Rallies And Counter-Rallies Compete For King's Legacy

Guests

Clayborne Carson, director, Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute
Bishop Harry R. Jackson, Jr., Hope Christian Church, Maryland
Eddie Glaude, Jr., Princeton University

Talk show host Glenn Beck has planned a rally at the Lincoln Memorial — on the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech. Writers, commentators and activists have frequently invoked King's words and teachings since his death in 1968. Scholars discuss King's writings and the recurring conflicts over his legacy.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

Broadcaster Glenn Beck said that when he scheduled this weekend's rally at the Lincoln Memorial, he didn't know that the date marked the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. But he calls the coincidence providence because it allows him to speak about how King's words have inspired him.

This Saturday, there will be other rallies and marches here in Washington and other speakers who cite the words and ideas of Martin Luther King. Ministers, activists, politicians quote him all the time. You may remember then-Senator Barack Obama doing so when he announced his candidacy for president.

How do King's words live in your life, your politics and your actions? What specific words do you cite? We want quotes here. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, how brain trauma can mimic ALS, Lou Gehrig's Disease. But first, the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Joining us from Stanford University is Clayborne Carson, professor of American history there and director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. And thanks very much for joining us.

Professor CLAYBORNE CARSON (Stanford University; Director, Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute): Good to talk to you.

CONAN: And you edited Dr. King's papers for publication. You know his words probably as well as anybody. And the first impression you have to come away with about Martin Luther King's words is there are an awful lot of them.

Prof. CARSON: That's right, and some of the things, Neal, that are attributed to him were not said by him, and other things he simply picked up from other people.

So it is a complex issue of saying, quoting Martin Luther King. It's not necessarily the case that the quotes are accurate.

CONAN: Can you give us an instance of something attributed to him that's not accurate?

Prof. CARSON: Well, even things like the "I Have A Dream" speech. I mean, he used phrases drawn from a wide variety of people, including Thomas Jefferson, and of course the Declaration of Independence.

He drew some of his conclusion from another minister, who had made a speech using "My Country 'Tis of Thee" at the 1952 Republican convention. That was Reverend Archibald Carey.

So, you know, he was part of an oratorical traditional that draws on ideas from many different sources, and the main source he drew upon was the American political and intellectual tradition.

CONAN: And he gave thousands of speeches, and this is a reverend, used to coming up with a sermon every week. He had to come up with a lot of them.

Prof. CARSON: He certainly did, and anyone who gives a couple of hundred speeches a year and sermons a year has to. They're not going to all be original. They're all going to draw upon things that he had said in the past, things that he had heard other people say.

So I think the real value of Martin Luther King is that he was part of a dialogue, and the most important dialogue he was a part of was: What is the meaning of American democracy? How those ideas that were - Jefferson wrote for the Declaration of Independence, what do they mean today? How might we realize the promise of democracy? Which is another thing that Martin Luther King said at the march on Washington.

CONAN: And I don't mean to sound heretical, but did he have speechwriters?

Prof. CARSON: Sometimes he did. Sometimes - for example, his speech on Vietnam was, a draft was written by other people, and he took those ideas and made them his own, because he had a unique way of phrasing things.

Oftentimes he would use a phrase drawn from someone else, but his phrase would be better. He just had a knack of doing that.

CONAN: Yeah, I wish I had that knack too. Everybody does. He was a magnificent orator, which is what makes it's interesting. Sometimes not people don't take his ideas so much as his cadences.

Prof. CARSON: That's right. He had a rhythm to his speaking, and that's what made everything memorable. Everything came together. For example, at the march on Washington, other people might have given exactly the same speech, exactly the same words, but it wouldn't have been the same speech, because he had that sense of the crowd. He had that sense of the right cadence, the - you know, everything he was simply one of these people who, from very early age, was quite good at speaking in public.

CONAN: And we want to hear today from our listeners. Which precise words of Martin Luther King's do they draw inspiration from, words that animate their thoughts, their politics and their actions? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We'll start with Sam, and Sam's calling us from Harlem in New York.

SAM (Caller): Hello, hello.

CONAN: Hello.

SAM: Yes, the quote is: We will live together as brothers or perish as fools.

CONAN: And I wonder, Clay Carson, can you give us some idea where that comes from, the context of that remark?

Prof. CARSON: Well, he said that on many occasions, and that was one of his basic themes about nonviolence, is that we had to find the world had made a lot of progress in science and technology, but in terms of moral progress, he felt that morally and spiritually the world had a long way to go.

And this was necessary because we were living in a nuclear age, where all of us could be blown up in a nuclear exchange. And so we needed to learn ways of living together, and making the world a brotherhood.

CONAN: It also sounds like a variation of - I think it was the Benjamin Franklin line: We will hang together or hang separately.

Prof. CARSON: Yes, but I think one of the things that King was very aware of is that the world had become, in his words, a neighborhood. And therefore we needed we were - we could fly to different places, and of course the examples he gave are nothing like what could happen today with the Internet.

But we are in a situation where we can be together physically, move around the world. So therefore it was more vital than ever to learn how to live together as brothers and sisters.

CONAN: And Sam, I wonder if you could give us some idea of how that phrase, that thought, animates your beliefs.

SAM: I've grown up with a lot of challenges in reference to color. And it's just time for us to shift into that place of peace in our hearts. And I really just believe it to be so because we're seeing such a big rise of racism now, and it's just not healthy for anyone. And we just need peace and love.

CONAN: Sam, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it. Let's see if we can go next to this is Karen(ph), and Karen is calling us from Berkeley.

KAREN (Caller): Hi, good morning.

CONAN: Good afternoon where we are.

KAREN: That's right. It's good morning here. Actually, it's afternoon here.

CONAN: It's afternoon there too, yes.

KAREN: One of the quotes, Dr. King's quotes, that I really have found uplifting is - and actually, as I was waiting on line I was trying to determine where it came from. It may have come from his April 14, 1967 speech at Stanford called "The Other America."

But at any rate, would you like me to read it?

CONAN: Yes, if you could keep it brief, yes.

KAREN: Yes. It may well be that we have come to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words of the bad people and the violent actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence and the indifference of the good people who sit around and say wait on time.

CONAN: Clay Carson, you're there at Stanford. Is this citation correct?

Prof. CARSON: You know, I'm a little bit embarrassed because I've heard the speech that he gave at Stanford on a number of different occasions, and I'm not really sure whether that was directly from that speech.

But the thought was something that he expressed quite often during that time. In fact, it goes back to the letter from Birmingham jail in which he criticized those who don't speak up, the moderates who fail to come forward in times of controversy to speak up on behalf of those who are most in need. And...

KAREN: If I could just interject something very quickly, then I'll go off the air and let you continue, but at the end of that speech, because it actually is longer, or at the end of that quotation, the line that hits me and always has is that we must realize the time is always ripe to do right. And I think that's particularly apt in this day and age.

Prof. CARSON: As he made the point in the letter from Birmingham jail, that was in 1963, he was always talking about time is not neutral. It's what we do with time. So those people who say that time will take care of many of our problems are not taking responsibility for using time creatively.

CONAN: Karen, thanks very much for the call.

KAREN: Thank you.

CONAN: Joining us now is Bishop Harry Jackson, Jr., senior pastor at Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Maryland, a writer for the conservative and libertarian website townhall.com. He's been kind enough to join us here in Studio 3A. And Bishop, thanks very much for joining us. Bishop HARRY R. JACKSON, JR. (Senior Pastor, Hope Christian Church): Thank you, Neal, for having me.

CONAN: And which of Dr. King's words do you take inspiration from?

Bishop JACKSON: Well, there was a time he had a kitchen table prayer, and he really had been threatened by a racist for 30 days after he began the Montgomery Improvement Association and became its president.

And I heard him say this on a digitized recording, that he rolled out of his bed, they told he was going to die in a week. He went downstairs and got a cup of coffee and prayed.

And he said: Lord, I really need to know you. And he went through this whole thing about I know my father knows you, and he cited all the people that knew God. And then with his own words he said that he had heard a voice in his own heart saying stand up for righteousness and justice, and I will be with you to the end.

And I've kind of hung onto that. That exhortation he seemingly received in prayer, he seemingly repeated three days later when his house was fire-bombed, and outside he told the people: Wait a minute, we are not going to take up guns, we're not going to move in violence. We're going to live this thing like Christians. And that's my paraphrase. But stand up for righteousness and justice is what I remember him repeating through his message.

CONAN: Stay with us, if you will, Bishop Jackson. Also going to continue to hear from Clay Carson, a professor of history at Stanford and editor of the Martin Luther King, Jr. papers.

We'd like to hear from you as well. Which specific words of Martin Luther King provide you inspiration and inspire action on your part? 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

This weekend, dueling rallies in Washington, D.C., will compete over the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Today, we're talking about how King's words live in your life, your politics and your actions. What specific words do you cite? Quotes, please.

800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our website. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Clay Carson, professor of history at Stanford and editor of the Martin Luther King, Jr. papers. Also with us, Bishop Harry Jackson, Jr., who serves as senior pastor at Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Maryland, a writer for the website townhall.com.

And Bishop Jackson, in a piece you wrote for Town Hall, you concluded that today, you think Martin Luther King would be a social conservative. What do you mean by that?

Bishop JACKSON: Well, I believe that he frequently spoke from both the Bible or the Constitution, and depending on his audience, whether it was secular or it was more of a faith-oriented group, he seemed to place great value on the foundational thoughts, concepts and, if you would, the promises.

The whole idea of "I Have A Dream" speech, there's a bank, a bounced check that we tried to cash, essentially, comes out of an understanding that there has to be some veracity and truth to the Constitution and also some faithfulness seen through the words of scripture.

Therefore, he was not really blowing in the wind. I believe he considered things of the hour, and that would make him more conservative.

But the beautiful thing about King is he was an activist. And I believe that activism, seeking to bring justice or to right wrongs that you see in culture, is not just a liberal or conservative thing. It should be something that we all do in order to capture the great tradition into which we've been born.

CONAN: Knowing his works as you do, could you see him as anything other than opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Bishop JACKSON: No, I think he would definitely be opposed to those wars because of the motive. And again, as I look at his writings, I see him with a razor-fine biblical understanding that it would not necessarily be standing up to protect your family that was wronged, but it's a motive of greed. It's a motive of you just want to manipulate the world or shape it in your image I think he would find quite offensive.

CONAN: Clay Carson, I wanted to ask you, there is a sort of strain of thought -every once in a while, you see this attributed to the Founding Fathers and other situations, but it's almost what would Martin do? And is it appropriate to try to posit his position on affirmative action today or gay marriage or any of these other issues based on things that obviously he wrote and thought about, well, that ended in 1968, unfortunately?

Mr. CARSON: Well, sometimes that is dangerous. Other times, you can find for example, he on the question of affirmative action, the term wasn't in use during his time, but he talked about preferential treatment as perhaps necessary to help victims of discrimination, you know, take their roles in society.

So some of that I think we could reasonably judge what he would feel, just as the bishop said about war. He had a principle position about war, and the principle applies in different situations.

The way I look at Martin Luther King is that in some ways, he was a traditionalist. I don't know if I would use the word conservative except to the extent that conservatives who believe that we should look back to tradition. He was always trying to look at things like the Declaration of Independence. But his question was a kind of radical question: What are the implications of that for today?

And he believed that these documents were living documents, and he was in a dialogue. One of the things I see, you know, I helped design the King Memorial, and one of the things that was so important was to have King facing Jefferson over the Tidal Basin in Washington.

And I think of that as almost a continuing dialogue that all of us can participate in, of King challenging Jefferson to say: Do you really mean those words that you wrote in the Declaration of Independence? And if so, how do those words apply to our situation today?

CONAN: Let's go next to a caller. Jerry's(ph) on the line from Cookeville in Tennessee.

JERRY (Caller): Yeah. What I remember most about Dr. King, I was in junior high school when this happened, when he was murdered. I was at a black junior high school in Los Angeles, Henry Clay Junior High School. And I just remember, well, it was the content of your character, sort of the color of your skin. And I think so many different people today, they want to put everybody in different groups. And they don't look at people with the content of their character.

I know there's some black leaders that seem to me have made a pretty good living off keeping people divided. And I just find I don't think Dr. King would be very proud of that.

And I just don't today, I just don't think I could see Dr. King marching down the street, supporting the death of unborn children, especially the little black children unborn that are killed every day. I just don't see him going along with that.

CONAN: Jerry, thanks very much for the phone call. The content of the character line, of course, one of the great moments in that "I Have A Dream" speech, that one day, people will be judged by the content of the character, not the color of the skin.

And people have interpreted that all kinds of ways, Bishop Jackson.

Bishop JACKSON: They have. But for my folks, you know, I'm African-American, born in the '50s, raised by a family who took those words to mean you must raise your own goals and standards and try to be the answer to many problems and social ills, and try to let people know by how you live that you're worthy of respect, that your people should not be pushed back, rejected, et cetera.

So we saw those words as kind of a goal to shoot toward, that if we live in a way that honors first Christ, in keeping with the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, that we would find ourselves paving the way for Americans of color that would come behind us.

CONAN: Bishop Jackson, thank you so much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Bishop JACKSON: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Bishop Harry Jackson, Jr., senior pastor at Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Maryland, a writer for the conservative and libertarian website townhall.com, and with us today here in Studio 3A.

Let's bring another voice into the conversation, Eddie Glaude, Jr., professor of religion and African-American studies at Princeton. He joins us from studios on the campus there in New Jersey. And thanks very much for joining us today.

Mr. EDDIE GLAUDE, JR.(Professor of Religion and African-American Studies, Princeton University): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And I wonder, that content of their character line, is that one of the phrases of Dr. King that resonates in your thoughts?

Mr. GLAUDE: To a certain degree. I think that what we find in Dr. King's words are this amazing fluidity, this sense of affirmation of American ideals. We find resources to affirm who we are as a nation. And we find resources to bring critique on our failures to live up to those ideals.

And it's precisely in that delicate balance that we find the greatness of Dr. King. That is to say, he can see what Jefferson was saying in the Declaration but also understand what Jefferson was saying in the Notes from Virginia. And it's precisely in that balance, in that moment between affirmation and critique, that we see the long-lasting legacy of Dr. King.

I'm particularly moved as a country boy from Mississippi. I remember being in my seventh grade history with Ms. Mitchell(ph) and coming across Dr. King's words, "I Have A Dream," and having to recite them to the class after being so smitten by Stonewall Jackson. You know, this is an odd kind of contrast, right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GLAUDE: And so there's been these different iterations of my encounters with Dr. King. There was the seventh grade, and then of course, I'm a Morehouse man. So I'm drenched with all of Dr. King's words. And then, of course, as a professor.

And I'm more interested in the Dr. King of '67 and '68, the one who saw the confluence of militarism, of the disproportionate gap between those who have and those who don't. And so, I'm really interested in that King than I am in the earlier version.

CONAN: A King who had been, by that time, interestingly, came to have been seen by some younger civil rights leaders as somebody who was a little passe and somebody who in his words reproaching the morality of the war in Vietnam, alienated many more of his supporters.

Mr. CARSON: Right. By 1967, '68, by April of '68, and Professor Carson can certainly confirm this, King is not the most popular figure in the United States. The coalition that informed the civil rights movement up till '63 fragmented King's own stance, vis-�-vis Vietnam, the emergence of black power.

And remember, King writes in '67, where do we go from here? Which is in some significant way a response to the fragmentation of the civil rights movement and a response to the proponents of black power.

And there, he writes: We must honestly admit that capitalism has often left a gulf between superfluous wealth and abject poverty, has created conditions permitting necessities to be taken from the many to give luxuries to the few and has encouraged small-hearted men to become cold and consciousless so that that like Dives before Lazarus, they are unmoved by suffering, poverty-stricken humanity.

I don't think that's a culture conservative. I think that's somebody who's reaching for something else.

CONAN: We're also asking listeners today, which of Dr. King's words animate their beliefs, their politics and their actions. Let's go next to Amanda(ph). Amanda with us from Tallahassee.

AMANDA (Caller): Hi. The quote that resonates with me is the quote where he said, everybody can be great because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree. You only need to have a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love. I think if more people would live by principles like these and teach their children and their family members and the people that they love to give back to their communities and give back to each other, that our world will be a better place.

CONAN: Clay Carson, can you give us some context on that quote?

Prof. CARSON: Well, actually, it's a quote that partly comes from Benjamin Mays. I'm sure that Professor Glaude would recognize because one of the things that Martin Luther King picked up was they went to Morehouse at the time when Benjamin Mays would do - I think it was Tuesday - the Tuesday lecture, and -chapel. And he would convey a lot of these messages about the necessity of service, the necessity that you take your education and you give back. These are important messages. I don't see them as either liberal or conservative. I think that what King did most, was challenge us. You know, he said that this is a nation with great ideals. But we - he challenged us to live up to this ideals.

CONAN: Sometimes, citing the words of others, he would say where they came from. Other times, he would say, as I've said before.

Prof. CARSON: Yeah. That - I've noticed that with him, that he would - in fact, Benjamin Mays was one of the people, I notice he would - the first time he used the quote from him, he would say Benjamin Mays said this the, second time, there would be I had heard. And the second time, as I said before meaning...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Yeah. That's (unintelligible)

Prof. CARSON: By that time, he had claimed that as his own. And often, he would, obviously, take the phrase and make it his own by, you know, he just had a way of saying things. That's one of the reasons why I think we are drawn to him is that we have the thought, but we don't have quite the words. And he gives us the words.

CONAN: Amanda, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

AMANDA: Thank you for bringing us this great topic.

CONAN: Our guests are Clay Carson, you just heard, professor of history at Stanford, editor of "The Martin Luther King Jr., Papers." And now with us, Eddie Glaude, professor - William S. Todd professor of religion and African-American studies at Princeton.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to David. David with us from St. Paul.

DAVID (Caller): Good afternoon, Neal. I guess the all-encompassing challenge that I find most memorable, are the words I have a dream that one day, this nation will rise up and live out to the true meaning of its creed. And I think that goes to the conflict or the challenge of Jefferson, and the creed being the Declaration, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. And that challenge that really is kind of a continuing challenge issued at that time...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

DAVID: ...and before.

CONAN: Eddie Glaude, one of the things that he did most memorably, was ask America to live up to its ideals.

Prof. GLAUDE: Right. It's the source of his prophetic critique. When we talk about justice and righteousness - this is him invoking Amos. When we talk about the greatness of one person being in their service to others, that's Matthew 20:26. So King is a preacher, but he also takes that particular vocation as preacher in pulpit and brings critique to bear on the society and its social arrangements. So when King says to America, these are your stated ideals, but let's look at your practice. And when we look at your practice, we fall far short. So even when King is rushing to a kind of post-racial utopia - I have a dream today - right, he's listing all of our failures, all of our shortcomings, all of our challenges. There's this powerful moment when he talks about Alabama, right? I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with these vicious racists, and he brings up into position and nullification. He's directly challenging state's rights arguments there, in the very moment in which he's invoking this ideal America to which we aspire. So it's a complicated speech.

CONAN: David, I wonder, how does that speech resonate in your life?

DAVID: You know, there're conflicts. You know, I'm a veteran and I, you know, I was 11 years old when King was assassinated. I had three uncles in Vietnam at the time. And - but I'm a veteran myself, not a combat veteran. But I know that, you know, if I were to go to war, if I had gone to war, I would hope that I would've treated people fairly, you know, going to what was said to the soldiers in the New Testament, you know, what do we do? Well, don't harm people, don't murder people and be content with your wages. I mean, that kind of thing, you know, the fairness. And even if you are under arms, the idea that you will be fair. And what you hear in this country, to be fair to people and to recognize injustice when you see it and try to do something about it, even if it's verbal or in written form, to try to recognize when people are not being treated fairly.

CONAN: David, I think a lot of people would agree that that's well within the ambit of Dr. Martin Luther King's words. Thanks very much for the phone call.

DAVID: Okay. Thanks.

CONAN: And I'll turn to you, Clay Carson. We just have a minute or so left. But are you, as someone who's, again, probably as familiar with Dr. Martin Luther King's words as anybody? Ever tempted to say, right, you know, send an email to somebody, wait a minute, you're taking that out of context.

Prof. CARSON: Well, I think a lot of times, you have that sense of these wonderful quotes that they are being taken out of context, because we forget that King was a person who, as already been pointed out, he was not that popular during his own time. And many of the prophets, and I would include Jesus in - among them, were not popular in their own times, because they were challenging their societies to live up to a standard that - and I'm sure that they were seen as bothersome pests by many people because they were constantly challenging us to be our better selves.

And that's the context that sometimes gets missing when we use these quotes simply as a way of strengthening our own arguments and our own prejudices rather than using them as a challenge.

CONAN: Clay Carson, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it. And good luck for lighting the appropriate quotes for the memoir you're doing. But we thank you for your time. And we'd also like to thank Eddie Glaude. Jr. William S. Tod, professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University, he joined us from a studio there.

Coming up, a new study that suggests Lou Gehrig may not really have had Lou Gehrig's disease. We'll talk with the reporter who uncovered the connection. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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