King's work for economic justice celebrated

Posted at 3:22 PM, Jan 15, 2015
and last updated 2015-01-19 11:06:19-05

Well before he became a civil rights icon, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had planned to devote his life to the social gospel, a movement dedicated to eradicating slums, unemployment, economic insecurity and other social ills.

That was one of the central points made Sunday in a speech by Stanford University historian and King scholar Clayborne Carson at the Motherlode Martin Luther King Jr. Committee's 20th annual celebration of the slain civil rights leader. 

Carson said that in 1948 as a seminary student, King had decided to dedicate his life to the social gospel. He added that in the love letters King and Coretta Scott King wrote to each other before they married, they both expressed their belief in socialism at a time when many Americans found it abhorrent.

He said King's work in civil rights, though hugely important, was kind of a detour, and once voting and other citizenship rights had been secured, King spent the final few years of his life on economic justice.

He lived in one of Chicago's poorest neighborhoods to bring attention to its residents' plight. He worked with others organizing the Poor People's Campaign, which asked the federal government to eliminate poverty. And he spent his final days helping striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, before he was assassinated in April 1968.

Carson is the Martin Luther King Jr. centennial professor of history at Stanford and founder of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute. Coretta Scott King chose Carson in 1985 to edit and publish the papers of her late husband.

Carson applauded King's civil rights achievements and said it was a great thing that 50 years after then-President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, a Hollywood movie has been released to celebrate that milestone.

Carson also praised the movie, "Selma," for not only honoring King but the other people who toiled on the grass-roots level to secure the vote for black people.

He also challenged audience members to engage their imaginations to create a better America. He did that as part of providing a larger context for King and his work.

He said there was a time when civilized countries found nothing wrong with slavery. But that view changed in the 19th century as the United States and other nations abolished that practice.

Then there was a time when civilized countries found nothing wrong that many people across the world did not have full citizenship rights. But that view began to die after World War II, with the fall of colonialism around the globe and the rise of the civil rights movement in the United States.

Carson said about a century passed in the United States between the end of slavery and giving all of the nation's citizens the vote and other rights. So he asked audience members to imagine what Americans 100 years from now would think about the ways in which we treat one another.

Carson received a standing ovation after his roughly 40-minute talk. The event included music and a reception with him.

The Motherlode Martin Luther King Jr. Committee held its celebration a week early this year to accommodate Carson's schedule. King's birthday is celebrated the third Monday in January, which is Jan. 19 this year.

Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at or (209) 578-2316.

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