The King Papers Project: An Interview With Clayborne Carson
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The historian Clayborne Carson is author of In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Harvard University Press, 1981), the definitive study of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He directs the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, housed at Stanford University, which produces The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.
When Coretta Scott King asked you to preside over the King Papers Project in 1985, did it give you pause?
Initially, I said no. I felt there were other people more suitable, partly because I never really thought of myself as a King biographer. I was a SNCC person. Even before I first saw King, at the March on Washington in 1963, I had met Stokely Carmichael and other SNCC activists. At that time, the march was the most significant experience of my life. I am fairly certain that I would not be studying King and the African-American freedom struggle if not for that experience. It exposed me to ideas and possibilities that had never occurred to me.
As you radicalized in the 1960s, were you affected by SNCC's disenchantment with King?
Oh, sure, I shared that sense. I was impatient. I didn't want to wait for change. And I was disillusioned with liberalism, thought it was too willing to compromise on rights and too dominated by middle-class reformers, as opposed to grass-roots people. The pieces I wrote then were in the Black Power, Black Panther vein.
Later you reconsidered?
The Black Power movement didn't get much power, so I faced the reality. I was at UCLA when black militants were killing other black militants. I saw the movement self-destruct. I saw the white New Left self-destruct. Repression was part of it, but I was honest enough to know that if you call for revolution, you should not be surprised if the existing order tries to repress you.
When you sat down to plan the King Papers, what scholarly models did you have in mind?
The one that influenced me most was the Marcus Garvey Papers, edited by Bobby Hill, a friend. His project was similar, in that Garvey was a black leader who was a symbol of a larger movement. So he faced similar kinds of problems — as opposed to, say, a papers project concerned with a president or a literary figure.
Did the King family give you total autonomy?
I wouldn't have accepted the role as director of the project if there had been any kind of editorial control from the family.
Did you have any inkling of King's plagiarism when you took on the project?
I had some sense that King's speeches were not entirely original, that there were ghostwriters and editors involved. So I don't think that I went in with a naïve sense that King wrote everything attributed to him. But I didn't think he had ghostwriters in college, so in terms of the academic work, it was a surprise.
We just reported what we found. One of the things that we were both praised and criticized for is that we didn't get into the morality or ethics of what he did. My job as editor was simply to document passages in King's academic writings that were not attributed to the original source and that violated the rules of the institution he was attending.
How is your project financed?
A lot of it is from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and large foundations such as Mellon and Hewlett.
How expensive is it?
Very. In the age of the Internet, we'll probably be one of the last projects to produce multivolume print editions. They're just enormously expensive. Probably each of our volumes will cost a half-million dollars to produce, on average.
Do you read every volume through? They're so meticulous, with the annotation and cross-referencing.
I am not a figurehead senior editor, definitely. I get involved in the meticulous detail. But I do have a very good staff. The kind of checking and crosschecking that happens for one of our volumes is way beyond what is normal for a scholarly publication.
I feel that each volume is at least as much of an original contribution to the literature in the field as most scholarly books that come out. It's not like we're taking materials already familiar to scholars and repackaging them. Every volume has documents that we've discovered, that were not available to scholars before.
You've been at this 22 years. Are you glad you made this life decision?
That depends on the day you ask. Some days are very frustrating — especially those devoted to raising money.
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 54, Issue 19, Page B9