News

George Floyd and 'the moral arc of the universe': insight from MLK's official historian

Beaten during riots in 1965, MLK's official historian Clayborne Carson says things are improving, but maybe not fast enough

Clayborne Carson, director of The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, speaking on the Stanford campus in 2018. Photo by Charles Russo.

The killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers continues to incite mass demonstrations around the nation. As these turbulent protests surface in a multitude of cities throughout the U.S., our national political leadership is sadly adrift, glaringly oblivious to the core issue at hand.

So eager for a bit of poised insight and longterm context surrounding these recent events, we reached out to Stanford historian Clayborne Carson. An activist and Civil Rights demonstrator himself, Carson was in Los Angeles during the Watts Riots of 1965, which were predicated on all-too-familiar circumstances tragically similar to our present situation more than 50 years later. (The riots lasted more than six days and Carson himself was beaten by police during that time period.)

In 1985, Carson had been specifically chosen by Coretta Scott King to pull together Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s papers and archives into a comprehensive and official collection (which ran seven volumes).

Later, the project evolved into The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute on the Stanford campus, where Carson continues to expand upon Dr. King's legacy and issues of human rights.

With this historical relevance on our minds, we caught up with Carson briefly over the phone for some much-needed clarity and historical perspective.

Center to right: Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Martin Luther King Jr. & Rev. James Lawson annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference staff workshop Penn Center, Frogmore, SC, 1966. (Used with permission from the Bob Fitch Photography Archive © Department of Special Collections, Stanford University.)

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So it's the Monday after a turbulent weekend of protests stemming from the death of George Floyd, and not to saddle you with too broad of a question here to start, but I'm just curious what's foremost on your mind right now after the past few days?

Well I'm very pleased that thousands of people across the nation have protested against this pattern of police abuse against black Americans. And I think that it shows that people of all races were deeply affected by what they saw, and also what they've seen since the invention of cell phone cameras. So I think this is overdue and that it is very encouraging.

I think it's unfortunate that millions of people that protested peacefully will get somewhat overshadowed by the violence of a few people who have used the protest as a cover for looting and other things that have nothing to do with the issue. But that too is understandable in the broader context of the economic inequities in our society.

The LA Times quoted a woman who said: "I was here for Rodney King … nothing has changed." And I can imagine back in '92 someone having the same sentiments about the timespan since the Watts Riots which occurred in '65. So as someone who has experienced all of these events, do you see any genuine progress between those generational moments of upheaval or is there just an overarching stagnation that remains?

Obviously someone my age can see evidence of progress.

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I was in Watts in '65 and one of the major differences was that the police were using real bullets then, not rubber bullets. I don't think I had ever heard of a rubber bullet back in 1965. And 34 people were killed that weekend. And I was badly beaten up by the police.

So I can look and see that police are acting with a greater deal of restraint and making it clear that the normal process of policing values lives more than property, and that's the way it should be ( … even though our President doesn't seem to agree with that). I think that that's evidence that policing may have gotten slightly better since those days, when I could get harassed and beat up without any consequences. Today there's more likely to be at least some consequence — in part because someone is likely to be filming it and putting it on Facebook — but back in 1965 it was just police testimony against unarmed people and all of those 34 deaths were deemed "justifiable homicides." That's actually the official term — justifiable homicide.

But if you think about it: in 50 years, is that the measure of progress? That we've moved from lead bullets to rubber bullets? And that there is an occasional investigation rather than a quick judgement that homicide was justifiable? Only someone my age can see that as evidence of progress.

Carson speaking with a conference attendee on the Stanford campus in 2018. Photo by Charles Russo.

So, I had to look it up, because I knew the quote but I didn't realize that it was JFK who said: "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." In that regard, I've been thinking about that quote a lot this weekend in relation to Colin Kaepernick trying to spark a national dialogue about police brutality a few years ago … and now we're watching American cities burning this weekend. So I'm curious if you have any thoughts on how we can get to making progress by having a national dialogue rather than this kind of unrest?

It's difficult in this country. We have a history of violence. One of the things I did last week was just look at the statistics of law enforcement killings. There were over 800 in the United States and 3 in Great Britain. And Great Britain is a multi-racial country with its share of crime. In many countries, the number is zero; they get through the year without their policemen killing a single person. So there has to be something about American history. And as a historian, I know a lot about that history and it's a history of violence. We think of ourselves as a peaceful country but probably no other country has had such a violent internal history and (external history) towards others.

It's partly what I think is the irony of American history … that we were a country born on the idea of human rights — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — and from day one it has been a history of killing millions of people and killing each other. It's a country that routinely takes away life and liberty (we have the largest incarceration rate in the world). So there's a lot of irony: it's a land of opportunity, but more opportunity for some than for others.

I would hope that this will allow people to recognize that the events of the last few days are shocking, but they're not shocking to anyone who understands American history.

Martin Luther King Jr., Atlanta, GA; Southern Christian Leadership Conference office, 1966. (Used with permission from the Bob Fitch Photography Archive © Department of Special Collections, Stanford University.)

The last time we spoke, you said you were encouraged by the modern social justice movements of our era but you believed that Dr. King would have found it important to identify the inter-connectedness of various struggles. Do you see that as applicable right now or is this moment specifically about addressing police brutality and racial inequality?

Yeah, I look on television and see people of all races marching together. The encouragement is that people see past their own repression and recognize that other people have their own sense of being oppressed.

So I think we've come a long way in understanding that the route to human rights is a very difficult one. As I said, we're a country founded on a human rights principle, yet we're also founded on domination and submission. And that's the dilemma of American history. How do you reconcile those two different versions of American history? I think we're still working that out.

The killing of Mr. Floyd … this is a pattern. When does the pattern stop? When do we get to the point where the United States has no police killings during the calendar year? When will we have policing that's respectful? And this is the 21st Century.

One of Dr. King's most famous quotes is that "The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice." Right now in America … that arc is feeling exceptionally long. How do you think he would encourage people away from despair and mobilize them towards progress and optimism?

I really think that human rights is a very difficult project … How do we make up for past injustice? It's a difficult question and all of us face it. It's a sense that all of us should feel some obligation to make the world better than when we came into it. And that's all we can really do.

I think that there are more people now who kind of understand that. And one of the reasons that they get it is that protests like what happened in the last few days remind them that the world is not ok. The coronavirus has exposed all of the inequities that are with us every day. The things that were tolerable before that become intolerable or deadly when you add a pandemic.

So I would just hope that we try to do what we can with what we have. And that notion that "the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice" … that's the hope: that it bends towards justice. But the question that we have to resolve is how quickly does it bend and how many people have to die before we get to that ideal.

Learn more about The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.

Front row, from left: Willie Ricks (Carmichael aide), Bernard Lee (Martin Luther King Jr. aide) Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael, Andy Young, Hosea Williams, Meredith March Against Fear, 1966. (Used with permission from the Bob Fitch Photography Archive © Department of Special Collections, Stanford University.)

This article was originally published June 1 on TheSixFifty.com, a sister publication of the Mountain View Voice, covering what to eat, see and do in Silicon Valley.

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George Floyd and 'the moral arc of the universe': insight from MLK's official historian

Beaten during riots in 1965, MLK's official historian Clayborne Carson says things are improving, but maybe not fast enough

by / TheSixFifty.com

Uploaded: Thu, Jun 4, 2020, 9:32 am

The killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers continues to incite mass demonstrations around the nation. As these turbulent protests surface in a multitude of cities throughout the U.S., our national political leadership is sadly adrift, glaringly oblivious to the core issue at hand.

So eager for a bit of poised insight and longterm context surrounding these recent events, we reached out to Stanford historian Clayborne Carson. An activist and Civil Rights demonstrator himself, Carson was in Los Angeles during the Watts Riots of 1965, which were predicated on all-too-familiar circumstances tragically similar to our present situation more than 50 years later. (The riots lasted more than six days and Carson himself was beaten by police during that time period.)

In 1985, Carson had been specifically chosen by Coretta Scott King to pull together Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s papers and archives into a comprehensive and official collection (which ran seven volumes).

Later, the project evolved into The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute on the Stanford campus, where Carson continues to expand upon Dr. King's legacy and issues of human rights.

With this historical relevance on our minds, we caught up with Carson briefly over the phone for some much-needed clarity and historical perspective.

So it's the Monday after a turbulent weekend of protests stemming from the death of George Floyd, and not to saddle you with too broad of a question here to start, but I'm just curious what's foremost on your mind right now after the past few days?

Well I'm very pleased that thousands of people across the nation have protested against this pattern of police abuse against black Americans. And I think that it shows that people of all races were deeply affected by what they saw, and also what they've seen since the invention of cell phone cameras. So I think this is overdue and that it is very encouraging.

I think it's unfortunate that millions of people that protested peacefully will get somewhat overshadowed by the violence of a few people who have used the protest as a cover for looting and other things that have nothing to do with the issue. But that too is understandable in the broader context of the economic inequities in our society.

The LA Times quoted a woman who said: "I was here for Rodney King … nothing has changed." And I can imagine back in '92 someone having the same sentiments about the timespan since the Watts Riots which occurred in '65. So as someone who has experienced all of these events, do you see any genuine progress between those generational moments of upheaval or is there just an overarching stagnation that remains?

Obviously someone my age can see evidence of progress.

I was in Watts in '65 and one of the major differences was that the police were using real bullets then, not rubber bullets. I don't think I had ever heard of a rubber bullet back in 1965. And 34 people were killed that weekend. And I was badly beaten up by the police.

So I can look and see that police are acting with a greater deal of restraint and making it clear that the normal process of policing values lives more than property, and that's the way it should be ( … even though our President doesn't seem to agree with that). I think that that's evidence that policing may have gotten slightly better since those days, when I could get harassed and beat up without any consequences. Today there's more likely to be at least some consequence — in part because someone is likely to be filming it and putting it on Facebook — but back in 1965 it was just police testimony against unarmed people and all of those 34 deaths were deemed "justifiable homicides." That's actually the official term — justifiable homicide.

But if you think about it: in 50 years, is that the measure of progress? That we've moved from lead bullets to rubber bullets? And that there is an occasional investigation rather than a quick judgement that homicide was justifiable? Only someone my age can see that as evidence of progress.

So, I had to look it up, because I knew the quote but I didn't realize that it was JFK who said: "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." In that regard, I've been thinking about that quote a lot this weekend in relation to Colin Kaepernick trying to spark a national dialogue about police brutality a few years ago … and now we're watching American cities burning this weekend. So I'm curious if you have any thoughts on how we can get to making progress by having a national dialogue rather than this kind of unrest?

It's difficult in this country. We have a history of violence. One of the things I did last week was just look at the statistics of law enforcement killings. There were over 800 in the United States and 3 in Great Britain. And Great Britain is a multi-racial country with its share of crime. In many countries, the number is zero; they get through the year without their policemen killing a single person. So there has to be something about American history. And as a historian, I know a lot about that history and it's a history of violence. We think of ourselves as a peaceful country but probably no other country has had such a violent internal history and (external history) towards others.

It's partly what I think is the irony of American history … that we were a country born on the idea of human rights — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — and from day one it has been a history of killing millions of people and killing each other. It's a country that routinely takes away life and liberty (we have the largest incarceration rate in the world). So there's a lot of irony: it's a land of opportunity, but more opportunity for some than for others.

I would hope that this will allow people to recognize that the events of the last few days are shocking, but they're not shocking to anyone who understands American history.

The last time we spoke, you said you were encouraged by the modern social justice movements of our era but you believed that Dr. King would have found it important to identify the inter-connectedness of various struggles. Do you see that as applicable right now or is this moment specifically about addressing police brutality and racial inequality?

Yeah, I look on television and see people of all races marching together. The encouragement is that people see past their own repression and recognize that other people have their own sense of being oppressed.

So I think we've come a long way in understanding that the route to human rights is a very difficult one. As I said, we're a country founded on a human rights principle, yet we're also founded on domination and submission. And that's the dilemma of American history. How do you reconcile those two different versions of American history? I think we're still working that out.

The killing of Mr. Floyd … this is a pattern. When does the pattern stop? When do we get to the point where the United States has no police killings during the calendar year? When will we have policing that's respectful? And this is the 21st Century.

One of Dr. King's most famous quotes is that "The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice." Right now in America … that arc is feeling exceptionally long. How do you think he would encourage people away from despair and mobilize them towards progress and optimism?

I really think that human rights is a very difficult project … How do we make up for past injustice? It's a difficult question and all of us face it. It's a sense that all of us should feel some obligation to make the world better than when we came into it. And that's all we can really do.

I think that there are more people now who kind of understand that. And one of the reasons that they get it is that protests like what happened in the last few days remind them that the world is not ok. The coronavirus has exposed all of the inequities that are with us every day. The things that were tolerable before that become intolerable or deadly when you add a pandemic.

So I would just hope that we try to do what we can with what we have. And that notion that "the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice" … that's the hope: that it bends towards justice. But the question that we have to resolve is how quickly does it bend and how many people have to die before we get to that ideal.

Learn more about The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.

This article was originally published June 1 on TheSixFifty.com, a sister publication of the Mountain View Voice, covering what to eat, see and do in Silicon Valley.

Comments

Gary
Sylvan Park
on Jun 4, 2020 at 12:55 pm
Gary, Sylvan Park
on Jun 4, 2020 at 12:55 pm
7 people like this

If the issue is unfair treatment of persons - especially racial minorities - the examples abound - here and around the world. Females, you might have noticed, are also subjugated here and around the world. But for those who want to improve police conduct and relations, it is time to focus on proposals. How many residents of Mountain View, Palo Alto and Menlo Park even know when officers must wear and use body cams and what happens when, after an event, no recording is found or available? How many city councilmembers in these cities have even those answers? Maybe a few will be asking. There is a saying I like. Think globally - act locally. No one can instantly change the whole world - except to destroy it. But steps in the right direction can be taken. And to determine the right direction, people need some basic information about - as to force used by police - what rules and practices exist and why.


Kevin
Old Mountain View
on Jun 5, 2020 at 8:23 am
Kevin, Old Mountain View
on Jun 5, 2020 at 8:23 am
2 people like this

Well lucky locally the police departments here and around us have been so progressive in use of body cameras, car cameras and training that when they hear about "change" they respond with, "Yeah, ummm didn't we do that like five years ago?" But there is no dialog or critical thinking by those yelling for change saying, "Oh, thats great! We'll take our message elsewhere."

In every industry around the world there are bad employees, mistakes or issues. But we should really not lump one incident against the whole profession. What you'll see down the road is even greater problems when police departments can not find qualified people because who is going to want to work in an industry that no one respects until someone is breaking into your house.


Gary
Sylvan Park
on Jun 5, 2020 at 11:33 am
Gary, Sylvan Park
on Jun 5, 2020 at 11:33 am
7 people like this

How does "Kevin" (above) know anything about the use of recording devices by local police? The Mountain View police department has a policy manual online. Section 449 deals with recording (including body cams). It generally directs officers to turn on cams if not "impractical" when dealing with the public. Officers are counseled to not record other conversations between and among police. So, for example, using the incident in Buffalo where a 75-year-old protester was knocked to the ground, under Mountain View policy, body cams should have been on - but, if not on or kept, oh well. Maybe a reprimand for violating policy. As to the conversation between and among police in Buffalo leading to the false or misleading report that the man tripped, that separate conversation would not be subject to recording. And even determining whether the police have one or more video or audio recordings of an incident can be quite a project. Ask a newspaper. As to the suggestion of "Kevin" that people may not want to be police officers (if they are subject to firmer rules or accountability), see TransparentCalifornia.com for what they are already paid - often including overtime. You will be astonished.


Resident
Old Mountain View
on Jun 5, 2020 at 11:49 am
Resident, Old Mountain View
on Jun 5, 2020 at 11:49 am
Like this comment

Thats right. We do not need police. As a resident I welcome robbers any time, we should help less fortunate. So what if he/she takes some things from my home? They need it more than I do.
#nopersecutionofrobbers #justiceforcriminals #communismusa


Gary
Sylvan Park
on Jun 5, 2020 at 12:11 pm
Gary, Sylvan Park
on Jun 5, 2020 at 12:11 pm
5 people like this

While I was writing a response to "Kevin" (above), some "Resident" added quite a diatribe. He or she or it says George Floyd was not a good "role model" and much more. The first issue raised by the death of George Floyd is why officers killed him and whether it was and remains common police practice there and across the country to kill people detained or arrested - especially involving a non-violent possible crime and perhaps stemming in part from the race of the detainee. How do we get and keep such officers in these positions of great power? What, if anything, does the killing of George Floyd reveal about the world and our country? Of course, society needs police to deter and stop crimes and to investigate and cite or arrest suspects. Some suspects should just be shot dead. No. I am not kidding. If a guy with an assault rifle is walking toward occupied classrooms at your local elementary school, and does not respond to "stop," somebody better shoot him (or her) - unless there is a better plan in place. And afterward, we will hope the dead intruder was not a plain-clothed police officer rushing to investigate the real intruder. Things can happen fast. Life and decisions must be made. But in the case of George Floyd, there was no emergency or uncertainty justifying the use of deadly force.


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