Clayborne Carson, a historian at Stanford University and expert on the life and writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke at Tuesday's BYU Forum address about how today's society might answer the question King posed decades ago in his final book. The question: Where do we go from here?
Carson explained that King's historical efforts were not only about civil rights for all American citizens, but also the basic rights every human being should innately be given.
"Perhaps gaining civil rights has made us complacent about something else –human rights," said Carson. "Because we are secure in our citizenship rights, we no longer give much thought to the idea that, for many people in the world, human rights have become increasingly important."
Detailing the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., with an emphasis on his last three years following the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Carson said King continued to link the civil rights movement to something larger: the United States Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Sermon on the Mount.
"He was taking that movement and linking it to transcendent values about justice and equality," said Carson.
Although King is known for his many historic speeches and for trailblazing the way for civil rights, King felt that he was always the curve of the movement, according to Carson. It was only after King's failed attempts to improve the civil rights movement in Georgia that he eventually moved to Birmingham, Alabama. However, Carson argues that King would never have realized his own potential without those failures.
"If he hadn't failed in Albany, he wouldn't have been invited to give the ‘I have a dream’ speech," Carson said. "There might not have been a March on Washington. He certainly would not have received the Nobel Peace Prize the following year. He would have been a leader who reached his peak at 27 and never really realized his potential after."
By the time King gave his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, his agenda had broadened to the major problems of the world: racial oppression, war and poverty.
"From that point on, his goal in life was to try to mobilize people around the issue, not of civil rights, but of human rights," said Carson. "Civil rights were really intended to be the kind of rights you enjoy as a citizen of a country. But outside those rights are the rights we refer to in the Declaration of Independence."
Reaffirming the words of Thomas Jefferson, Carson advocated for a direct connection between civil rights and human rights.
"We are secure and very happy in our rights as Americans in terms of citizenship because those are the rights we expect our government to protect," said Carson. "But there is a realm of rights which are constantly being evolved in the world. A realm of rights that belong to people as people."
In his closing remarks, Carson emphasized that King did not base his ideals from a document like the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, but instead his ideals were grounded in Christianity and the notion of justice.
"During the last part of his life, he began to see that those ideals needed to be the guidance in the struggles that would follow the civil rights era of the 1960s," said Carson.
Next Forum: Performance Assembly featuring the Cougarettes, Noteworthy, Vocal Point and Young Ambassadors.
The BYU Performance Assembly will be on Tuesday, March 7, at 11:05 a.m., in the Marriott Center.