To mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Atlanta Civic Circle asked two keepers of the King Dream, Tom Houck and Clayborne Carson, to share their thoughts on how the slain civil rights leader viewed democracy. This year, the federal holiday comes two days after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday on January 15. He would have been 93.
Houck had a front seat to history, serving as the driver and personal aide to King and his family from 1966 until his assassination on April 4, 1968. Houck, 74, joined the Civil Rights Movement in 1965, when he was expelled from high school in Jacksonville, Fla. for taking part in the racial justice protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Now, he teaches new generations about Dr. King’s legacy through weekly bus tours of Atlanta civil rights landmarks.
King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, in 1985 chose Carson, a civil rights scholar at Stanford University, to lead the King Papers Project, a venture between Stanford, the King Center in Atlanta and the King estate to publish the prolific civil rights leader’s previously unpublished works. The noted King historian has published 14 volumes of The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr., an extensive collection of King’s correspondence, sermons, speeches, published writings and unpublished manuscripts. Carson, who retired from Stanford on Jan. 1, founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute in 2005. More than 200 institutions have King papers, including Morehouse College and Boston University, King’s alma maters.
In their respective roles, both men got to see the iconic civil rights figure in a way few people ever did. Houck saw King at his most playful and pensive moments. King’s writings have given Carson an intimate understanding of the man, the minister and his mission.
The interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
How did King view democracy?
Houck: From the moment he became part of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala. in 1955, until he was assassinated in 1968, democracy was at the head of whatever he was doing. Whether it was voting rights or civil rights or getting public accommodations or the Poor People’s Campaign for economic justice, his goal was to get as many people to participate in democracy as possible.
During a good portion of Martin Luther King’s life, he had [help from] people like [former presidents] Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy–even to a great extent [Dwight] Eisenhower. Eisenhower sent the troops to Little Rock [Ark.] to desegregate the schools. You had a different kind of situation then than you have today.
But obviously, you had [Alabama] Governor [George] Wallace, and Governor [Ross] Barnett of Mississippi, who were autocrats, They didn’t want democracy. They didn’t want Black people to vote. They didn’t want people to have the freedom to vote. King was–in every sense of the word, everything he fought for was for democracy.
Carson: He didn’t use the term democracy. That was not the focus of his rhetoric. He was talking about racial exclusion. Democracy is about what the majority wants. He recognized white people had the majority and the vote. You can have a segregationist majority. In the south that was the case. Those were the people who could vote.
Would Dr. King recognize American democracy in its current state, with all of the political and racial division and strife?
Carson: To put it more broadly, would he recognize America today? I think he’d be disappointed that we’re still fighting over these same kinds of issues. Lots of people sacrificed to get the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Here we are, still fighting over voting rights, and we can’t get [the John Lewis Voting RIghts Advancement Act and the For The People Act] through Congress. Voting rights used to be a bipartisan issue back in that day–and opponents were southern Democrats. Now it’s the entire Republican party saying that’s not going to happen.
King would be talking about democracy now within the context that Black people can vote. It’s quite clear that getting the majority of the vote doesn’t get you elected anymore in some states, because of the way democracy is perverted by things like the filibuster and the Electoral College, which gives more power to smaller states.
Editor’s note: The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement bill would restore the Voting RIghts Act’s pre-clearance provision, struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013, which mandated that the Department of Justice had to sign off on any changes to voting laws in certain states with a history of voter exclusion, including Georgia. The For the People bill would set a national standard for voter registration and mail-in voting, expand independent nonpartisan redistricting in each state, and introduce campaign finance reform.
Houck: He’d be very distressed to see the Voting Rights Act basically torn apart. He wouldn’t recognize it. It would be like going back to refight it. He would do what I hope others will do. He would take to the streets to try to overcome filibusters and other methods of trying to subvert and suppress the vote.
King had clarity of a message. Today I don’t know if we have that clarity of message.
What do people still not understand about Dr. King’s legacy as it relates to democracy?
Houck: They see a man who had a dream. They didn’t see a man who had a game plan for the restructuring of America, to make it a society where justice was colorblind. Dr. King was a radical. His programs, his approach were about bringing justice to people in this country. At the time of his death, he was beloved by people around the world, but he was hated by people in America.