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How Martin became King: Project peels back layers to MLK legacy

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We know about Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream, but how much do we know about the moments in his life that shaped that dream?

Video Transcript

DR. CLAYBORNE CARSON: And that's been a challenge, because-- not because of the lack of materials, but because of so much material.

JULIAN GLOVER: It's the type of dilemma historian's dream of. For Dr. Clayborne Carson, the founding director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, it's become his life's work documenting King's life in the MLK Papers.

DR. CLAYBORNE CARSON: It's taken us much longer to edit and publish his papers than it took him to live his life.

JULIAN GLOVER: The MLK Papers is a collection of King's most significant correspondence, sermons, speeches, and rare, unpublished manuscripts.

DR. CLAYBORNE CARSON: Yeah, these are-- this is the volume, first volume.

JULIAN GLOVER: So far, seven exhaustive volumes have been published, spanning hundreds of pages, each one bound in a signature red cover. The work started in 1985, when Coretta Scott King handpicked Carson to lead the project nearly 20 years after MLK was assassinated.

How long did you believe it would have taken you to-- to get through all 12 volumes, at the time-- right?-- instead of 14.

DR. CLAYBORNE CARSON: I'm kind of embarrassed to tell you the answer to that, because I told her that, yeah, probably in about 20 years, I think we can wrap this up.

JULIAN GLOVER: So you were thinking 2005?

DR. CLAYBORNE CARSON: Yeah, yeah. And we've kind of passed that deadline.

JULIAN GLOVER: The first volume, released in 1992, focused on King's early life in Atlanta and took seven years to produce. Each volume is arranged chronologically, filled with powerful text. Each one peeling back another layer, revealing King's growth and shifts in ideology, as he became one of the most prolific and controversial figures in American history.

But what are maybe just a couple or a few of the most important pieces that you've come across in doing this work?

DR. CLAYBORNE CARSON: I remember being in Coretta's basement. We pull out what was called his preaching file. It was handwritten by Martin Luther King, and it was the beginning of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Handwritten, probably the last person to touch that legal pad was Martin Luther King, until I opened it-- what is it?-- 30 years later.

JULIAN GLOVER: Carson has never found an attic or basement he was afraid of digging through. He and his team have spent decades crossing continents to locate these hidden and often forgotten documents.

DR. CLAYBORNE CARSON: To get King's perspective, I have to go and find those documents. And it might be the child or grandchild of the person who corresponded with King. So you-- you know, they don't necessarily know the value of what they have.

JULIAN GLOVER: Give me your best estimate. How many documents do you think you've sorted through?

DR. CLAYBORNE CARSON: Tens of thousands.

JULIAN GLOVER: 30,000, 40,000?

DR. CLAYBORNE CARSON: We have cataloged 50 to 60,000.

JULIAN GLOVER: Today, the King Institute is working on volume eight, set to be released in 2022. It focuses on 1963.

DR. CLAYBORNE CARSON: It was the year of the Birmingham campaign. And so King is in the most important protest campaign of his life, the meeting with John F. Kennedy, the March on Washington.

JULIAN GLOVER: Dr. Carson believes King's work is as important today as ever, as MLK messages are often flattened into his famous I Have a Dream speech.

What do you think Dr. King would make of the King Papers?

DR. CLAYBORNE CARSON: I think in some ways he'd be kind of amused by it, because, you know, he was not a-- he was not a keeper. Coretta was the keeper. I think that he would have been happy that his ideas are still very much alive in the 21st century.

JULIAN GLOVER: Julian Glover, ABC 7 News.