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Celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr.


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are heading into inauguration weekend and in a moment we will hear about some of the great and not-so-great moments of inaugurations past.

Along with the public ceremonies that are a part of the presidential inauguration, many people, including the president, will also be honoring the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. this weekend, and on Monday, when his birthday is observed as a national holiday.

And this year will also mark the 50th anniversary of the march on Washington. It was in August of 1963 at that event when Reverend King delivered his most famous speech, "I Have a Dream," and while that's the phrase most people remember, the speech had many other moments of incisive social commentary, like this one.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.

MARTIN: We thought this would be a good time to take a closer look at some of Dr. King's lesser known remarks and writings. To do this, we've called upon Clayborne Carson. He's a professor of history at Stanford University. He's the director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. He's authored or edited more than a dozen books. His latest is "Martin's Dream: My Journey and the Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr."

Professor Carson, thanks so much for joining us.

CLAYBORNE CARSON: Good to talk to you, Michel.

MARTIN: I would argue - I think you'd probably agree - that Martin Luther King, Jr. has become one of the most quoted American speakers of the 20th century. But one of the things that I've observed is a lot of the people who know his writings well - the things that they find most impactful - the things that are most meaningful to them aren't necessarily the speeches and writings that are best known. So I wanted to start there and ask, are there particular speeches, phrases, writings of his that you know well that you wish other people knew better?

CARSON: Oh, a lot of that. I think that some of the later sermons I find, you know, as I've studied his writings and statements over the last 25 years, I found myself drawn to those sermons in '67 and '68, because at that point he's talking to people who - many of whom are older than he is, many of whom have known him for most of his life.

There's a process by which he reveals himself to them through the metaphorical language of the Bible. I just find myself drawn very much to that. Maybe as I'm getting older that's a source of identification with him.

MARTIN: Why do you think that is? I mean I know you're saying maybe it's because you're getting older yourself. Is that the reflective aspect of it? Is it...

CARSON: Yeah, yeah. I think...

MARTIN: ...the self-reflection? Is it the whole kind of tension between the desire for kind of private peace and being called to something? What is it specifically that calls to you?

CARSON: In some ways it kind of gets back to why I wrote the book, "Martin's Dream," because I was at the march on Washington in 1963, but as a 19-year-old I had no basis for reflection about its importance. You know, when you're at an event like that, sometimes you're much more interested in the young women in the crowd, the heat of that day, how was I going to get home, you know, all these other questions, much more than listening to all the speeches from the long list of speakers that day.

You begin to reflect about the meaning of your own life, and I see that with King. In those early days his speeches are, you know, obviously very eloquent and inspiring and - but it's only in his later speeches and sermons that you see him reflecting about the overall meaning of his life. What has he accomplished, the dreams that he's fulfilled, the dreams that remained unfulfilled, having a sense of - am I responsible for my failures as well as my successes?

MARTIN: One of the things that I've also noticed kind of annoys people who've really followed Dr. King's work is that toward the end of his life he talked about some very polarizing issues, like he talked a lot about economic justice. He talked a lot about the Vietnam War, to the point where the Reverend Jesse Jackson, a civil rights activist who also worked very closely with Dr. King, said at the time of his death that he was, quote, "the most hated man in America."

I wanted to ask. Do you think that that's true? Why do you think that is and why is it that we don't remember that?

CARSON: Well, I think there was a process after his death, of trying to remember him at that moment of triumph at the March on Washington, because most people see the March on Washington, as not a march on Washington for jobs and freedom, which is what it was, but just a march to get a civil rights bill passed. And we got that past, so it's possible for people by listening again and again to that speech, as Americans, to kind of pat ourselves on the back and say isn't it wonderful, Martin had a dream. We realized that dream, now we are this country with civil rights legislation, forgetting that at the end of King's life he was talking about his dream as unfulfilled. And I think he would still see it as unfulfilled, as long as we have poverty, as long as this country is involved in wars abroad, as long as poverty is not even an important issue to be discussed in a presidential campaign. You know, all of these things, to me, would mean that King would remain a persistent critic. Now, especially critics of those in power don't get national holidays named after them. So I think the process of creating the King Holiday under Ronald Reagan in a very conservative time, no one wanted to play up the fact that King was a radical in some respects.

MARTIN: Are there words of his that are particularly meaningful to you personally?

CARSON: What strikes me is his ability to look beyond the moment. When he gave his "I Have a Dream" speech, for many of us who came there, the goal was to get a civil rights legislation passed. If you go back to that speech, he doesn't mention that. Instead, he talks about the Declaration of Independence. He talks about the notion of universal human rights that's outlined in that document. And the theme of the speech is: When are we going to live up to that? What are we going to actually accept and live by the notion that all people are created equal? You know that's something that we're still struggling with today, to have that kind of perspective where you're at an event and you're responding to the moment, but you're really speaking over the heads of the audience in front of you. You're speaking to Jefferson. You're speaking to Lincoln. You're speaking to history. And talking about a dream that still is not fulfilled, you know, that to me is something I would not have recognized as a 19-year-old there.

MARTIN: Martin Luther King Jr.'s words have been used by leaders on just about every side of American politics - I mean just about. Is there an issue that you think that Dr. King would be drawn to today that perhaps he didn't envision then, that wasn't really part of his life then?

CARSON: Perhaps an issue that he would be drawn to and understand the complexities of, would be the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. You know, I've spent, I've gone to the Middle East four times and I see people there who are living out Martin Luther King's principles of nonviolence. At the same time, Martin Luther King was very committed to the state of Israel. Now that was a different political context when he was around, but I think that he would try to take on a tough issue like that. And I could easily see him creating controversy today, trying to take a stand, you know, even if there is a political cost to be paid.

MARTIN: Clayborne Carson is a professor of history at Stanford University. He is the director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute. His latest book is "Martin's Dream: My Journey and the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr." It's a memoir. He joined us from member station KALW in San Francisco.

Thank you so much for joining us.

CARSON: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.