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Reflecting On MLK, Jr.'s Writings And Speeches


Today's inaugural ceremonies also fall on the holiday honoring civil rights hero Martin Luther King, Jr. In a special touch, President Obama used two Bibles to take the oath of office, one of them belonging to Abraham Lincoln and the other once belonged to Dr. King. And a lot of Americans have drawn a connection between this nation's first African-American president and Dr. King.

Joining us now to talk more about that is Stanford University Professor Clayborne Carson. His latest book is the memoir, "Martin's Dream: My Journey and the Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr." Professor Carson is also the director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute and was selected personally by Coretta Scott King, Dr. King's widow, to publish Dr. King's papers back in 1985.

Professor Carson, welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

CLAYBORNE CARSON: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Do you see an historical connection between Dr. King and President Obama?

CARSON: Very much so. That's why I devoted a chapter to Obama in my book on "Martin's Dream." You know, we haven't had a president who has as closely identified with the King legacy as Obama is. I think that that legacy helped shape his identity as an adult.

When I first started hearing about Barack Obama, I wanted to hear him in person and I remember seeing him at Ebenezer Church in Atlanta and I was impressed by the way in which he drew the connection between the King legacy and what is going on today, the legacy of people who are - in some ways, have reached the promised land of at least the post-Jim Crow world, but recognize that the struggle is not over and seeing that Joshua generation, you know, what is their role in carrying on from the heroic freedom struggles of the 1960s.

What was interesting to me, also, was the way in which he's, in some ways, moved away from that. You don't hear that as much, except in events like when I attended the dedication of the King National Memorial where, again, he kind of focused on that, obviously, for that audience. But I think, as president, he feels a certain ambivalence about identifying himself too closely with King's legacy.

MARTIN: When can you say that a movement has succeeded? Some see, in President Obama's election, the culmination of Dr. King's dream. Other people say that that's not possible as long as there are still significant numbers of people suffering or in a state of distress, particularly given the last couple of years when African-Americans have been particularly hard hit by this country's kind of economic difficulties.

How do you see this whole question of when the movement has succeeded? Is President Obama the fulfillment of the movement or is it not yet, and what would it be?

CARSON: Well, I think King's dream is still unfulfilled. At the end of his life, it was unfulfilled and, in terms of economic justice issues, it's still an unfulfilled dream. You know, I think that we need to celebrate the fact that a generation of people, heroic freedom fighters, brought an end to the Jim Crow system in the South, brought an end to colonialism abroad. But, at the same time, we need to recognize that Martin Luther King did not retire after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Instead, he - if anything - intensified his struggle and I think that the world would be an obviously much better place if there was a larger number of people who understand that the movement was not over.

You know, I don't look upon any freedom struggle as being over, so the lack of movement activity under Obama is unfortunate. You know, a million of us - more than perhaps two million of us - were at the inauguration. What happened to those two million people the day after the inauguration? You know, why weren't they fighting to bring about an end to poverty and to get universal health coverage for all Americans? All of these things should have been done, even perhaps especially because we had Obama in the White House.

MARTIN: Clayborne Carson is professor of history at Stanford University. He's the director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. He's author - or editor of more than a dozen books. His latest 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, California.

Professor Carson, thank you for joining us. If I may, Happy Martin Luther King Day to you.

CARSON: Happy Martin Luther King Day to you, except that, for us, Martin Luther King Day is every day.

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