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Emmett Carson
  Emmett Carson

Keeping MLK's Dream Alive: Foundations Need to Do More

2/16/2005 --

Social activist Emmett Carson encourages philanthropists and foundations to "walk King's walk."

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Foundations and philanthropists must do more to keep Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream alive, says well-known social activist Emmett Carson.

Carson, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Foundation, spoke last week at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan at the second annual "Celebration of the Life and Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr." The event was sponsored by the Nonprofit & Public Management Center (NPM), Ross School of Business and the Center for Urban Innovation at the U-M School of Social Work.

Carson's presentation, "Keeping Martin Luther King Jr.'s Dream Alive: The Roles of Philanthropists and Foundations," compared the views of most foundations with his view of the way King lived. He cited lack of risks; uneasiness with community decision-making; a quiet, behind-the-scenes approach to issues; and slow, incremental change as examples of how foundations and philanthropists are not "walking King's walk."

"Dr. King recognized his own mortality and that drove him," Carson said. "Foundations take refuge in their institutional immortality and that leads them to delay in taking action."

Carson discussed the responses of foundations to health care, education and affirmative action, speculating on how King would approach these issues differently if he were here today. He said the United States is the most prosperous country in the world, with the most advanced medical care, yet so many people lack health insurance. Only a handful of foundations are willing to support and advocate health care for the poor, he said.

Carson also addressed the interplay of the criminal justice system and education, saying minority and poor children are undereducated by public school education and, in many cases, further disadvantaged by inadequate parenting.

"King would draw a link between the maintenance of a dysfunctional public school education and the growth of prisons in rural communities," he said, adding that there are more black men in prison than in college.

Regarding affirmative action, Carson referred to the recent U-M Supreme Court case, pointing out that 65 major corporations supported Michigan–but not one foundation. He also recognized the University's leaders, thanking them for fighting for the values and principles of affirmative action.

"King would say we have come a long way but we have a long way to go," he said.

Carson concluded that we shouldn't be surprised by the gap in views of foundations and King, and closed with one of his favorite King speeches–"The Drum Major Instinct." He urged philanthropists and foundations to take their "drum major instinct" (or need for attention) and become uncompromising change agents, willing to take risks and be unpopular, believing in the power of community, and above all, acting with a sense of urgency for the issues they represent.

"This will not be an easy road, nor could it be, if it is to honor the true legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King," said Carson.

Carson, who has published several works on philanthropy and social justice, is the recipient of numerous nonprofit leadership awards and has been recognized several times by the Nonprofit Times as one of the 50 most influential nonprofit leaders in the United States.

He serves on several nonprofit boards, including the Council on Foundations, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Minnesota, Southern Education Foundation and the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Policy. He received his Ph.D. and master's degree in public and international affairs from Princeton University and his bachelor's degree in economics from Morehouse College.

NPM is a collaboration of the schools of business, public policy and social work. Its mission is to advance and promote understanding of the contributions of nonprofit and public organizations and the challenges of leading them successfully.

To learn more about NPM, please visit

For more information, contact:
Heather Thorne
Phone: (734) 936-8421