Martin Luther King scholar Clayborne Carson addressed MLK’s unanswered question, “Where do we go from here?” in an April 17 talk about his legacy and the future of the civil rights movement. He said that the question remains open, but that we should not become complacent with civil rights victories while the question of human rights remains.
Carson, who is currently a professor of history at Stanford and serves as the founding director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, has devoted much of his life and work to the study of King. He founded the Institute in 2005 to expand the King Papers Project he began in 1985 after being selected by Coretta Scott King to oversee the publishing of her late husband’s speeches, sermons and other papers.
In reflecting on Martin Luther King’s legacy, Carson encouraged the audience to look beyond the victories of that time to the work that remains to be done.
He said that he believes, however, that contemporary issues, such as Black Lives Matter and mass incarceration, cannot be solved within the framework of civil rights.
“The issues of the twenty first century have much more to do with the unfinished business of human rights than civil rights,” Carson said.
He said that he believes that Martin Luther King foresaw this shift in the movement when writing “Where Do We Go From Here.” If he were only interested in civil rights, he would have retired after the passing of the Voting Rights Acts of 1965 but instead he remained committed to activism, Carson said.
Carson spent a significant portion of his lecture addressing the role Coretta Scott King played in defining Martin Luther King’s commitment to human rights. In evaluating a series of personal letters between the two, Carson saw their political views as a sort of glue which held their marriage together.
Despite growing up under vastly different economic and social conditions, Martin Luther King’ and Coretta Scott King’s politics converged. Carson argued that these unconventional political views brought them closer. Additionally, Coretta Scott King’s immersion in left politics of the late 1940s was critical in defining the roots of Martin Luther King’s activism.
“When we look at the kinds of things Paul Robeson, W.E.B. DuBois, Bayard Rustin were trying to accomplish during those years, it had to do with moving beyond the civil rights movement of that time to a human rights movement which was global in scope,” Carson said.
Coretta Scott King shared this commitment and influenced Martin Luther King in his activism after the Voting Rights Act. The push towards a global human rights agenda was hindered by the downfall of the progressive party and the rise of the anti-communist movement. These events made it impossible for any leader in the United States to support a human rights agenda while working for civil rights, Carson said.
“The issue of African American civil rights was disconnected from the concern for global human rights necessarily,” Carson said of the period.
However, after his victory in 1965, Martin Luther King’s activism became more intense. He had achieved a huge victory, yet he still asked the question “Where do we go from here?” Carson said he believes that Martin Luther King understood that while the successes of civil rights were a great achievement, they did not expand the nature of rights. He was therefore interested in moving again toward a push for human rights, a move that was heavily influenced by Coretta Scott King.
Carson’s talk was this year’s Charles Grant Memorial Lecture, which is organized by the history department.
Correction: an earlier version of this article misstated the name of civil rights leader Bayard Rustin.