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Clayborne Carson: Looking back at a legacy

Clayborne Carson, professor of history and director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute.

(Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

When Stanford historian Clayborne Carson was a young college student and activist, he traveled to the nation’s capital to participate in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, one of the largest civil rights rallies in American history. As he listened to Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, little did he know then that their lives and legacies would become deeply intertwined.

Some two decades later, and well into his academic career at Stanford, Carson received a life-changing phone call in 1985: an invitation by Mrs. Coretta Scott King to edit the papers of her late husband, who was assassinated in 1968. Since then, Carson has dedicated his life’s work to editing the papers of Dr. King, an extraordinary effort that has culminated in seven volumes of King’s speeches, sermons, correspondence, publications and other unpublished writings. Carson has also lectured in more than a dozen countries and even collaborated on the design of the national memorial honoring Dr. King.

Now, after over four decades of service, Carson, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Centennial Professor of History and the Ronnie Lott Founding Director of The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, is retiring on Aug. 31, though he will continue to act as director of the Institute for another year.

“I sometimes wonder what I would have done if I hadn’t received the phone call, whether I would have written something that was more mine,” Carson reflected. “The best-selling book that I’ll ever publish is the Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. I can hardly take credit for piecing together his words. I’ll always know that Martin Luther King will always outsell anything I write, and his writings and speeches will be more lasting. But look, if you have to be overshadowed by somebody, it might as well be Martin Luther King.”

Preserving King’s legacy

When Mrs. King first asked Carson about editing the papers of her late husband, Carson was surprised. Initially, he was hesitant to take the project on and had many questions, including, “Why me?”