Martin Luther King Jr.’s Legacy with Taylor Branch

February 2, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT

DAVID GERGEN: Taylor, you’ve written a sweeping graphic account of the 1960’s–1963, 1965–but can you stand back from it for a moment and tell us what those years meant to America.

TAYLOR BRANCH, Author, Pillar of Fire: I think those years meant an America that enlarged freedom, when it didn’t really think that it could, and discovered all kinds of optimism that had been kind of tamped down after World War II in its human relations and in stepping out in the world. We were a much more provincial, narrow, and spiteful in many respects and divided country then than we are now.

And it took a lot of courage and with the race issue and segregation having lived for a century after the Civil War, for people to believe that something good could happen. It’s much harder than it is today. And this is a story about ordinary people from all ranks, you know, from presidents down to cripples, who took risks and risked their lives to enlarge freedom. And we have inherited a much better country for it.

DAVID GERGEN: Tell us about a couple of them before we get to Martin Luther King Jr., just what kind of examples.

TAYLOR BRANCH: Well, there was one–one of my favorites in St. Augustine–which is a setting that’s not normally appreciated. It was so overshadowed by freedom somewhere in Mississippi, but it was an amazing story in itself, and at one critical point the movement was desperate to find people willing to go to jail, and they couldn’t find anybody in this church, in spite of their amazing exhortations, because everybody was either already in jail or they were frightened, because there had been a lot of violence.

And they said it was very embarrassing and they couldn’t get anybody. And finally they went back in the kitchen, where they–in churches at that time, and still today there’s usually somebody back there, cooking the meals. They went back to the cooks, and said, we’re desperate, is anybody willing to go to jail, and they found this woman well up in age who had polio and walked on two crutches named Georgia Reed, and she said she would go to jail.

And she came forward. And everybody in the church was mesmerized by the fact that this cripple woman came, and then she announced to the church she was ready to go to jail but not until somebody took her home to get a better dress because she’d be darned if she was going to go to jail–she went to jail and later became instrumental in the transformation of the federal judge–the judge down there–Brian Simpson–sturdy conservative Republican judge then–but he was kind of converted by her court testimony about the cruelties going on inside the jail.

So it’s an amazing collection of people and courage coming from places you don’t expect to find it.

DAVID GERGEN: Martin Luther King was central to the story, central to our imaginations; tell us about him.

TAYLOR BRANCH: Well, this is the period when King is no longer reluctant, as he had been for the–from the bus boycott all the way through the freedom rides and the sit-ins, he was trying to preach America out of segregation, and always getting dragged into the stories. In ’63, he said, I can’t do that anymore; we may be losing the moment in history to try to set something in place.

And Birmingham and later in Freedom Summer–and then in Selma–most definitely in Selma–he did at great risk. He said, I’m going to risk my career. I’m going to do this; people are going to get hurt, that hurts me, and he did. And we got the Civil Rights Bill out of it, and we got the Voting Rights Bill out, which transformed American politics.

So this is–unlike the first volume, which is more about King as a moral leader and a spiritual leader–in this volume we have all of that, plus his political skills. I mean, he diddles with Johnson. This time Johnson is trying to invite him–and sometimes King will say, I’m sorry, I can’t come to the White House, which in the private memos is a very, very interesting side of what’s going on.

DAVID GERGEN: He also mobilized, in moving from talk to action he mobilized young people and children played a huge role in changing America.

Branch TAYLOR BRANCH: It was not just college students. It was junior high students and right down to eight- and nine-year-olds, and there were first graders who went to jail by the hundreds in Birmingham. And they really played a large role, and it was–as I write.

It was tremendously controversial inside the movement–to use your children where they could be hurt and scarred for life, as hard as it is for them to have meaningful careers, to send them to jail deliberately–and yet it paid off because it broke through the emotional resistance of the whole country, those pictures of the dogs and fire hoses attacking the children.

And I write I don’t know of any precedent in history for a country being so moved by the active political witness of children that young.

DAVID GERGEN: That picture of Bull Connor unleashing the dogs–


DAVID GERGEN: –it was just a memorable picture. It seared the conscience.

TAYLOR BRANCH: It’s a tableau in American history of that whole period.

DAVID GERGEN: Right. In the midst of all these controversies we have today about morality and politics tell us about Martin Luther King squaring his private life and his public life.

TAYLOR BRANCH: Well, he had a hard time doing it. I don’t really know much about it in his youth–there are hints of it–but he certainly by the time he was an adult had a–in this period he had a number of running affairs–very loyal people–often for long periods of time.

And he vowed when it became an issue of blackmail–because eventually the FBI by wiretaps learned where he was going to be going, and got advanced notice to be waiting for him with bugs at a hotel–if he was setting up some sort of rendevous, so they began recording his private life and leaking, or trying to get people to write about it.

They never did. Nobody would ever write about it because the FBI would always insist that they not be cited as the source. So it put the news person in the position of saying I’ve stumbled on this material and I have no idea where it comes, but this is what it is. So they wouldn’t do it.

DAVID GERGEN: It almost seemed from your book that the struggles he had reconciled in his public and private life actually made him more determined to improve America’s public life.

TAYLOR BRANCH: He preached about it a lot. He talked about fighting addictions. He talked about, I’m not as good as you think I am. He gave some memorable sermons about how you don’t fight evil, the story of Scylla and Charybdis and Ulysses: you don’t stuff wax in your ears to try to repress it.

You try to fixate on something that’s better, on the better music, on the better music to draw yourself away from that. And he would preach on that in public but I don’t think people really knew what he was talking about. I think what he was talking about was that he knew that this was a threat to the movement.

He also knew that there were people who idolized him, who would stumble across evidence of this, who would be crushed by it. But he would take his failures and almost punish himself in public.

I’m going to take greater risk to try to redeem myself in public for what he knew were his private faults, and what he would talk about. So this is–I think it’s–I never have argued that your public life and your private life are completely distinct–because what you really care about and where your heart is, is shown in both. But I think the relationship between them is very complex.

And that’s why I think that’s a different reason to tread so lightly about knowing how they relate to one another because I think you almost have to be a novelist to know about somebody’s marriage, about somebody’s life, about what they think of sex, and what they think of their–where their idealism is.

I mean, it’s obvious if say sex consumes them to the point that they can’t think of anything else and they become a husk–and you can tell that they don’t care about what their private life is. But there’s no evidence whatsoever of that in Martin Luther King.

I think when you hear him, one of the things that’s most distinctive is that fairness of passion and saying things are really bad, but I refuse to give in to this, and I’ve got to reach for something higher, that’s what makes his voice have that, you know, timber. It’s the sound of his voice almost as much as the words that really affects people.

DAVID GERGEN: You wrote in your first volume of this trilogy and now in volume 2 you repeated it, that King’s life is the best and most important metaphor for American history in the watershed, post-war years. What did you mean by that?

TAYLOR BRANCH: The post war years basically were trying to test–we had fought a world war about lessons of freedom, and the very searing nature of that war made us once again wonder whether we practiced that much freedom here at home.

And, as usual, when there’s a crisis like that in American history, as before in the Civil War, race is at the center of that: are we really treating people according to our creed, you know, that all people are created equal. And this is a great period of testing about that, and it did change the country in ways that are far more dramatic, I think, than we think.

And I personally, looking on this historically now, think that our objective reality of the way we treat each other is far, far–all you have to do is look back at that period–far, far better. Hope is much easier now. Our problem now is that we’ve lost the memory of how to talk to one another and have the kind of hope and the conversion and the language about race that these people had then. Our objective conditions I think are a lot better off.

DAVID GERGEN: Taylor Branch, thank you very much. We’ll look forward to volume III.