MARTIN’S DREAM: My Journey and the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
By Clayborne Carson
Palgrave Macmillan, 2013
The book may be about ‘Martin’s Dream,’ but it is as much about Clayborne’s soul. In 1985, Professor Clayborne Carson, already a distinguished and credentialed researcher of the civil rights movement, a veteran of what he terms the “bottom-up,” “grassroots” leadership of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was personally asked by Coretta Scott King to collect and archive her late husband’s voluminous papers, letters, documents, and writings.
As with everything else Clay Carson approaches, the lanky and reserved historian, a man of deep currents and quiet strength, questioned whether or not he was the appropriate person to take up such a challenge. He had only seen and heard Martin Luther King Jr. from a distance—he was a 19-year old student who had traveled from his New Mexico home to the nation’s capital in time for the 1963 March on Washington and King’s historic ‘I Have A Dream’ preachment.
He was neither star struck by the grandiloquent preacher nor prone to assign the mantle of leadership for the Movement to any one individual; it was, in Carson’s mind and in the strong judgment of many of his mentors and colleagues, a mass movement that could actually be enervated by too much of what they grumbled was “top-to-bottom” stewardship. Ultimately, Carson, who operates with the efficiency of a physician writing a prescription, but who is also a consummate healer as exacting in scholarship as he is disposed to kindness, accepted the venture—with concerns and doubts that it would work.
The triumphant presence of the singular King Research and Education Institute and the King Papers collection on the campus of Stanford University belie the reality that Carson’s arduous journey of some nearly 30 years—which is narrated with candor and humility in this memoir—was at times painful, risky, and made tortuous by the internecine and maddening demands and dysfunctional contortions of the King family.
Mrs. King and her adult children—all of whom Carson has come to know all too well—have fought with and sued each other and contended with a laundry list of universities and legal firms over the access rights to both the martyred pastor’s papers and his “intellectual property.” They have been understandably contorted by their unyielding grief (Dr. King was only 39 when assassinated in Memphis) and they have been defensive about the many opportunistic people and agencies that have coveted the mantle of MLK’s legacy.
Reading this plaintive and highly important book, sharing in a scholar’s journey in the shadow of so many diverse, brave, and often undervalued civil rights soldiers, one quickly deduces that only Dr. Clayborne Carson could have a) pulled off the near-miracle of creating this priceless collection and legacy and b) only Carson has the temperament, the intuition, and the searing introspection to have negotiated the vagaries of bureaucracy, American racial residue, general academic and artistic egomania, to have extracted the prize for our history that the King Papers represent.
His initial frustration with Coretta Scott King in time grew into an undeniable admiration and their almost “teacher-student” configuration grew over decades into a relationship of friendship and respect. Carson understands pain and loneliness because he has known them both; he discerns human anguish as impeccably as he understands how to save old letters in the right kind of acid-free containers.
His privileged journey through the love letters of Martin and Coretta King is a scroll of tenderness and revelation. That he time and again questions his own abilities to navigate through and complete his work only seals our belief in his unique suitability for the task.
We are all lucky that Mrs. King chose him—even if her family did not always embrace him. But as Clay Carson would readily and quietly offer, they would rather have their husband and father than the legend we all tend to appropriate.
Ben Kamin's books about the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King are available via the above web site or on Amazon.com.