tv Lectures in History CSPAN October 31, 2015 11:59pm-12:56am EDT
order your copy of the "landmark cases" companion book. each week, american history tv sits in on a lecture with college professors. you can watch it here. next, the stanford university professor clayborne carson talks about martin luther king jr.'s upbringing. class tookarson's place in atlanta where martin luther king jr. was a pastor. the class was part of a three-week seminar that includes field trips to the civil rights historic sites. mr. carson: who is martin
luther king? one side of him is a famous individual. he was a 1964 winner of the nobel peace prize. he was the most influential leader of a great social movement. he is the only american who was honored with a national holiday in his name. there is the uniqueness that practically everybody in the world knows the name "martin luther king." the question i would like to address in this setting is who really was martin luther king? one of the advantages of using a setting like this is that we can really practice history to which it be. it should not be about names and dates that you remember.
it should be about the study of the things that survive from the past. that is why a site, a historical site, is so important. that is why the king papers project, when coretta scott king edited his papers, she understood that in the long run, what would survive where the papers that martin luther king produced during his lifetime. so, all of that is part of what i would call the legacy of martin luther king. if we want to get close to who he really was, that is the best window that we have into the past. melissa king produced a lot of papers. martin luther king has produced a lot of papers.
as any great person, you have so many materials to work with. all of these are important. i feel that my life is well served by doing this. we decide what will be the lasting memory of martin luther king. when we look at who he really was, we have to go back the on the myth, back beyond the kind of person honored by the national holiday. the important thing about coming to a site like this is you begin to see the evidence from michael king, a person who existed before martin luther king, the reverend martin luther king jr., that was the person who was born
just up the street, a block up the street at 501 auburn avenue. that was the person that i hope, as you saw in that birth home, you have in mind what kind of influence that historical building has on the making of martin luther king. fortunately, we not only have the birth home, we have a few documents, not as many as when he becomes famous. thousands of letters that we have. documents from people who wrote to him. all of those are part of the papers of martin luther king. when we look at whene was growing up, we don't have a lot to work with. basically, what we have is a few documents and a lot of memories.
some of the memories are not as reliable as the other memories. just think of a document that most of you have, your birth certificate. we have that from martin luther king. it tells us some important things about him. he was born on january 15, 1929. we know that the birth took place in that second floor bedroom in that home. we know something about the other names that are on that birth certificate. who would be on that? the father and the mother. we know that at that time the person who becomes martin luther king senior is mike king at the
time and is also living in the house and alberta king is living there. something else that you begin to understand as you look at the other major documents from that. the autobiography of martin luther king, he writes his own autobiography. it is 14 pages. he does it for a class. we learn a number of things from that document. the third document that is important is the memoir. in historical terms, historians refer to it as the spare primary document, but it is long after the fact so less valuable in
some ways, but personal, so valuable in others. let us look at these. one of the things that we find is how is he born? one of the things that the birth certificate indicates is that there was a midwife and a doctor. the doctor also lived on auburn avenue. what does that tell us about martin luther king? this neighborhood was diverse. a doctor could live in this neighborhood, but there were also working class people in this neighborhood. the fact that there was a midwife at the birth, which indicates that we are still looking at a family that is somewhat privileged. there was a doctor also attending.
we can see from that that martin luther king's early upbringing was a mixture of the, i guess what i would call the striving for middle-class status, and the people that were predominant in this neighborhood were working-class. we can also see from this document that, at the time, his father is a preacher. where? right here. we can see that there is another person in his household. who is that? that is, at the time of his birth, both of the grandparents, who are still alive. his grandfather is also the minister of ebenezer church. the things that we can find by looking at both the birth
certificate, the autobiography of religious development, at data, we can see that these were the forces that shaped him. growing up in this home, a middle-class victorian home, two stories, six bedrooms, that was unusual. it gave him a certain amount of privilege. we can also see that he is connected to the past. what does he say in the autobiography? he refers to his saintly grandmother who grew up telling him stories. she refers to him as her favorite grandson.
that is probably because he is the oldest, the one that comes along first. she tells him all the stories. the great influence on his life is going to be his father. what happens to his grandfather? he dies before martin luther king gets to know him. he dies when he is only about two years old. who replaces him at ebenezer? his father. how does that happen? in his memoir, we can tell little bit about that story. the fact that his mother-in-law is the widow of the person that almost founded this church gave him a great advantage. actually, at the time, the reverend michael king was
skeptical about becoming the minister of ebenezer. why would that be? part of it was that he wanted to have his own church. if he had come to this church, would he have gotten the position because he was a son-in-law, or was this something he had earned on his own? he was skeptical about that. from his point of view, this was something that he would always be in the shadow of his father in law. it took him a while before he makes that decision to come in -- and be pastor here. reverend williams was a successful person in his own time. when martin comes to atlanta in
the years after world war i, he comes from a very humble background. his father had been a sharecropper. he sees rural poverty. he grows up trying to make it in the rural south not that far from atlanta. he is the type of person that is very ambitious. that leads him into the ministry. he wants to have a better life than plowing the fields. he teaches himself the rudiments of preaching. he has only a third grade education. barely literate, but he learns enough to read bible verses, memorizes lots of them. in the years after world war i, he comes to atlanta. his sister, woody, is a boarder.
she is living across the street. she comes to visit her that she -- and who does he see? alberta, on the porch. he decides she is going to be my wife. he also decides, "i am going to aspire to be a minister like reverend williams." he comes there and he knows that half literate preacher who just arrived in atlanta is not going to marry the daughter of a successful preacher. this is despite the fact that reverend williams comes from an almost identical background. he had come, 20 years earlier, by the time reverend king comes, already successful.
he sees her at this porch and decides some day, she is going to marry him. "but i know i have to get educated first." "i have to go and visit grammar school." he studies, gets out of grammar school, and decides, "now i need to go to morehouse college." he goes, and the president is john hope. with a little bit of encouragement, because reverend williams saw what was happening, saw that this guy would have the same drive and ambition he had, he puts in a good word. they did not have sat scores. he would never have gotten there.
he says this person does not have very much education, but he will work as hard as he can to get through. so, at the time, when martin luther king moves into the williams home, it is because he is a student. he gets married in the 1920's to alberta. it takes about five years. he decides he is going to go and get into morehouse. kind of on probation. he is going to work really hard. these three children, the first two, christine is born in 1927. he is still an undergraduate at morehouse.
michael junior is born in 1929. this is not martin yet. when the next is born in 1930, he is finishing up ministerial studies. this is all taking place as he tries to gain his own stature. once reverend williams dies in 1931 and he becomes the preacher, the pastor of this church, what we see is that he has this drive. he not only wants to achieve what reverend williams has achieved, he wants to achieve even more. he wants to go out and create his own legacy. he comes to the ministry during the depression at a time when it is very difficult to bring in
new members, especially members who could provide donations to help the church along. he brings the church to the 30's by providing services to the people. food. help with housing the church became a social service agency as well as a place for religious guidance, the kinds of things we refer to later as the "social gospel." this is the environment that martin grows up in. again, at that point, he is still michael king. how does he become martin king? that happens as part of that drive by his father to achieve respectability. he changes his name.
he later explained he changes it because his father had had a brother named martin and another named luther. he understood the symbolism of martin luther. he had just been to germany, berlin, in 1934, for the world congress of baptism. this is the first time, 100 years after the founding of modern baptism, and they have a world conference. here is reverend king, one of perhaps a dozen black ministers who make it to berlin in 1934 to attend this meeting. he comes back, and by that time, this is the symbol of what he has achieved. he makes the decision, i'm going to change my name.
that changes his son, because he is a junior. he becomes reverend martin luther king senior and martin luther king jr. i'm giving you this background because i think that this helps to explain why this place is so important. why the birth home is such an important place. this is where, literally, martin luther king junior changed his identity. this is the place where he has his early experiences. this is the important thing that comes through in that wonderful document, the autobiography of religious development. that is something that he writes during his first year at theological seminary. a handwritten paper. i would love to show you it,
just to see the way in which he kind of sketches out his life. he says, "i was born in 1929 on the eve of the great depression, which spread its disastrous arms throughout the nation." that is how he comes to his anti-capitalist view of the world. that's all in the first paragraph. have you ever read a document that reveals so much more than that? just from its beginning? those of you in this class understand that beginning, because it is the beginning of the auto biography. this seems like the perfect place to begin his story. what i like to emphasize is that, in so many other ways, that influence the person who we honor today. because he also talks about the influence of his father.
he does not spend as much time with his mother. she is behind the scenes, taking care of those essential things that you need in life. he talks about his grandmother, who he has this special attachment to. she is described as a saintly grandmother, who told him these wonderful stories about the origins of the family. what else does he look at? i think what it does is it allows us to understand the most important decision he makes during the first 20 years of his life. that is the decision to become a minister. you might assume that because his grandfather is a minister, his father is a minister, well of course he is going to become a minister. actually, for exactly those reasons, he decided, no, i am
not going to become a minister. that's not what i'm going to do. why was that? part of it was youthful rebelliousness and not wanting to follow the route of the parents. part of this comes out in his autobiography, his early religious doubts. we are in the church. in the basement of this church, in sunday school, what shapes him? well, he begins to learn things in sunday school. maybe some of you have the same experience. as you get older, you begin to doubt some of those things. in this sanctuary, an incident happens when he was, i think we have dated it at seven years old when it happens.
there is a religious revival that takes place here. a visiting minister, one of the ways in which ministers of their congregation is they would invite a revivalist to come in. usually, it's some spellbinding person who can get to the emotions of people. what happens in a service at a certain point? people are asked to come forward at a certain point and testify about accepting jesus as their savior. well, what does martin luther king experience? he is sitting in the church. just imagine this. he is the preacher's son. his sister, his older sister comes up. he is sitting there. ok, do i go up or do i not go
up? he decides to come forward. later, he says he felt bad about that. he says he was not doing this out of inner conviction, he was doing it to keep up with his sister. that becomes one of the shaping things that he talks about in his autobiography that shapes his religious views. then, what happens later? he gets to about 13. he's in the basement of the sunday school class. he starts to question the bodily resurrection of jesus. that doesn't sound right. he questions whether to take that literally or just figuratively. a 13-year-old is not supposed to be doing that. martin luther king starts to
question, and he says, "these doubts began to come forth unrelentingly, once i began to question." of course, he is not going to make the decision to follow his father into the ministry as long as he has these doubts. so, the theme of the autobiography is that struggle to overcome these doubts. so, in the process of the 14 page document, you can trace the beginning of his consciousness as a religious person. he has to overcome these doubts or else he cannot make this decision to become a minister. how does he overcome that? well, it happens at morehouse college. he goes to morehouse college. he takes the only course at morehouse for which he gets in
a. that should give some hope to you. you can achieve great things without a wonderful gpa. [laughter] mr. carson: what happens is that this is only class on religion that he takes at morehouse. he is taught by a professor named george kelsey. i had the privilege of meeting george kelsey. he was a wonderful, well educated person who i could see how a young martin would see as a role model. because, from his own father, he gets this kind of religion that is what i would call "old-time religion." a lot of emotion, not too much emphasis on theology and reason and things like that.
from george kelsey, what he gets is that you have to get behind the myth of the bible. a lot of the stories, you have to understand what is their deeper meaning. george kelsey is a well-educated person who have studied the bible and understood a lot of the historical context and sees it as a historical document, something that you could go back and question, "why did they write this the way that they did?" what you find from that is that here he is, doing this when probably most of us are not
questioning the way he did. the way that he is really striking is that he is doing to set 13 years old, 14 years old, 15 years old, at a time when most of us accept things without much deeper thought. he goes to this period of questioning. kelsey teaches him the rudiments of how you look at the bible as a historical document, something that he really is drawn to. actually, that's later, actually, as he goes off to seminary, he finds that by going to this liberal -- and what i mean by liberal is that within the spectrum of seminaries, there are those that teach the bible as the word of god, don't question even a single word, to the other extreme of saying that
this is something that you could question just like any other historical document, in fact one of the things that you will remember from reading taylor branch's account is that you should spend the first year breaking down all the beliefs you think you have before you start building up those that can be capable of withstanding criticism. by the time he leaves high school, he is still a very young person and begins to see from the class a way of reconciling the admiration he has for his father. that comes through in his autobiography. he admires his father's commitment to change society, to
bring justice. his father has the basis of the social gospel, but he also has a more fundamentalist view of the bible. so, what young martin wants to do is to take that commitment that he sees in his father. and combine it with the air edition, the intellectualism of george kelsey and of course benjamin mays, who is the great influence. benjamin mays and george kelsey. these are highly educated ministers, passionate in their religious beliefs, but also intellectuals. so, i think that what we get from understanding the
importance of being here is that this is where it all happened. i mean, within two blocks of here, the important events of martin luther king's life happened. this is what shaped him into the person that we know. we can trace that through the writings, through the documents that we have here. what we have that is a very essential part of the papers of martin luther king is that so many of those papers are religious papers. he had to work things out in terms of his religious beliefs. that was the fundamental basis of martin luther king.
to conclude, i would say that if we look closely at those papers, what we find is that he is defining his mission as a minister. one of the early papers that he does at the seminary in his first year, he is asked by professor what is going to guide his ministry. he says, "i'm going to deal with unemployment, economic insecurity." civil rights is not on the list. what is he doing 20 years later? this is 1948, what is he doing in 1968? slums, unemployment, economic insecurity.
what i suggest to you is that when we look at the martin luther king who had his formative expenses here at ebenezer and the home of the -- up the street, these are the essential formative experiences. when we look at it from the perspective of the person who emerged from this experience, we see that he emerged in a way that was fundamentally changed. rosa parks transformed him into a civil rights leader.
all those changes that took place from the montgomery bus boycott to the voting rights act, he could very well have said, "i do not ask for this job, i was kind of asked to take this job of being a civil rights leader, but i did a pretty good job, let me go home and rest." the civil rights act as the last major piece of civil rights legislation. you see the direct line of the experiences that have occurred on this block in this neighborhood to 1968. what you see is that he was reaching the crucial time in
1965 and saying his work was not done. that was not my mission, my mission was much deeper than that. that explains why the person that helped pass the voting rights act ends of the year -- up a year later in chicago. later than that, launching the poor people's campaign and ending up in memphis. so, we are here. one of the things that would be so good, that is so good about being here, is not simply being in the building, but we also have some of the witnesses. one of the great witnesses of martin luther king's life is the reverend ct williams, who is
someone who shared that social gospel notion of christianity, and someone that knew martin luther king during the main years of his life. we are very privileged to be in this wonderful setting and have one of the witnesses, when the persons whose memory is very much still alive. i hate to refer to him as a historical artifact, but we can learn so much. [laughter] mr. carson: you're not finished yet. thank you so much. i want to open it up for any questions you might have. this is the place to ask. please.
>> did dr. king's experiences growing up in the church, being a preacher, influence his leadership style in the movement? mr. carson: the question is what did his experience in church have on his leadership style and the movement. one of the documents is that when he takes his first pulpit -- here, he was under his father sometimes, sometimes coming back in the summer to serve as the minister, give his father time to take a vacation. when he went to dexter avenue baptist church and took the pastorship of the church, his father gave him advice based on
his knowledge of how you run a church. remember, the baptist church is somewhat unique in the sense that they can hire but also fire a minister. ok? there is this balance. reverend king, who knew this, told his son you have to have a firm hand. we have this document where martin is talking about, giving us one of his first sermons to the congregation and says that, "in the church, authority comes from the pulpit to the pew, not the pew to the pulpit." why was that? because the minister represented an understanding of the word of god.
if you do not accept that authority, get another minister. now, there was that aspect of martin luther king were some of the young people didn't really get along that well with that idea, that in the civil rights world authority comes from the pulpit to the pews. there was this attitude that, "well, we are a grassroots organization, some of the power has to come from the grassroots to the leaders." it did really affect the way in which he viewed his goals and the movement. yes? >> at what point in your life did you decide to study and ok
-- study mlk and his life as the right path for you? mr. carson: i decided i was almost destined for it. i look back, and i was at the march in washington. i met mrs. king when i was researching my book. john hope franklin, the great historian, recommended me to her. having said all that, there's just the serendipity of, i was -- at that time i really believed more in the view of "bottom-up." one of the things about my first book, struggle, is that it is
not from king's perspective. i wonder why she entrusted me with that mission. she knew that i'd written a book, and i suspect that she had read it. even though i had come to that perspective, i would have sympathy for the movement. also, i would learn over time. i remember the first paper i did, after becoming the editor of martin luther king's paper, s, this is one of the first conferences after the national holiday.
i did a very public speech that is now in all the papers given at the conference. who is in the front row? mrs. king, but also bob moses, the main organizer from sncc. here i am as a sncc person giving a talk as the editor of martin luther king's papers. i gave this talk, and the conclusion of it was that the movement would have happened even if he had not been born. i looked out, and here's karen
-- here is coretta scott king kind of frowning. i think maybe i'm not going to be lasting long in this job. [laughter] mr. carson: it forced me to rethink my own attitude. every time i applied for a grant to do the king papers, i had to say, why is this important? why is it important? if king had never been born, why is it important? what did he provide to the movement? one way of understanding the last 30 years of my life is answering that question. i have to answer that question every day, every year. each year, i hope my answer becomes more sophisticated, that i understand that there was something essential. what i think was essential is that he was a visionary. there were a lot of people who were good at mobilizing people.
there were organizers. there were people like bob moses, who were essential to the movement. even in montgomery. is joann robinson less important than martin luther king? i think she is more important in mobilizing that. martin luther king did not become the leader of the bus boycott until the afternoon of the first day of the boycott, which was 100% successful, just about. how did that happen? how did you have a successful boycott without martin luther king? he is selected to lead. isn't it wonderful, as a leader, that someone says we are have a successful movement, we just want you to keep it going? we want you to make it to the second day, the third day? this is the bottom of the of
movements, but if you ask yourself, you get to the 200th day of the boycott, and things are not changing. who is going to provide the inspiration about the visionary goals? if you think about it, most movements do not make sense. how can you have a strike, or any kind of movement, a boycott? you put yourself through suffering. 381 days of people having to walk to work. these are people who cannot just say, "ok, i'm going to drive to work today." from that point of view, you could look at it and say rationally, by the 200th day,
they might say, "maybe i should ride on the bus. it's raining outside. it's cold." but if you're listening to the montgomery improvement association rally, and marketing mlk is saying this is not about getting a better seat on the bus, this is about something that is going to affect your sense of dignity as a person, this is something that is about the sermon on the mount, this is someing about the declaration of independence, this is about certain kinds of transcendent values that even when you have to walk to work in the rain you do not want to go back and sit
on that bus. i think that is kind of the way i would balance it now. understanding that each of them have their roles. it was a complex movement. lots of people were in it who played perhaps the most important role they would play in the lifetime. that is what makes a great movement. martin luther king played his role. that is what led him to be the great leader that we know. one final question? ok. >> we talked before in class that martin luther king
believed that communisim did what christianity ought to do. is there any evidence that that's what he continued to believe later? mr. carson: the question about whether he believed that sermon that martin luther king delivered, that communism is a challenge to christianity. he gives that before the montgomery bus boycott. are you familiar with that? >> we have to find where one starts. this is why religion works so well with it. we are talking about who, where are your values? are they really from the
politics of your nation, or they from the deeper spirit of your nation? so, the ministry works perfectly. the two are tied together there. you can have one without the other, but you cannot-- it takes both of them to keep a capitalistic country going. mr. carson: one of the things i would also add to the reverend's statement is part of the idea that king had about the social gospel is that he said, at one point in his life, i don't need to read karl marx to know that we should care about the poor and do justice for those were less fortunate. that comes from the sermon on the mount.
any christian should know that. part of what he was trying to get across was that if christians understood the message that goes back even before jesus, back to amos, isaiah, the great prophets, what was the message they were bringing to the jewish people? the message was that you have an obligation, a religious obligation to do this. god demands it of you. if you fail in that demand, that is going to bring that things to the jewish people. well, maybe by looking at it in that perspective, martin luther king would conclude that communism answers the right question with the wrong answer.
that the right question is, "how do we build a just society?" the difference would be that a communist would say, "by any means necessary." the idea that the ends justify the means. he is saying that the means that you used to get to that end, that determines what you get in the end. if you use force to get to the end, you have to maintain yourself using force. whoever is on the other side is not going to suddenly give up. you have people who are going to be overturning the revolution. you have a counterrevolution. you have another revolution. the cycle of violence goes on. his view is the only way you overcome that cycle is to understand that the means have
to be humane. have to be consistent with your moral principles. in that way, you build the possibility of a reconciled society, the "blood community." that you would have a society -- he would point to the differences between, say, a country that achieves independence nonviolently predominantly and those who had to go through revolutionary violence. he says, "look at the end result." you don't find in india today indians still fighting over the same things they were fighting over 100 years ago. they can understand that they can be reconciled with their former colonizers.
that is an interesting way of looking at it. i think that he understood that one of the things about that sermon is that, i have looked at that sermon very carefully, and a lot of the basic ideas come up from the sermon that his father gave a decade earlier. he gives a sermon in 1953 and a very similar sermon in 1963. you have 20 years from his father to the son where they are making the same argument. it's not that surprising. they go back to the same biblical sources, the prophets. one of the things that i think becomes clear after reading martin luther king is that it
helps us to understand a lot of the current debates going on about the world of religion where there's a lot of emphasis on whether leviticus as these passages against homosexuality, all of these things that are part of the bible. people have to decide, what am i going to emphasize as the essential teachings of my religion? if you just do a search on doing justice to the poor, the idea that that is an essential characteristic of any christian, you find that there is hundreds of mentions. it certainly is the most commonly mentioned theme. and yet, what happens in some
churches? you focus on the one passage and you miss the hundred other mentions of doing justice to those less fortunate. what do you take of the basic message that you should -- i think martin luther king had come to the notion that religion is about changing the world as well as changing the soul. he talked about that in the terms of the "dual mission of christianity." some ministers would say that it does not matter what is happening in the world, all we should these concerned about is your sould. there are others who would say you have got to deal with both. why? he says in one of these early
papers it is a dual process. you have to be concerned about the soul as well as the society in which the soul exists. unless you're concerned about both sides, you cannot service the needs of your congregation. that's it. [applause] >> join us each saturday evening at 8:00 p.m. eastern for classroom lectures from around the country. on different topics and errors of american history. they are also available as podcasts. visit our website. download them from itunes. bookshelf features popular writers and errors every weekend.