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"Keeping the Dream Alive: The King Papers Project's Liberation Curriculum,"

by Clayborne Carson & Erin Cook January/February 2003 issue of Poverty & Race

Help me, O God, to see that I’m just a symbol of a movement…
O God, help me to see that where I stand today,
I stand because others helped me to stand there
And because the forces of history projected me there.
And this moment would have come in history
Even if M.L. King had never been born.

-- Martin Luther King, Jr.

These words, spoken by Martin Luther King, Jr. as he rose to national prominence, reflect the Liberation Curriculum’s (LC) effort to change the way young people think about King, the modern African-American freedom struggle, and the ongoing struggle for social justice. While the national King Holiday has provided an important educational opportunity for many students, the history of King, and his relationship with the movements in which he participated, has often been distorted. Students continue to learn about King as a Great Man who initiated and directed the southern civil rights campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s, rather than as one of the many exceptional leaders and organizers to emerge from the movement. The Liberation Curriculum illuminates King’s place in history, offering the empowering message that ordinary people can make extraordinary contributions to the cause of social justice.

The LC is one of several educational efforts initiated by the Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers Project (KPP) at Stanford University. In 1985 Coretta Scott King, the founding president of the King Center in Atlanta, invited Stanford University historian Clayborne Carson to become the editor of King’s papers, and, as a result of Dr. Carson's selection, the KPP became a cooperative venture of Stanford University, the King Center, and the King Estate. Since then, the KPP’s staff and talented student researchers from dozens of universities have contacted archives and located personal collections throughout the world, assembling a vast amount of King-related information – more than three hundred thousand documents and audio-visual materials. The KPP’s principal mission has been to publish a definitive, fourteen-volume, chronologically-organized edition of King’s most significant correspondence, sermons, speeches, published writings, and unpublished manuscripts.

Since the first volume of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. was published in 1992, the KPP has expanded its mission to include other educational initiatives designed to inform various audiences about its documentary resources and research findings. In addition to publishing the first four volumes of The Papers, the KPP’s staff has produced numerous publications intended for general as well as academic readers. These include print, audio, and e-book versions of The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1998), compiled from King’s autobiographical writings, A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1998), and A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (2001).

During the past five years, the KPP’s website – – has become a major medium for its educational initiatives. Initially developed by Stanford students, the website offers users a constantly expanding collection of resources, including substantial portions of the KPP’s published texts. Through the internet, these resources, once available only to scholars in the United States, are now internationally accessible and will keep King’s legacy alive for many generations to come.

The Liberation Curriculum expands the KPP’s long-term effort to provide on-line educational materials that explore the universal themes of social justice, social transformation, and reconciliation. The LC was conceived in 1992 when Oakland, California, public school teachers contacted the King Papers Project following the Oakland School Board’s rejection of a new state-approved social studies textbook. Faced with the challenge of entering the school year without textbooks, social studies teachers worked with Dr. Carson to develop alternative educational materials designed to reflect current scholarship related to the modern African-American freedom struggle.

This effort, supported by Oakland’s Marcus Foster Educational Institute, led to a further collaboration with the Oakland district to create Urban Dreams, a program designed to develop internet-based curriculum materials for the district through a five-year professional development institute. Urban Dreams brings Oakland’s high school history and English teachers together each year to assists them with the challenge of meeting new standards, while developing effective educational materials for Oakland’s culturally diverse students.

Workshops organized by the LC staff in association with Urban Dreams have emphasized innovative ways of using the materials and resources of the King Papers Project to teach about King and the African-American freedom struggle. Teachers in the workshops enhance their understanding of contemporary historical scholarship, while improving their pedagogical and curriculum developments skills.

In addition to workshops, the LC provides on-line educational materials through its website – This website gives teachers access to historically accurate and pedagogically effective educational materials that move beyond traditional textbook learning. Exemplary lesson plans are made available on the Liberation Curriculum website for use by other teachers, who may then provide feedback or additional resources through the project’s website. Teachers become members of the Liberation Community, a web-based learning community where educators can exchange ideas and share resources through a discussion forum, as well as access resources, such as the King Encyclopedia, a chronology of the black freedom struggle, and a database of over 1,000 primary source documents.

The goal of the LC is not to provide a pre-packaged curriculum for teachers. Rather, the program is intended to encourage and inspire teachers to initiate new ideas and then provide them with the necessary resources and support for its implementation. Teachers collaborate in the development and refinement of lesson plans, and, through the Liberation Community, share with other teachers creative models for enriching curriculum while meeting state and national standards

The Liberation Curriculum provides teachers with the materials and support to develop a broad range of methods for teaching an increasingly diverse student population. Further, this document-based curriculum helps teachers engage students in active learning and critical inquiry, transforming the way young people learn about history and encouraging them to work for a more just world.


Clayborne Carson ( is Professor of American History at Stanford University and Director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project. Erin Cook ( is Associate Director of the Liberation Curriculum at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project. To learn more about the King Papers Project and the Liberation Curriculum, please visit the website at


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