Photo by J. Brough Schamp
Taylor Branch discusses his trilogy of the Civil Rights Movement America in the King Years. [24:25]
Taylor Branch—Podcast Transcript
Bayard Rustin's "Freedom"
Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.
Taylor Branch is an author and journalist best known for his landmark trilogy on the civil rights era, America in the King Years which has won many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Beginning with "Parting the Waters" in 1988, followed 10 years later with "Pillar of Fire," and closing with "At Canaan's Gate in 2007," Taylor Branch has created more than a biography of the short life of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the non-violent revolution he led. He gives us a social and political history of the civil rights movement, the conditions that created it, and the epic struggle it waged as it forced the country to rethink the concept of democracy. In America in the King Years, Branch demonstrates his belief that the civil Rights movement is the defining political moment in 20th century US history and at its center was Dr. martin Luther King Jr.
It took Taylor Branch 24 years to complete his trilogy. And while I'm sure he understood that the books would be a vast undertaking. I wondered if he knew when he began the project that it would become in many ways his life's work.
Taylor Branch: I knew it was my life's motivating force. The Civil Rights Movement is what got me interested in politics, in- in the first place, against my will. I didn't grow up interested in politics. I grew up in Atlanta, wanting to be a surgeon, and basically, apolitical. My father always used to say that people interested in politics couldn't find honest work. but the Civil Rights Movement, when I was a kid, basically, the bus boycott started when I was nine. And the Birmingham demonstrations were when I was 16. And by that time, you- you couldn't ignore it in the south. It was scary most people were frightened of it, on all sides. but the demonstrations by the school children in Birmingham, when they put dogs and fire hoses on them, just were a life changing e- event for me, kind of, against my wishes. I just wondered where this came from that these kids could march through dogs and fire hoses, singing songs like I sang in Sunday school, and not run from the dogs and fire hoses. And what made the police do this and what made the kids go. And uh.. I was just stupefied by it. I thought it had enormous power. It got me interested in politics. And 20 years later, as a writer, kind of backing into this profession, I had the opportunity to go and ask a publisher. "I'd really like to write a story telling history of where this movement came from." And it was really personal in a way. Partly personal because I knew it had kind of shaped my life from then. Uh.. so I knew it was very important to me. And I planned it to be three years, which was three times longer than any of my previous books.
Jo Reed: I think, as you make clear why it moved you very personally, I think one thing that this trilogy does is you make it very clear why it should move all of us very deeply. And how it moved America and how it is the defining political moment in the 20th Century in the United States.
Taylor Branch: I- I think so. I think the record is pretty clear that it's transformed the whole country. Not just race relations. Although it's transformed those, too, in the sense that terror, the routine terror that existed in the United States in an era spotted with lynchings and those lynchings with virtually no hope of justice is gone. But it extended so far beyond that in ways that we take for granted or deny. As Dr. King said, the Civil Rights Movement liberated the white south. The white south, which was the poorest region of the country when it was segregated. So much of its psychological energy was invested in enforcing segregation that you couldn't even have sports teams in the south, professional sports teams until the Civil Rights Movement g- gets rid of segregation. And the next thing you know, you've got the Atlanta Braves and the Miami Dolphins and in an in a region that had never even had professional sports. Because you couldn't have business meetings, you were so worried about segregation and who might be there. And it introduced two-party competition by having black voters. But it also, in the course of doing that, created the first two-party competition in a region that was ossified in one-party democratic politics for a century. When it removed all of that it made white politicians eligible to become leaders in both national parties. Which we now take for granted, but could never have occurred back then. Trent Lott wouldn't have existed without the Civil Rights Movement. The prosperous sunbelt south wouldn't have existed without the Civil Rights Movement. Women weren't eligible to go to most of the private colleges in the United States, including Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Dartmouth, you know, on and on, until the Civil Rights Movement got people struggling over what equal citizenship ought to mean. It's just amazing the breadth of the liberation that was set forward.
Jo Reed: You call the trilogy America in the King Years. And throughout these books, you really make a case that they should be seen as the King years. Talk about that case.
Taylor Branch: Yes. I mean the King years in the sense that I think the Civil Rights Movement was the driving force. And that King was at the center of the movement. Not always the leader of the movement, but he was at the center of people's attention. Whether- whether it was those hostile to him, in and out of the government. The Klan threatening to kill him every day or-- and J. Hoover trying to wiretap and bug him every day or people within the movement who were fussing at him to do this, that or the other. He was at the center of the crucible for a period that uncannily overlaps his career. From the Brown decision of 1954, when he took his first church, until '68 when, essentially, the modern movement kind of dissipated and petered out, was the year that he was killed. You've got 14 years of struggle over Brown, the bus boycott, the sit in's, the freedom rides, the great struggles over segregation in Birmingham, the struggles over voting in Mississippi freedom summer in Selma. Then, the riot period all defining struggles for democracy and what democracy means. What's the relationship between democracy and violence? Between democracy and non-violence? And King is saying, you know, non-violence is the most powerful weapon. King is at the center of all of those movements. And they, essentially, dissipate when his life is, is gone. So in that sense, I think they are the King years, because you have this period of defining struggle over freedom with King at the center.
Jo Reed: It's interesting, because after Dr. King was killed, Stanley Levinson, who was one of his advisors said very soon after, "Now, they're gonna make him into a plaster saint, sort of stuck in the I Have a Dream speech moment." And I think part of what you do in this book is take him out of that casement, if you will. Because you really look at his philosophy and- and the way, even as in some ways, the movement that he was at the center of began to dissipate, his own moral and political philosophy strengthened. And his commitment to non-violence grew as violence, in fact, escalated. And he extended that reach to talking about civil rights means talking about poverty and talking against the war in the Vietnam. And really grew in stature, even as in some ways his political power diminished.
Taylor Branch: Absolutely. His Nobel Prize speech is sadly ignored. And it's the first one where he's trying to articulate a credo for non-violence that reaches beyond race. And saying that race has in common as an issue a dehumanizing quality that it shares with, both war and poverty. Kind of violence of the spirit, violence of the flesh. And in that Nobel Prize speech in 1964 he talks about this is the trio that we must struggle against. And that there are enormous resources within ecumenical spirit of religion and within democracy, if citizens take them seriously, to deal with these issues. The triplets, he called them, war, racism, and poverty. So that was a credo moment for him. And he talked about the barefoot and shirtless people of the world. And that they're- they're our brothers, and as the world shrinks we ignore them at our peril. But nobody else is paying any attention to that.
Jo Reed: And non-violence takes extraordinary courage and strength. I think it places enormous an extraordinary burden on those that practice it.
Taylor Branch: Absolutely. And the great irony in this period is that at the same time, he's making the case that non-violence is the most powerful idea to come out of the Civil Rights Movement. And will have all these benefits spreading far beyond just the changing of conditions of segregated black America. Non-violence is the first idea to become passé in the movement, across the board. It's resented by people in the movement as a special burden for black people. And they've been doing it for five years. And people saying there's America only admires non-violence in black people. Otherwise, it admires James Bond and John Wayne. And it was ridiculed in the sophisticated white press, The New York Review of Books non-violence is a- a tool of the past. And so it was surprising to me to find that in the last few years of his life, he emphasized it more and more they're like ships passing in the night. That the more he's ignored toward the end of his career, the more he tries to say, almost like somebody crying in the wilderness, you know, "This was what set all these blessings in motion. And I hope one day you will recover it." And almost every speech was about non-violence. At the same time, it was becoming passé in public discourse. And it really has been passé in American intellectual and political discourse for the two generations since he died.
Jo Reed: Taylor, this third volume begins with the attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. Remind us why that march was so important.
Taylor Branch: Well, on its face, it's struggling over the most fundamental issue of democracy: who can vote. Because black people were disenfranchised across the south. And Dr. King had come back from the Nobel Prize, which he was won, at the end of the civil rights struggle over segregation in the end of 1964. With all of his staff saying, "We've struggled for this for 10 years. We won a victory. You've got the Nobel Prize. Let's go to chicken dinners for 10 years." He's saying, "This is a mountain top experience. But the valley calls me because people can't vote." And he comes straight back, against all of his staff, and is in jail in Selma within weeks. In a movement where the right to vote that had been suggested to him by two young 22-year olds on his staff, James Bevel and his wife, Diane Nash. Both SNCC kids who had been pestering him to go on the right to vote. They struggled there in Selma for a couple of months.. The movement was petering out. And they decided, as a desperate gesture, essentially, to try to march 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery to present a petition to Governor Wallace, George Wallace, in Montgomery. And on March 7, the first attempt, they came out of Selma. They went over the Edmond Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River, 600 black people, mostly from Selma and the surrounding rural counties. And on the other side they were met by George Wallace's state troopers and some Klan posse men on horseback. And violently dispersed with tear gas and truncheons made out of clubs with barbed wire nailed to them. And a lot of them were terribly beaten. And film footage of that was put on television that same Sunday night, interrupting the network premier of "Judgment at Nuremburg." So for a huge audience of over 50 million Americans, they were watching an award winning film about ordinary Germans struggling with whether or not they had allowed Hitler to rise up in Germany. And this movie is suddenly interrupted by newscasters who come in. And say, "We have film footage from today in Selma." And all of a sudden, you shift from Germany and to this film footage of white posse men beating non-violent, peaceful protesters, seeking the right to vote. And that just caused a national and international crisis that broke down people's distance about what was gonna happen.
Jo Reed: How did people respond to these horrible images being played out in their living rooms on their television screens?
Taylor Branch: It set in motion a daily struggle. King that very night, appealed to all Americans. Said, "This is a crisis for all democracy. And no American is without responsibility for this issue. It's not just an issue of what should happen to black people. This is an issue of the soul of our democracy." And he appealed to people, not to write their congressman, not to work hard for the next election, and not to do something in a month. He said, "I want you to come to Selma and stand with us tomorrow." And he put out this appeal. And people came from all over the country. Nuns from St. Louis, students from all over, seminarians, several of whom became martyrs. And they went down there and stood. So there was this huge outpouring of support for it. The whole question of democracy. Should black people be allowed to vote? And it set in motion an almost daily struggle that drew in all three branches of government, the federal courts, President Johnson, what he's gonna do. This was the great drama over voting rights, at the very basic part of democracy.
Jo Reed: But Dr. King wasn't at the original march?
Taylor Branch: He wasn't at the original march. He was at the next two. And they finally by the end of that month, they did march all 54 miles. And-- but by then, Lyndon Johnson had introduced the vote-- what became the Voting Rights Act. Knowing that he was risking the political base of dem-- of democratic presidents. He said, "For my lifetime and yours" to all of his aids because Democrats had only been elected president based on the solid south. And it was a solid democratic segregation at south. Because the Democratic Party, back since the Civil War against Lincoln had been segregationists in the south. And Johnson said, "We're risking that. But we have to do it anyway."
Jo Reed: LBJ also played a fascinating role behind the scenes in all this.
Taylor Branch: Yes, what's so poignant about this. We can hear him talking on the telephone. And we have a lot of the declassified papers. And we have the archives and the wire taps and the-- and the interviews and the records of what was going in- in the movement. There was an extraordinary collaboration between Johnson and the-- and the movement, where Johnson is saying, "You have to-- the Citizens Movement has to create the political space to allow the president to respond. I can't be the forward spearhead of the movement. But when you do that and you go down and have these demonstrations that I can't endorse, you're opening up political space within freedom. And allowing me to come in and answer when the pressure builds up." And that's what he told Dr. King. "This was the greatest thing that ever happened. I never would've been able to propose this law if you hadn't asked all of Americans to get involved and remind us that this is a citizens' government. And we can address these issues." And then, Johnson goes into the House of Representatives and says, "We have to have a Voting Rights Act. This is a moment just like Appomattox and just like Concord and the American Revolution it goes to the heart of freedom. And we shall overcome." Which was a jaw dropping moment in American politics that the first southern president in a century adopts the slogan of the black Civil Rights Movement addressing a congress dominated by southerners. Who sit there slack-jawed, and say that J- Johnson's a trader. What's going on here? It's a truly great drama in American history.
Jo Reed: And how did Dr. King respond to Johnson's address before congress?
Taylor Branch: He cried. He watched it, he was watching it down in Selma. This was a great moment. There were arguments within the movement. Some people said that's just fake. You know, that's all political theater. Other people said Johnson's preaching. If it were a political gesture, he wouldn't be attaching it to landmark legislation that suspended the right of the state. This is pretty precious stuff in- in federalist theory. The Voting Rights Act of '65, under certain conditions, basically, said that the states could no longer be trusted to set the qualifications for who would be allowed to register to vote. All of the best lawyers, including his Attorney General, said the only way to get around all the tricks that they use to disenfranchise people is, under these circumstances, to say, "You can no longer do this. And the Federal Government will register people. We'll send registrars in." And that's how the back was broken. And you had the southern resistance, saying, "This is tyranny. This is totalitarian. You'll have to have troops on every street corner." Richard Russell of Georgia, who might've been president if he hadn't been a segregationist, said, "This will ruin the economy. The garden variety white person won't have a chance in the economy. Nobody will be free. We're-- we'll be totalitarian. And this is a formula for disaster." None of which proved true. There's no troops on the street corners in the south anymore guaranteeing the right to vote. Although we still have controversy over it. Far from ruining the whole economy of the United States, the economy of the south in particular, took off. And yet, somehow in mythology, dominant mythology of history, this was a time that proved that government was bad. And that it couldn't accomplish anything good. And government was-- is bad. and everything nonmilitary became the dominant political idea coming out of the Civil Rights Movement in reaction and that shows to me how disjointed our politics is because we haven't been able to to face squarely the hopes and the realities coming out of this period.
Jo Reed: Well, one of those hopes had to do with immigration. Didn't the Voting Rights Acts lead to Immigration reform?
Taylor Branch: Yes, the Immigration Reform Act of 1965 passed a month after the Voting Rights Bill by the same vote, because the southern opposition was prostrate for the Voting Rights Bill. And Johnson uses that momentum the Senate had protected since the 1920's an immigration law that restricted legal immigration to citizens from northern Europe. And people from huge stretches of the earth were not even eligible to apply for naturalized citizenship. All of Asia, Africa, had tiny, tiny-- it was called a quota system. Johnson pushed through the voting-- the Immigration Reform Act of 1965, which he signed on October 3 under the Statue of Liberty. And said, "Never again will prejudice and race shadow the gates to- to the American nation." And it allowed the first families of Koreans, Chinese, Indians, Syrians, people from Africans, In- Indonesians, Vietnamese, from huge swaths of the United States, uh.. to become eligible. And slowly changed what we take for granted, uh.. what neighborhoods we have, you know, the- the kind of families that we have. That we have people from all over the world here, which is a great strength, he said. But it wasn't even covered as a Civil Rights Bill or even as a significant bill. It was covered as a Cold War measure. People didn't realize it. So they were struggling over very, very fundamental things, then. It has changed, literally, the face of America, the Immigration Act. And as I say, I think the Voting Rights Act has changed the structure of partisan politics for the better based on what it did in the south and- and, of course, in franchising millions of black people who had never been allowed to vote before. So these are huge changes that come out of this period.
The very core issues of democracy and what is an American. And is- is being an American an idea or is it a-- you know, a nation stock and and a racial stock? And we decided to reject that.
Jo Reed: And that's the conversation that you're arguing in these books that Dr. King forced?
Taylor Branch: He forced it. And he spoke more profoundly about it than than I was prepared for, quite frankly. I knew there was something very stirring when you just listen to the timbre of his voice. But when you actually study what he's saying, he's talking about issues grounded in race, but much broader than race. About democracy and- and about the essence of the kind of the religious spirit in what binds us all as, you know, as one human race. And people have tended since to try to put him in one box or another. You know, this is much more profound, much more challenging than that. He said, "If democracy were an easy idea, it wouldn't have taken 20 centuries to have new democracy after Greece." The idea that people can govern themselves and build kind of a public trust, and that the citizens themselves can be responsible in public opinion. That was a credo for him.
Jo Reed: So you're saying to look at the philosophical heart of Dr. King's message means really interrogating what America means?
Taylor Branch: Yes. He's saying, "What is democracy? What- what is it? What is a vote?" And, of course, his answer was that every vote, every ballot is just a piece of non-violence. That's all it is. It's kind of an agreement that we're struggling toward to settle our differences. And to-- and to build cooperation. He called it a compact of citizens cooperatively. And that's where our-- he says, not only our virtue is. But he says, in the long run, that's where our strength is. That our strength is in these values. And, you know, that if we become a more violent society, we're not becoming stronger. He- he would say-- and what he did say is that the whole notion that we have now that we have to-- we have to be nasty and secret and authoritarian, and violent and torturous and dungeons to be strong, to give up some of our commitment to democracy. He would say that's a false choice. That once you make that choice, you've already lost.
Mavis Staples up and hot
Jo Reed: That's Pulitzer-prize winning author Taylor Branch talks about his three-volume history, America in the King Years. His latest book is The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement
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Excerpt from “Freedom,” sung by Bayard Rustin, used courtesy of the Bayard Rustin Foundation.
Excerpts from "On My Way" from the album We'll Never Turn Back, performed by NEA Heritage Fellow Mavis Staples, used courtesy of ANTI- Records.
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