MLK Papers Project uncovers how Martin became King with rare, unpublished documents

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Friday, February 19, 2021
How Martin became King: Project peels back layers to MLK legacy
The team at the King Institute is working to provide the most definitive collection of MLK's work and ideas as his legacy is regularly flattened into his famous 'I Have a Dream' speech and his quotes are cherry picked.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- We know about his dream, but how much do we know about the moments in his life that shaped that dream? The Martin Luther King Jr. Education and Research Institute at Stanford University is producing a multi-volume collection of MLK's personal and public documents, spanning decades, to illuminate little-known moments in the civil rights leader's life that shaped him.

It's the type of dilemma historians dream of.

For Dr. Clayborne Carson, the founding director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, it's become his life's work documenting King's life in the King Papers Project.

"It's taken us much longer to edit and publish his papers than it took him to live his life," said Dr. Carson. "That's been the challenge; not the lack of materials, but because of so much material out there."

The King Papers Project is a collection of King's most significant correspondence, sermons, speeches, and rare unpublished texts.

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To date, seven exhaustive volumes have been published spanning hundreds of pages.

Each volume is bound in a signature red cover.

The work started in 1985 when Dr. Carson was handpicked by Coretta Scott King, founder of the King Center in Atlanta, to lead the project nearly 20 years after MLK was assassinated.

Glover: "How long did you believe it would take you to get through all 12 volumes at the time?"

Carson: "I'm kind of embarrassed to tell you the answer to that. I told (Coretta Scott King) 'probably in about 20 years I think we can wrap this up'."

Glover: "So you were thinking 2005?"

Carson: "Yes. And we've kind of passed that deadline."

The first volume, released in 1992, focused on King's early life in Atlanta and took seven years to produce.

Each volume is arranged chronologically and filled with powerful texts that peels back another layer, revealing King's growth and shifts in ideology as he became one of the most prolific and controversial figures in American history.

Glover: "What are maybe just a couple of the most important pieces that you've come across in doing this work?"

Carson: "I remember being in Coretta's basement and we pull out what was called his preaching file. In it there was a document handwritten by Martin Luther King Jr. It was the beginning of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech-handwritten. Probably the last person to touch that legal pad was Martin Luther King Jr. until I opened it, what is it 30 years later?"

Carson has never found an attic or a basement he was afraid of digging thru. He and his team have spent decades crossing continents to locate these hidden and often forgotten documents.

"To get King's perspective, I have to go and find those documents. It might be the child or grandchild of the person who corresponded with King. They don't necessarily know the value of what they have," Carson said.

Glover: "Give me your best estimate, how many documents do you think you've sorted through?"

Carson: "Tens of thousands."

Glover: "30,000? 40,000?"

Carson: "We've cataloged 50,000 to 60,000 documents."

Carson stressed the institute has discovered even more texts.

One can't help but be struck by the intimate nature of the documents unearthed in the papers. From early love letters as MLK courted Coretta, to a paper from King's days in seminary school where he stated his mission as a minister: "I must be concerned about unemployment, slums, and economic insecurity," the paper reads.

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Oddly enough, what Carson believes is one of the most illuminating findings of the King Paper's Project only earned the young MLK a "B+" from the instructor.

Currently the King Institute is working on Volume VIII of the pre-determined XIV volume series. It is set to be released in 2022.

"We are working on 1963-a very important year. It was the year of the Birmingham campaign so King is in the most important protest campaign of his life. There's also the meeting with John F. Kennedy, the March on Washington," Carson said.

After more than three decades, Carson is now taking a step back in the process of editing and publishing the MLK Papers.

In August 2020 Carson retired as senior editor and director of the King Papers.

Tenisha Armstrong has accepted the role of director of the King Papers Project.

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Armstrong was a summer intern at the King Papers Project in 1998 and served as a research assistant for several years before assuming her role as editor of the papers.

Carson, now working on the foreword of Volume VIII of the Papers, believes King's work is as important today as ever.

The team at the King Institute is working to provide the most definitive collection of King's work and ideas as his legacy is regularly flattened into his famous 'I Have a Dream' speech and his quotes are cherry picked and twisted by politicians and in social media chatter.

Glover: "What do you think Dr. King would make of the King Papers, and seeing all of his work, his sermons, so many of the correspondence from people all over the world collected in one place?"

Carson: "I think he'd be kind of amused by it. Because he was not a keeper. He wasn't concerned with 'Oh, I have to keep all of my sermons and documents in one place.' Coretta was the keeper. I think that he would have been happy that his ideas are still very much alive in the 21st century."

Individual volumes of the King Papers are available for purchase online.

A number of key documents found in the papers are also available to view online; everything from handwritten personal notes, to sermons, to exchanges between King and Malcom X.

You can view the documents here.

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As Carson admits the project likely won't be completed in his life time, he's focused on his next mission: designing a free online curriculum and lecture series that navigates key findings from the King Papers that will live on forever.

The King Papers Project is funded by Stanford University and receives financial support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and private donors.

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