Time was when great figures in American history actually wrote their own autobiographies. Ulysses S. Grant, for instance, painfully composed his memoirs as he was dying of cancer so that his family would be able to live comfortably after his death.
These days, it seems, everyone who has even brushed the hem of the garment of fame has had an autobiography. Had one, that is, not written one, because nearly every one of them, from Donald Trump to Bill Cosby to Shaquille O’Neal to Tara Lipinski, has had his or her autobiography written by someone else, one of the cadre of “as told to” authors who make quite a good living transcribing other people’s lives.
But few of them would take on the task of Clayborne Carson, a Stanford University history professor, who is putting the finishing touches on “The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr.,” a man who has been dead for 30 years.
“We expect it to be our lead nonfiction title for the fall,” said Rick Horgan, executive editor of Time-Warner Books, which is contemplating a first printing of 150,000 copies. “This is a document that could become the basis for a major motion picture, not unlike what happened with Malcolm X.”
Carson, a soft-spoken man in his 50s, is uniquely qualified for this seemingly strange job. He is the head of the King Papers Project at Stanford, which has already published three volumes of a proposed 14-volume set of King’s writings and speeches.
With slight grammatical changes, the words will all be King’s, but it is up to Carson to cull the massive storehouse of King letters, speeches and other writings in hopes of capturing King’s pith. “The idea came as I began to work with these documents and realized that King’s view of his own life was as interesting as other people’s,” said Carson, ensconced in his office. “There had already been two Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies out there, so I thought I could show off the documentary evidence that would be entertaining and interesting.”
One of the those Pulitzer-winning King biographers, David J. Garrow, who won the 1986 prize for his “Burying the Cross,” is uncomfortable with Carson’s autobiography project. "[King] was not a man who was preoccupied with himself. He wasn’t self-referential anywhere,” Garrow has said.
While Carson doesn’t pooh-pooh that and other criticism, he defends the idea of a King autobiography. “Writing an autobiography of a man who has been dead for 30 years is bound to generate some controversy,” he said. “My argument is that all autobiographies have an editor involved.”
Carson points especially to the work with which his book will undoubtedly be compared: “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” which was written by Alex Haley just before and soon after Malcolm X’s death in 1965. Haley wrote it primarily from interviews he had tape-recorded before Malcolm X’s assassination. “Haley had everything he needed from Malcolm X,” Carson said, “but Malcolm clearly never saw the completed book.”
Still, Malcolm X knew that Haley was going to write about him; King and Carson never met. But Carson believes his work is an important one, especially because King is an American icon. “The problem with the icon is that he has been embalmed,” said Carson. “The icon-makers have taken a very interesting, fascinating, exceptional human being and turned him into an orator who only gives one speech repeatedly--in fact, only part of a speech. It’s kind of a wind-up doll. You push the King button and you get the ‘I have a dream’ speech.”
The one major artifice that readers of the autobiography will have to deal with is that Carson’s King will be “compiling” this whole book in the moments before his assassination. There is really no way around this, said Carson, but since he is using only original sources, he doesn’t think that this makes anything inaccurate.
“Like any other autobiography, it is only one person’s account, and some people might have other accounts. Just because the author of this one is a historian, I’m not going to go through it and correct it for historical inaccuracies. That is not my job. My job is to find out what King thought about this episode in his life.”
And Carson doesn’t think his job is to write about King’s alleged extramarital affairs either. “Had he written an autobiography, he would not have put that in, especially in 1968.”
When Carson was a young, idealistic college student, he made the trek from his New Mexico home to the famous 1963 March on Washington. “I saw more black people that one day than the rest of my life put together,” he said. But the star of that day in Washington was not necessarily Carson’s first hero. He said he found it easier to identify with Stokely Carmichael, the more militant leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, because they were closer in age. “It was hard for me to model myself on a Southern Baptist preacher.”
Carson still doesn’t see King without warts. While the King Project was compiling the first volume of the collected King papers, it was discovered that King plagiarized part of one of his academic theses. It was an uncomfortable moment for Carson, but, he said, it doesn’t take away from King’s overall greatness.
Carson hopes his work inspires others, especially young people, to think of King as “more than a reason to have a three-day ski weekend.” He said he goes to King birthday celebrations and mainly finds middle-aged people waxing nostalgic about sit-ins and the like. He and Dexter King, Martin’s son who is now watching over the King archives and legacy and negotiated the Time-Warner deal that will include films as well as the autobiography, agree that the King legend is becoming stale.
“There is no need for Martin Luther King hats, to be sure, but we need to remind people that King was a dynamic, visionary, militant, fascinating leader,” said Carson.