STANFORD, CALIF. -- The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. played roles in many lives, directly affecting thousands. Among them was Stanford University historian Clayborne Carson, who first heard King speak during the March on Washington in 1963.

Carson now edits the civil rights leader's papers; the first volume of King's life and works will appear in 1990. Much as he acknowledges King's influence, Carson warns against remembering him only as an icon, turning him into "a simplistic image designed to offend no one," as Carson says nostalgia tends to do. The risk, he says, is negation of King's real message: That each person can make a difference by working to create a better world.

Yes, King should be remembered for his "I Have a Dream" speech and for leading Southern blacks on countless protest marches, says Carson, who has taught at Stanford since 1974 after years of civil-rights work in Los Angeles. "But I'd be hard-pressed to recall when I've seen segments on television of the Riverside speech or King talking about poverty or South Africa." In the 1967 speech at Riverside Church in New York, King spoke of the immorality of the Vietnam war and also of its devastation of the hopes of the poor at home and its impact on black and white youths sent "to die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools."

Almost worse than remembering only some aspects of King's life, Carson implies, is creating an image of him that is so great that individuals dare not try to do their part.

"King grew out of a movement that involved lots of people, ordinary people, and his greatness is not that he caused that movement but that he rose to that occasion," Carson said in an interview in his office at Stanford's undergraduate library.

Was King pushed into leadership or was he called? Can one tell from reading his papers whether he felt the movement sought him out, or that he sought it?

"King always had a strong sense of calling, a strong sense that he was destined to play a leadership role," Carson said. "That's why he wanted to preach at a Southern black church. He could have gone and become a university professor or take over a Northern church, but he consciously wanted to move to a Southern church. He was always very socially aware. From the earliest documents we have about him, he had a very strong social conscience, a very strong awareness of social inequities and the need to do something about them.

"He was also a leader. He was elected president of the student body at Crozer Seminary {Chester, Pa.}. Other people saw him as something special, and, of course, he was very bright. He was someone who entered college at 15 and was already out of graduate school by the time. . . most people may be entering."

Carson, 43, did not always hold the view of King as a daring man. In the 1960s, when Carson was a student at the University of California, Los Angeles, and active in protests locally with the Non-violent Action Committee, he viewed King as too cautious.

Later, writing his dissertation on the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, which became the book "In Struggle" published by Harvard University Press, Carson explored the committee's view of the civil rights movement. Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee leaders like Robert Moses saw the movement as one whose direction should go from the people up rather than from leaders down, as King's organization operated.

Has Carson's view changed now that Coretta Scott King has selected him to edit her late husband's papers?

"I think for me as for many of the other people who would have described themselves as black militants during the 1960s, King has gotten wiser as we have gotten older. There was a degree of arrogance and maybe youthful impetuosity in our belief that somehow we could change the world through our own militancy.

"I guess that during the '60s I would have been counted among those who would be a critic of King as being too cautious and too wedded to integration and non-violence. As time goes on, I don't think that my goals have changed that much, but I think I've become more aware of methods that are both humane and that are not counterproductive over time."

Carson's work on the King papers involves sifting through more than 100,000 letters, speech texts and other documents stored mainly at the King Center for Non-Violent Social Change in Atlanta and at Boston University.

The first of 12 volumes of the King papers, to be published by the University of California Press, should appear in 1990. The work is financed by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations and individuals. Carson, selected by King's widow on the recommendation of scholars such as John Hope Franklin, is also working on a book for Oxford University Press on black political thought.

Carson never met King but heard him speak on several occasions. The first was during the March on Washington. Carson took part in that massive demonstration after his freshman year at the University of New Mexico, before he transferred to UCLA. It was a day he remembers well.

"That was my first protest. I guess if you have to start out anywhere, that would be the way to do it. . . . For someone growing up in New Mexico {his parents worked for the Atomic Energy Commission at Los Alamos}, I saw more black people in one day than I had seen in my entire life. And that was very impressive. And just to see these students who were active in the South -- they were role models, they were doing something that I thought was very worthwhile. I wanted to be a part of it."

What does Carson know now about King, the man, that he did not know when he started the project?

The depth of King's religious roots, Carson said.

"Since I'm not a very religious person, it has taken me a while to truly understand the deep roots King has in the black church and the importance of those roots in shaping his world view." Carson said many scholars have the notion that somehow King was a blank slate when he came to Boston University, and then as a result of his training there became an advocate of non-violent activism.

"The more you look at him, the more you see the extent to which he was shaped by experiences that were much more deeply rooted than that -- the fact that he's the fourth generation of ministers in his family, that he's the third generation who'd been to a black college -- Morehouse. The fact that his mother was the second generation of Spelman women. That his family had been associated with Ebenezer Baptist Church since the 1890s.

"We have all these letters from people who invited him to come around the South, and they usually start out, 'I know your father' and that's the connection -- that he's Daddy King's son. It would have been quite different if some leader named Smith had emerged in Montgomery. Paternal ties, Morehouse alumni, all those networks played such an important role in making it possible for King, as opposed to anyone else, being accepted as someone who is a very special leader among leaders."