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George Floyd and 'the moral arc of the universe': insight from MLK's official historian

Clayborne Carson, director of The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, speaking on the Stanford campus in 2018.

Photo by Charles Russo


The killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers continues to incite mass demonstrations around the nation. As these turbulent protests surface in a multitude of cities throughout the U.S., our national political leadership is sadly adrift, glaringly oblivious to the core issue at hand.

So eager for a bit of poised insight and longterm context surrounding these recent events, we reached out to Stanford historian Clayborne Carson. An activist and Civil Rights demonstrator himself, Carson was in Los Angeles during the Watts Riots of 1965, which were predicated on all-too-familiar circumstances tragically similar to our present situation more than 50 years later. (The riots lasted more than six days and Carson himself was beaten by police during that time period.)

In 1985, Carson had been specifically chosen by Coretta Scott King to pull together Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s papers and archives into a comprehensive and official collection (which ran seven volumes).

Later, the project evolved into The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute on the Stanford campus, where Carson continues to expand upon Dr. King's legacy and issues of human rights.

With this historical relevance on our minds, we caught up with Carson briefly over the phone for some much-needed clarity and historical perspective.

So it's the Monday after a turbulent weekend of protests stemming from the death of George Floyd, and not to saddle you with too broad of a question here to start, but I'm just curious what's foremost on your mind right now after the past few days?

Well I'm very pleased that thousands of people across the nation have protested against this pattern of police abuse against black Americans. And I think that it shows that people of all races were deeply affected by what they saw, and also what they've seen since the invention of cell phone cameras. So I think this is overdue and that it is very encouraging.

I think it's unfortunate that millions of people that protested peacefully will get somewhat overshadowed by the violence of a few people who have used the protest as a cover for looting and other things that have nothing to do with the issue. But that too is understandable in the broader context of the economic inequities in our society.

The LA Times quoted a woman who said: "I was here for Rodney King … nothing has changed." And I can imagine back in '92 someone having the same sentiments about the timespan since the Watts Riots which occurred in '65. So as someone who has experienced all of these events, do you see any genuine progress between those generational moments of upheaval or is there just an overarching stagnation that remains?

Obviously someone my age can see evidence of progress.

I was in Watts in '65 and one of the major differences was that the police were using real bullets then, not rubber bullets. I don't think I had ever heard of a rubber bullet back in 1965. And 34 people were killed that weekend. And I was badly beaten up by the police.

So I can look and see that police are acting with a greater deal of restraint and making it clear that the normal process of policing values lives more than property, and that's the way it should be ( … even though our President doesn't seem to agree with that). I think that that's evidence that policing may have gotten slightly better since those days, when I could get harassed and beat up without any consequences. Today there's more likely to be at least some consequence — in part because someone is likely to be filming it and putting it on Facebook — but back in 1965 it was just police testimony against unarmed people and all of those 34 deaths were deemed "justifiable homicides." That's actually the official term — justifiable homicide.