not for that experience. It exposed me to ideas and possibilities that had never occurred to me.

[Q] As you radicalized in the 1960s, were you affected by SNCC's disenchantment with King?

[A] Oh, sure, I shared that sense. I was impatient. I didn't want to wait for change. And I was disillusioned with liberalism, thought it was too willing to compromise on rights and too dominated by middle-class reformers, as opposed to grass-roots people. The pieces I wrote then were in the Black Power, Black Panther vein.

[Q]Later you reconsidered?

[A] The Black Power movement didn't get much power, so I faced the reality. I was at UCLA when black militants were killing other black militants. I saw the movement self-destruct. I saw the white New Left self-destruct. Repression was part of it, but I was honest enough to know that if you call for revolution, you should not be surprised if the existing order tries to repress you....

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