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King’s Keeper

Clayborne Carson has made it his life’s work to publish Martin Luther King Jr.’s papers. It’ll take even longer than that to finish.


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Clayborne Carson (far right) with Coretta Scott King (center) and a group of students in 1986, during one of Scott King’s visits to Stanford.

Photo: Margo Davis

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Editor’s Note: This is one of many stories San Francisco is publishing over the next month as part of the October 2018 Legacy Issue. To read stories as they become available online, click here.

On the fringes
of the Stanford University campus, sandwiched between a parking garage and an under-­construction scientific research complex, sit a cluster of squat portable buildings. Most of them house cogs in the university’s bureaucratic machine: the Office of Information Technology Operations, the Office of the Vice President of HR Operations, Administrative Systems Operations. Compared with the glitzy, bustling new engineering quad across the street, the drab tan structures seem like an afterthought.

Yet inside one of those unassuming buildings, a singularly important scholarly effort is being undertaken. For more than three decades, Clayborne Carson, a soft-spoken professor of American history, and his small team of historians and researchers have been compiling, cataloging, editing, and publishing the papers of Martin Luther King Jr. Those papers range from handwritten drafts of civil rights speeches and sermons to graduate coursework and hate mail he received. And curating them has turned out to be a Herculean endeavor.

When Carson started the King Papers Project in 1985, he estimated that it would take him 15 years to publish 12 volumes of King’s most important papers. Thirty-three years later and on the eve of his retirement, the Papers Project and the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute—founded in 2005 to expand upon the work of the Project—has published just 7 of what are now projected to be 14 volumes. The first volume alone took eight years to complete. “I look back now and just laugh at that,” Carson says of his initial estimate. “I had no idea what an immense task it was going to be.”

The published volumes in the King Papers Project form the bedrock of King scholarship, essential to every civil rights scholar. To produce them, Carson has had to draw upon his diverse skills as a historian, an archivist, and an editor. He and his team start by photocopying or scanning original materials from the three main King archives—at the King Center and Morehouse College, both in Atlanta, and at Boston University—and from hundreds of smaller archives and collections across the country. These materials include King’s writings as well as letters, telegrams, memos, and miscellaneous communications he received from others. The copies are then sent to Stanford, where they are reviewed, given relevant metadata tags, and entered into a database. (That database is searchable, but for copyright reasons only a fraction of the 45,000-some documents are available to read online.) Then comes the most difficult task: choosing which materials to include in the printed volumes. “If we published nothing other than speeches and sermons, we could fill 14 volumes,” Carson says.

The published works already present a wide-ranging tapestry of King’s writings, along with scholarly commentary that elucidates their significance in the larger historical context of the civil rights movement and his life. Every volume contains hundreds of documents, and each document has multiple detailed annotations. “They’re really indispensable,” says Vicki Crawford, the director of Morehouse’s King Collection. “Even though we have the original papers here at Morehouse, often when you are doing research, you go to the volumes because you want to check an annotation.”

A leading King historian, Carson has written, edited, or been the general editor on nearly every book about King published in the past three decades, and his bestseller The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Warner Books, 1998) has sold more copies than any of King’s writings did during his lifetime. Carson has also written a book on Malcolm X’s FBI file and a memoir of his own life as it relates to King, and has been involved with dozens of documentaries, including the PBS civil rights series Eyes on the Prize, which was nominated for an Oscar in 1988.

But if Carson has been crucial to advancing King’s legacy, he’s no hagiographer. In the 1990s, he uncovered evidence that King had plagiarized major portions of his Boston University doctoral dissertation. Shaken, he approached King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, the person who had hired him to lead the project. She calmly agreed to Carson’s publishing an article before the news leaked. “My job as a historian is not to burnish the icon,” Carson says. “It’s to reveal the documents and interpret the documents as best I can. If the King image suffers because of that, so be it.” He has had to reckon with documents that raised other sensitive issues, such as the now-infamous FBI letter to King threatening to reveal his alleged extramarital affairs and apparently urging him to commit suicide. In each case, Carson’s approach has been the same: Examine the documents, and if they’re legitimate, add them to the database and perhaps publish them in the volumes. “We never withhold documentary evidence because we feel it would be embarrassing to Martin Luther King,” he says.

While Carson refuses to sugarcoat King, he is also determined to ensure that new generations learn about his towering historical achievements. To that end, Carson has created an encyclopedia of the civil rights movement, as well as curricula for teaching civil rights history to elementary, middle, and high school students using primary documents. His play Passages of Martin Luther King has been performed worldwide, including in Beijing, East Jerusalem, and several West Bank communities. Crawford says that such work is “especially necessary in the era we find ourselves in now.”

When Carson signed
on to edit King’s papers, it didn’t occur to him that the project might consume the rest of his career. Indeed, he says that his first book, In Struggle, published before he took the post, was “kind of an anti-King book,” because it focused on the grassroots activists in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee rather than on marquee civil rights leaders like King. In 1985, a decade into Carson’s career as a Stanford professor, Coretta Scott King approached him and the university about leading the King Papers Project. Carson initially turned her down; it took continued conversations with Scott King, and a nudge from his wife, Susan, to change his mind.

Although it’s hard to imagine King as anything but the hero he has become, he was not always seen that way—and the work of the King Papers Project has been central to cementing and expanding his legacy. “King has kind of been lifted out of the freedom struggle and made into the icon that represents America,” Carson says.

Carson plans to retire at the end of the current academic year, at age 75, to work on a book about Coretta and Martin’s relationship, leaving a successor to complete the remaining seven volumes of the papers. (Stanford will begin reviewing applications for his replacement this month, and he’ll stay on as director of the Papers Project during the transition.) Carson has made peace with the fact that he likely won’t live to see all 14 volumes published. But after decades of agonizing over which of King’s documents to include, he’s begun dreaming of a reality in which the editor of King’s papers wouldn’t have to make those decisions at all—one in which everything could be published. Every telegram. Every letter. Every scribbled piece of marginalia. Every sermon. Carson has more than 1,200 audio recordings of King. On his iPhone, he has access to tens of thousands of unpublished documents from the archives. Shouldn’t any graduate student or middle school teacher be able to flip through them as he does? “It’s not a technological barrier,” he says. Instead, he faults “a limitation of vision” on the part of the King estate.

The copyright to King’s writings and speeches is owned by his estate, which has closely guarded the publication of his works, whether for scholarly or commercial purposes. The estate sued and then settled with USA Today after it published King’s “I Have a Dream” speech without permission; it also sued the producer of Eyes on the Prize for unauthorized use of footage—causing PBS to pull the documentary from circulation from 1993 to 2006. King’s three surviving children have even sued each other over ownership of his Nobel Peace Prize medal and his traveling Bible, which was used in Obama’s second inauguration. In February, the estate was sharply criticized for selling the rights to a portion of King’s sermon “The Drum Major Instinct” to Dodge for a Super Bowl truck ad—a particularly questionable decision given that an unaired portion of the address specifically advises people not to spend too much on cars. That type of use, however, doesn’t bother Carson. “I would leave the commercial rights to the family,” he says. But he’s firm in his belief that “the ideas should not be privately owned.”

Purchasing the entirety of King’s catalog to make it available to all would take an enormous sum of money, more than the King Institute’s approximately $500,000 annual budget. Nevertheless, Carson is convinced that—to adapt one of King’s most famous lines—the arc of history is long but bends toward access. Someone, he is sure, be it the university or a private donor, will eventually step up. King, Carson says, gave the world “the greatest message of the 20th century: that it’s possible to resolve the world’s problems nonviolently.” And that message is too important to hide away in an archive.


Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco 

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