Stanford professor and historian Clayborne Carson recounted Martin Luther King Jr.’s life experiences to encourage BYU students to stand for human rights.
Carson’s BYU forum, given on Feb. 28, was titled “Where Do We Go from Here? Chaos or Community.” This is also the title to a book King wrote shortly after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed.
King was a big focus in both Carson’s speech and in his professional studies. Carson edited and published the King Papers among many other works and publications. He shared many of King’s life experiences during his forum — especially ones in which King failed.
“He went through a period which I would call the valley,” Carson said. “He was not able to move forward as a leader.”
King became depressed by the time the protests in Albany, GA, started in 1962. Carson said King felt he would accomplish nothing more in his life. He was jailed in Albany with hundreds of other people.
“He really had to face the reality that maybe he had reached his peak at 27, and there was nothing more to be done,” Carson said. “He fails in Albany.”
This period of time is in contrast to the “mountaintop moments” that are often thought of in connection with King’s life. Carson gives examples of these moments as the “I Have a Dream” speech or the march on Selma.
A friend invited King to go to Birmingham, AL, during this valley period in King’s life. Birmingham was known as “Bombingham” at this time for its harsh persecution, according to Carson.
“Black people who stood up to segregation found that their homes would be bombed. Their churches would be bombed,” Carson said.
King made the crucial decision to go to Alabama and another miracle happened in the form of the Children’s Crusade of 1963. The publicity surrounding this event led the Kennedy administration to prepare the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
King’s involvement in this movement changed his life as a leader, according to Carson.
“That’s what led King to become the King that we recognize today,” Carson said.
King continued his work even after segregation was abolished, despite the ups and downs in his life. According to Carson, those are the most intense and interesting parts of King’s life.
“He might have just retired. He might have just said ‘I’ve contributed enough,’” Carson said.
King did not choose retirement. Instead, he set a goal for the rest of his life to consider the remaining problems in the world. He wrote “Where Do We Go from Here? Chaos or Community” during this period.
King continued to combat racial oppression and the barriers that would plague minorities moving forward. He also tried to eliminate poverty and violence throughout the world, focusing on giving not only civil rights to all, but human rights as well.
Carson explained American society still hasn’t found the answer to King’s question: “Where do we go from here?”
“At the end of that process, we’re living in a world which I don’t think many of us would describe as a just and a peaceful world,” Carson said. “Perhaps gaining civil rights has made us complacent about something else, which I would call human rights.”
This continued campaign for change did not make King a more popular leader. Many of his earlier supporters became critics. However, Carson explained his admiration for King increases because of the resilience with which he combated these criticizers.
Carson ended his forum by quoting one of King’s last sermons.
“If you’ve never found something so dear and so precious to you that you would die for it, then you aren’t fit to live,” King said. “You died when you refused to stand up for right. You died when you refused to stand up for truth. You died when you refused to stand up for justice.”
According to Carson, this sermon exemplifies the need for courage that is so important today in the fight for human rights.