Martin Luther King Jr. waves to supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug 28,1963 during the March on Washington. (AFP/Getty Images}
Martin Luther King Jr. waves to supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28,1963 during the March on Washington. (AFP/Getty Images}

For nearly 30 years, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford has been dedicated to studying the civil rights leader’s writings.

Clayborne Carson was just 19 when he traveled from small-town New Mexico to Washington for the march. In 1985, Dr. King’s widow chose him to edit and publish her late husband’s papers. Today he’s the director of the King institute. On this 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, KQED’s Joshua Johnson talked  to Carson about being at the event and the meaning of King’s speech and legacy.

Edited transcript…

Joshua Johnson: What made you decide to make that cross-country journey and attend the march?

Clayborne Carson: When I was growing up in a small town where there were three black families, most of my news about what was happening in the black world came from reports of this burgeoning movement that was going on in the South. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and Montgomery, and the four college students who ignited the sit-in movement in 1960, the Freedom Riders — all of these people were role models for me. I saw they were pushing for change that I thought was long overdue, getting rid of the Jim Crow system in the South.

Johnson: Talk about what it meant for you to just be around so many black people during the march …

Carson: I had never seen that many black people in one location. And just to see all these people from all over the nation, some of them very well-dressed, women with their hats, and families. Then others from the Delta, in Mississippi, wearing their overalls, and the sharecroppers they worked with. All of this was seeing the range of black life, from the entertainers who were on the stage, Harry Belafonte, others. It was a turning point in my life.

Johnson: I understand about 55,000 whites attended the March on Washington?

Carson: That was another thing that was very important, that this was not just a black movement. We had significant white support, and the religious groups that showed up, the labor groups. It was a very unique moment in American history when so many different forces came together. And they disagreed about so many things, but the one thing they agreed on was it was time for the Jim Crow system to end. That gave me encouragement.

Johnson: What’s your most vivid image of either the march itself or the journey on the way to Washington?

Carson: Much of the crowd was pretty sedate, singing “We will overcome,” carrying signs, marching very slowly. But I remember in particular the group from Mississippi, they just seemed to bring a lot of energy. I’d heard about Emmett Till, so I was somewhat afraid of what would it be like to be a black person in Mississippi. And when I saw them, and the spirit that they had, you know, I had a sense that Jim Crow was not going to stand up to that.

And obviously John Lewis’s speech, as well as Martin Luther King’s speech. John Lewis gave the most militant speech of the day. And I found out later from him that he had been asked to tone it down and had to make some changes in it.

Johnson: What was it like being in the crowd?

Carson: I remember I was distracted by so many different thoughts, you know, how was I going to get home. And yet I wanted to watch this person I’d heard about most of my life. Of course when you hear it, you don’t know it’s going to be a famous speech. As far as I knew, all Martin Luther King speeches were like that. It was only later that I even knew it had a name: the “I Have a Dream” speech. It was the concluding speech of a long day of speeches.

I think one of the reasons why I wrote a book that was published earlier this year, “Martin’s Dream,” was I wanted to have a chapter where I had the perspective I had as a 19-year-old, and one where I was writing the autobiography of Martin Luther King. And the contrast between seeing him from my 19-year-old’s eyes and seeing what he was thinking in the days before and as he was giving his speech, I think I really came closer to understanding why the speech was as great as it turned out.

Johnson: What would you say is your insight from that?

Carson: I think that he had been writing it all of his life. That he had always focused on this theme of the contrast between American ideals, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, and American realities, especially for black Americans. So many of his speeches talked about that contrast, and that’s deeply rooted in African-American history, going back to Frederick Douglass. So I know now that he was not really speaking to me and to other people in that crowd. He was actually speaking to Thomas Jefferson, and the other founders of the Republic. And he was asking, “When is this nation going to live up to the ideals that you expressed?”

So he’s carrying on a conversation with Lincoln, who also asked that same question about whether the American nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the ideal of equality, whether it could even endure. And Lincoln said, well, the other option is that there would be a new birth of freedom in this country. And I think King is saying the same thing with his dream. He is saying, if we live up to this ideal, here is my vision, here is my word picture for the kind of America that will exist once we make this decision as a nation that we’re going to close the gulf between American ideals and the realities of its least fortunate citizens.

Johnson: What would you say is the one most important thing that future generations should always remember about the March on Washington and about that speech?

Carson: I think you just need to listen carefully and understand that this gulf between ideals and reality is something that is always with us. We always have ideals that we shoot for, and certainly the ideal of universal human rights, that every person has inalienable rights of birth, is an ideal we don’t yet live up to. But we need to use that ideal as a way of assessing how we should think about American realities.

And to me, that’s the duty of every American, of asking that question. Because we justified this nation in the Declaration of Independence and said this is the reason we’re having this revolution in this nation, because we believe in these ideals. So I think, more than any other nation, we have the responsibility to think about whether we are closing that gulf or is that gulf getting larger and larger?

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