Q&A: Clayborne Carson, American historian and founder of the King Institute

Aug. 3, 2020, 7:52 p.m.

Clayborne Carson, founding director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute and producer of the seven-volume Papers of Martin Luther King Jr., has spent his life studying the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the African American struggle for freedom. He has written numerous books including “In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s” (1981) and “Martin’s Dream: My Journey and the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.” (2013). In addition to being a scholar of African American freedom movements, Carson participated in the March on Washington, was close with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and was part of the Committee for Non-Violent Action in Los Angeles in 1965. The Stanford Daily spoke with Carson, who reflected on racial injustice in America from the 1960s to the present day. 

TSD (The Stanford Daily): What do you feel were the greatest achievements and disappointments during the 1960s in moving the Civil Rights Movement forward?

Clayborne Carson (CC): Well, I saw it as more than simply a civil rights movement. We tended to call it the African American freedom struggle because it wasn’t just a matter of [civil rights], the rallying cry of the march on Washington wasn’t “Give us the Civil Rights Bill” — it was “freedom now.” So, it had much broader implications than getting civil rights legislation on the books. And that’s why when the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965 the protests didn’t stop, and Martin Luther King didn’t stop his activities. [Among] the young people who were in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee … the group I was not a member of, but closest to, none of us stopped our work [after the Voting Rights Act passed].

What the civil rights legislation did, is it made the South more like the rest of the nation, but [in] the rest of the nation Black people were not equal in terms of their opportunities, the struggle went on. I mean, Martin Luther King came to Chicago in 1966 and found out that resistance there could be just as intense, and sometimes even more intense, than in the South, and in some ways that’s where we are now. When he asked that question in his last book, “Where do we go from here?” I often say we haven’t answered his question. That’s why we have protests in the streets today.

TSD: Building off that idea of the lack of change, do you feel this current movement has enough leverage to get any of the change Dr. King was looking for?

CC: You never know that when you’re struggling for change; you don’t know what you’re able to achieve. That’s always an unknown. We didn’t know whether Congress would pass civil rights legislation. We didn’t know whether the Johnson administration would bring about substantive changes like the War on Poverty. Any movement is going to have limited success, unless there is a revolution, and then you have to put the pieces back together again. But there’s always the possibility that you can take one step forward and two steps backward or two steps forward and one step backward. That’s always the nature of social movements, and some of that is under your control and some of that is beyond your control. People who get in movements because they want to win are often disappointed because you win some battles and you lose some battles. I’m surprised that we are still dealing with police brutality. I would have thought that, back when I was in my 20s, I would have thought that 50 years later there would be these problems that we wouldn’t have to worry about anymore. 

TSD: On the subject of education, what type of role do you feel the primary education coverage of history and the Civil Rights Movement plays in our effort to move forward as a society?

CC: I think education is one of the areas that I’ve seen where we haven’t had the progress I would have expected. I think it starts out with the Brown [v Board of Education] decision. Yes, schools are officially desegregated today, we don’t have all white and all Black schools, but you have predominantly Black schools, and they are inferior to predominantly white schools. So for a large number of Black students, things have not necessarily gotten better in terms of their opportunities compared to white students. I think in some respects the Brown decision was misleading because it assumed that if you got rid of officially segregated schools, then the opportunities for Black students … would automatically get better. 

TSD: How do you feel that growing disparity has affected or will affect the Black Lives Matter movement? Do you feel there is a group being left out or groups whose voices are not being heard?

CC: Well, I think the way protests tend to happen is it focuses on the most visible atrocities rather than the less visible inequities. It’s easy to mobilize around what happened to George Floyd, but how do you mobilize around mass incarceration? How do you mobilize around the general nature of policing, where the goal is really to control the use of predominantly white police to control predominantly Black areas and not to solve crimes, that becomes a lesser priority, and certainly not to solve the social problems that lead to crime. 

TSD: Many consider the Bay Area as a progressive hub, a place of social change. How do you feel, over the years, the Bay Area has been able to live up to that reputation? How has it failed?

CC: As I said, the protests tend to focus on atrocities rather than inequities. Widespread inequities become invisible for most people. They don’t look at them because they’ve become used to looking at them; it’s only when you see something that is exceptionally grievous like what happened to George Floyd [that you notice]. Probably, on the day he was arrested, thousands of other Black people were arrested, and it happens that the police in his case were somewhat more overzealous, and someone was there with a cellphone.

That’s the thing that made it different, but I think protest is important because once people, I hope, who are protestors get involved in these issues, they begin to learn more. When I was 19 years old I didn’t really know very much about the world. But once you become an activist, in my case when I moved to Los Angeles and began working in south-central Los Angeles, it opened my eyes and I began to see these broad inequities. 

TSD: How has technology been able to help the current protests? What advantage do you see?

CC: A great deal. That’s one of the things that I was very amazed at, in a good way, that soon after George Floyd was murdered a larger number of people were mobilized in a couple of days than were mobilized in the March on Washington, and they were mobilized mainly by people who were in their teens and 20s. If only people over 35 would have [had] to mobilize the protests against George Floyd’s murder, I don’t think it would have happened, because people over 35 would have said, “Oh yeah, that has happened before and sucks, but it happened and I’m hardly shocked by it.”

And I think it took a younger generation to say, “It’s happened before and now we’re gonna put a stop to it.” That’s kind of what happened with desegregation of the South. It was teenagers who started the sit-ins, because their parents had become adjusted to living under segregation. They might not have liked it, but it wasn’t something they were going to risk going to jail over. And then you have a younger generation coming up and four 18-year-olds in Greensboro, North Carolina said, “Yeah, this has been going on too long and we’re gonna go in and risk going to jail.” And that started a movement. 

TSD: With the generational gap and with both the Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter movements being led by younger generations, why do you feel older generations have become less active?

CC: They get desensitized to stuff because you see [injustices] around you, but you don’t necessarily see what you can do about it. Sometimes it takes somebody to come along and say whether there is a way of doing something about it. That’s where I think technology, the fact that you can mobilize people so fast, [has been impactful], and that’s something new. Just think about how different the ’60s would have been if people had that available.

Contact Rae Wymer at raewymer ‘at’ gmail.com.

Rae Wymer is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily's Summer Journalism Workshop.

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