MLK memorial impacts Bay Area scholars

October 14, 2011 7:34:01 PM PDT
A monument to civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. will be dedicated in Washington over the weekend. The ceremony had been planned for the anniversary of his "I Have a Dream" speech in August, but had to be postponed because of Hurricane Irene.

While the memorial is being dedicated 3,000 miles away, the human legacy of Dr. King is felt here in the Bay Area.

Several years later, Stanford University's Clayborne Carson, Ph.D. admits when he joined a quarter of a million people on a hot August day to watch Dr. King deliver a speech, he wasn't aware it would be one that would change the course of American history.

"I didn't know Dr. King was giving a historic speech," Carson said. "Just the concluding speech after a long day of speeches."

But Carson, who was 19 at the time, says now he knows better. Carson grew up to become the keeper of King's papers -- among them, the original draft from that speech, which had a completely different title.

"There is not a lot of this draft that winds up in the speech he gave," Carson said.

That's the kind of information a scholar learns when he spends much of his life studying the man known as America's greatest prophet.

"He was someone who emerged from a movement, but who spoke beyond that movement," Carson said.

The stuff of black and white footage today -- a product of black and white strife that culminated in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Battles long forgotten by most, but not the warriors who fought in them.

For Dr. Melba Beals of the Dominican University, the battle had to do with de-segregating the public Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. The book she wrote about the events made her famous, and it may have been a meeting with Dr. King that gave her the most perspective to write it.

"He said, you are doing this not for yourself, but for generations not unborn, so don't be so selfish, child," Beals recounts.

The most common misconception among those who have not seeng the recently-opened memorial to Dr. King in Washington is that it has to do with African-American struggle, but if it was that simple it might not exist at all.

Carson understands, more than most of us, because he helped design the memorial.

"Before the 1960s, we were not really a democracy," said Carson. "We called ourselves a democracy, but you can't call yourself a democracy when exclusive large proportions of your population from the vote."

"He was about men of all colors, inclusions," said Melba. "He was about everyone having equality. If there is no justice here, there is no justice anywhere. We are not free until all of us are free."

The memorial in Washington is for a man still fresh in some memories, while just a history to others. It's a symbol of struggle and change, and even today, a process.

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