We wouldn’t be talking about Martin Luther King Jr. today, according to Clayborne Carson, if it weren’t for the four black teenagers at a lunch counter sit-in in Greensboro, N.C., 50 years ago this month.
“Those 18-year-olds at the lunch counter were not following King,” said Carson, professor of history and director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. “They considered him too cautious; they stepped out ahead in the first of a wave of sit-ins across the South in 1963.”
Carson spoke with students and faculty in a presentation on campus that was sponsored by Peace and Conflict Studies and the Office of Multicultural Affairs as its first event for Black History Month.
“We should acknowledge and remember the many students – often the age of people in this room – and the actions of others that made King’s leadership possible,” he said. “King’s dream was realized from the bottom up, from ordinary people demanding their freedom.”
Carson knows the civil rights movement through-and-through, both as a contemporary participant and a lifelong scholar. He continues his social justice activism and has transformed King’s story into a drama, “Passages of Martin Luther King,” which has been performed (in translation) in conflict areas like the Middle East. His newest book, “Martin’s Dream,” chronicles Carson’s decades of activist experience, study and reflection.
Originally, King was recruited to the movement by the grassroots organizers of the successful bus boycott in Montgomery, according to Carson, because they needed a spokesperson.
“King was a 26-year-old charismatic minister with a Ph.D. He saw himself as a social gospel minister and could be an orator to the media,” Carson said. Though not an organizer, King played a critical and important role through envisioning the movement’s deeper and broader significance.
“When King gave his speech in Montgomery, just one day into the boycott that would last 381 days, he didn’t focus on the movement’s simple goal: for bus drivers to be polite,” said Carson. “He spoke of people sustained by the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Sermon on the Mount, that when ‘the history books of the future are written, they will have to say that freedom began when the people of Montgomery stood up for their rights.’ ”
Carson was a 19-year-old black student from New Mexico when he went to the March on Washington, drawn mostly by the student activists in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. King was the last speaker of a long day.
“King had finished his prepared remarks when Mahalia Jackson called out, ‘Martin, tell them about your dream,’ ” said Carson. “The most famous part of his speech was completely impromptu.”
Graduate student Sade Jean-Jacques, community psychology major and graduate assistant in the Office of Multicultural Affairs, had high expectations for Carson’s presentation.
“I liked his emphasis on getting young people involved,” she said after the speech. “The effort to create a more equal society continues today. It has a long, long way to go and you have to be committed.”