The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer explains his latest text, The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement.
Author Taylor Branch
Tavis: Taylor Branch is, of course, the acclaimed writer of the trilogy on the King years and arguably is the most comprehensive deep dive into the civil rights era that remade America. He’s now distilled that epic story into one easily accessible book. It’s title “The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement”. He joins us tonight from Washington. Taylor, it’s always good to have you back on this program, my friend.
Taylor Branch: Thank you, Tavis. Nice to be with you. I wish I could see you.
Tavis: I wish I could have you here in studio, but I would not pass the opportunity to talk to you about this new text. Why did you feel the need, having written this trilogy? I kind of laughed when I saw this book come across my desk. You spend your entire life basically working on this iconic trilogy and then you end up with a book that distills all of it down? Why’d you feel the need to do this?
Branch: Well, for two reasons. Number one, teachers for many, many years have told me that, while they love the storytelling approach to civil rights history, 800-page books are a little much to assign even college students, let along high school, and that weighed on me.
The other reason is that it’s been 50 years now since the crest of the movement and America still doesn’t really appreciate how much we benefit from this. I think our history is still out of phase. There’s still an awful lot of people who are hiding from the great benefits of the 1960s.
So I wanted to do something that would crystallize those benefits again because I think that we need to be re-inspired by the lessons of the people in the civil rights era.
Tavis: What are the benefits that you think writ large the American public still as we approach the 50th anniversary of the march on Washington in August of this year? We’ll talk about that in a moment, I suspect. But what are those benefits that they still seem blind to?
Branch: 50 years ago, George Wallace pledged segregation now, segregation forever. This country was segregated. All through the south in the constitutions of the southern states, there wasn’t a single public official who advocated the end of segregation. Now that is gone and terror which was predominant in that region is gone.
But not only has that benefited African American citizens to the point that we have one now in the White House, but it has benefited women, the disabled, senior citizens and even, of course, the white south which, when it was invested in segregation, was the poorest region of the country. You never heard of the Sun Belt and now it has benefited tremendously by the psychological lift of having let go of that.
So the benefits of ending segregation, of going through the doors of equal citizenship, are really appreciated much more around the world than they are here in the United States.
Tavis: There was a study that came out not too long ago and you might have seen it. I’m struggling trying to recall the name of the institution, a major university in this country. I read so many of these studies that I’ve forgotten which institution I’m thinking of at the moment. But it made all kinds of national news because it discovered that this president, the beneficiary of what you and I are talking about tonight, all of this sacrifice and struggle.
President Obama’s benefited from that in a major way and he has talked less about race than any president in recent memory. And the study detailed what other presidents have had to say about race and he has talked less about it than other presidents, including Republicans. Is that to be expected? Is that okay? Is his being Black in and of itself making a statement? Is that enough?
I ask you this question because, one, you have done the work on this era that we so benefited from and, number two, you are one of the historians that the president has called to the White House on occasion to have lunch and dinner with to pick your brains, to get ideas from, to have conversations about history. So how do you answer that question? How do you respond to that study that finds that he has talked less about race than any president in recent memory?
Branch: Well, first of all, it doesn’t surprise me. Second of all, I’m certain it’s true. Third of all, people should understand that that doesn’t mean other presidents talked very much about race, because they haven’t. They avoid it when they can.
But he has talked even less than the rest of them for good reason. He is smart and he knows that an awful lot of people voted for him as a Black president because they felt that they were ready to make a racial change only on their terms. And if he talks about race, they get upset.
All he has to do is mention that, if he had had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin and the whole country goes ballistic. People are still nervous about race. It stills drives our politics, our voting patterns, and when people tell you that we’re over race, the answer is usually that they’re not. So it’s still a very, very important barometer of politics in the United States.
But for that very reason, it is a gateway when you make progress. If you are comfortable and you get outside yourself and you make progress as they did in the 1960s on race, it pays dividends everywhere else, that you move toward equal citizenship.
And to me, that’s why the civil rights era is about the future, not about the past, because it’s great lessons of how citizens can organize to call on the patriotic heritage of the country to tackle some of our most intractable problems and we need to do that again.
Tavis: I’m glad you said that because I wanted to ask you, and I will now, what you think other movements, other significant movements for justice and freedom and rights in this country, have learned from the civil rights era. I’ve always seen the civil rights era as a litmus test – these are my own words, not yours.
But I’ve always seen the struggle of my ancestors as a litmus test, as the benchmark, the high water mark, if you will, that other movements have taken their cues from, be it women, be it gays and lesbians, be it animal rights activists. Say a word to me about what this movement has taught these other movements that they have engaged to advance their own causes.
Branch: Well, race is the gateway to movement. It’s the gateway to freedom. When the Black movement showed the way to raise itself, it inspired other movements about equal citizenship and what it really means, what Dr. King meant by equal souls and equal votes. So people have learned, first of all, that you don’t wait just for leadership, that it’s about citizenship.
And in the country, even the most inspirational thing about the Black movement was that people, even those who were denied the basic rights to participate, figured out a way to move the country forward by marching, by communicating, and that young people can be involved in that, old people, anybody, sharecroppers. And they created the political momentum that forced the national leaders to respond.
And once that happened and those gates were broken, women followed. I mean, 50 years ago, it was a farfetched dream for women to be at Princeton or Yale, let alone West Point or anything like that. They didn’t even go to the University of North Carolina where I was a student. Females weren’t allowed. People forget how segmented this country was until Black people opened those doors to freedom.
The word gay hadn’t even been invented. It’s been a blink of history since the African American movement began to open those doors that gay people have gone from literally the crime that dare not even speak its name to a period where we’re now talking about open gay marriage.
So these are very, very inspirational things, but we need to be constantly reminded that it was the African American movement that led and opened the doors for the other movements.
Tavis: One of the reasons why we need to be constantly reminded is because students aren’t taught this in school. You started this conversation answering my question about why this distillation of that trilogy that you did about the King years.
Your first answer was because teachers have been saying to you over and over and over again for years now that they need something that they can assign to their students, be they high school students, for that matter, college students.
And I’m not naive, Taylor, in asking this question, but why is it even when the documentation exists for them to do otherwise, why is it that in our system of education students are not taught more about this history?
If you regard this, you know, as seminal history, as important to the experience of America not just growing older, but growing wiser and growing more mature, why aren’t students taught more of this in public education?
Branch: Well, first of all, it’s controversial and anything involving American…
Tavis: What’s controversial about it? If it’s the fact about what happened, why are the facts controversial?
Branch: Because there are a lot of people in denial about these facts. There are an awful lot of people in this country who still take this – that’s why so much of our politics to this day is about the 1960s and whether it proved that government is good or bad. There are an awful lot of people who despise government precisely because it opened the door for common citizenship for people of all races and all natures in the United States. So it is still controversial, but it’s beyond that, Tavis.
Our country measures schools now by the way they teach math and the way they teach reading, not history. History is the key to citizenship and, because we don’t teach history, we are in danger of having people come of age who don’t really realize what citizenship means. And the civil rights era is one of the greatest eras and the most accessible era, especially for young people, to show how people learned how to use their citizenship to really change the nation for the better.
So we lose a lot by not transmitting it and we can’t blame the kids. They don’t get this history through their umbilical cord. A lot of people are embarrassed that they were racist. Other people were embarrassed that they were humiliated by segregation. So there are barriers to peoples’ psychological readiness to open this.
But what we have to understand is that, through those barriers, is where we really make our greatest progress and that’s what the 1960s are really about. That’s why to me it has been an enthralling life’s work and I think that it remains that way and should remain that way for young people.
Tavis: What is the danger to our democracy long-term? We’re already at the 50-year mark of some historic moments. You and I will talk in a moment, I suspect, about all of the major seminal moments in our history that we’re going to be celebrating the 50th anniversary of over the next five years.
We’ll run that list in just a second here. But what is the long-term danger to our democracy if we never come to terms with his history? We haven’t done it as yet in half a century. But what’s the long-term damage if we don’t ever come to terms with it?
Branch: The long-term damage is – and we can learn this from history. Where race is involved, there is a pronounced and proven tendency in the United States for the majority culture to willfully misremember the history and turn it upside down. What does that mean?
I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia right after World War II and I was taught that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery and that the people who reinstated white Supremacy in the south were, in my textbooks, called the Redeemers. That’s a religious word, that they redeemed the south.
Now in actuality what happened, this is a period when the Klan restored white Supremacy by terror and violence, but we gave it a gloss. And it wasn’t just true that way in the south. It was true in the north. President Kennedy said that he was taught that at Harvard, that the Klan was a benevolent organization.
So we can turn his history upside down by activity misremembering this. We have done it. We did it for a century. A lot of people still don’t have an accurate view of the Civil War and what it was about. I argue that we have misremembered the 1960s now for 50 years.
When George Wallace failed to preserve segregation forever, he invented a lot of the terminology that we use now about big government and pointy-headed liberals telling us what to do and a biased liberal media being in cahoots with politicians trying to centralize all power in Washington. It’s an anti-government distemper.
It’s not a judgment. It’s just a hostility to government that we’re still living with that is very dangerous to any sort of balance and any sort of purpose, even a patriotic purpose. The history of American patriotism is figuring out ways that we can work together to move forward and knit together the common government.
We’ve got an awful lot of people who are in denial about that and who are so fearful or so hateful or so confused that they think the key to their survival is the gun in their closet. And that’s never been true and you can’t show that in American history. But that shows how atrophied in many respects our democratic confidence is in the United States. If we don’t remember our history because we’re running from it, we do ourselves a grave disserve.
Tavis: Part of misremembering, Taylor, it seems to me, involves deodorizing and sanitizing and taming who Martin King really was. I’ve raised this issue before on this program. I suspect between now and August, as we get to the 50th anniversary of the march on Washington, I will raise this subject again.
You and I have discussed this any number of times in our public and certainly our private conversations about who Martin King really was. So, again, I think part of misremembering history is trying to turn King into something that he wasn’t and you can do that with monuments in Washington, you can do that with holidays, and I support all of that.
But I say to you tonight, as I’ve said before, that I am fearful of what will happen this year and as we start this journey over the next five years celebrating Selma to Montgomery and, if not celebrating, sort of commemorating, Selma to Montgomery and the four little girls killed in the Birmingham church and the voting rights act and the civil rights act.
I’m concerned that we will get so caught up in this pomp and circumstance of celebration that we misremember, as one of my friends says, accidentally on purpose. We misremember who Martin King really was, so he gets sanitized in the process. So we celebrate this monument, but we never really come to terms with the radical beliefs that Martin King really had about how to turn this country around.
Those are my thoughts and my fears and my trepidations over the next five years that we celebrate Martin. We applaud Martin, this dead martyr, but never come to terms with who he really was. What does Taylor Branch have to say about that?
Branch: Well, I think there’s an awful lot of truth in what you have to say, Tavis. There’s a natural tendency to sanitize and polish any historical icon whether it be George Washington chopping down the cherry tree or Martin Luther King saying, “I have a dream.”
There’s some of that, but I think there’s even more in the case of King because people don’t want to take him as the real prophet of democracy for his time who said that democracy is about votes, votes are about little pieces of nonviolence and nonviolence is a tool that we can have to tackle all of humanity’s scourges of war, poverty and racism, what he called violence of the flesh and violence of the spirit. That’s a very, very radical, prophetic message. It was never easy. We were never comfortable with that. Martin Luther King was never an up close and personal figure in the United States.
So there is a need to some degree, and you see it psychologically, for people to say, oh, that’s wonderful. He said I have a dream. We’ve reached the dream. That was about things long ago about where people sat on the bus that don’t apply anymore. But really, Martin Luther King was a leader for all Americans on our own professed values.
That’s one of the great things about Lyndon Johnson’s speech that he gave. Everybody remembers that he said, “We shall overcome” during the Selma march. But even before that, from his very first words, he said that there are times when destiny and freedom come together in a single moment. So it was in Concord during the Revolution and in Appomattox during the Civil War, and so it was last week in Selma.
Johnson is welcoming a Black-led movement not just to the heart of American patriotism from the Revolution to the Civil War, but to the vanguard of it, a nonviolent movement saying this is showing us how to live, this is showing us what our principles mean. That’s a very, very profound and radical memory and I think people want to forget that just as much as they want to sanitize Martin Luther King.
Tavis: Beyond Dr. King, tell me more about these – back to your text here now, your new book – tell me more about these 18 – you’ve whittled them down to 18. Certainly there are many more, but you’ve picked 18 historical moments that turned basically this country during the civil rights era.
Tell me more about these 18 moments. I know we can’t walk through all of them, but give me a sense of how you – I guess my question is how you settled on these 18 monumental moments in our history.
Branch: Well, first of all, I have to say that, since I had to eliminate 95% of what I wrote over 24 years of my enthrallment, there’s a lot of blood on the floor and it wasn’t easy [laugh]. What I tried to do is to pick moments that delivered the full span of this transformative era when movement became the watch word of politics. Now it’s spinned, which is a pretty sad comparison. We went from a time when you were literally moving in history to a time when politics is kind of cynical and about entertainment.
I started with Dr. King’s first speech on the first night of the Montgomery bus boycott where he had 15 minutes’ notice and he was speaking mostly to strangers and he groped for a message because that really was like the birth of a movement. He was trying to find communion and you can hear it ignite in that church that night.
So I picked the chapter where a movement really starts with inspiration. By the time you get up to Selma, the movement and these nuns and the people who went there after Pettus Bridge were dealing with the president, the Congress, Governor Wallace, the FBI, all the branches of government, trying to hold a movement together and enact a voting rights act.
So it grew very, very rapidly. So the movement expanded a lot. Dr. King is by no means at the heart of all the chapters. Bob Moses, who a lot of people don’t really know, and Diane Nash, are the centerpieces of several chapters having to do with the sit-ins, the freedom rides and Freedom Summer in Mississippi.
There’s one chapter about the pivotal year 1964, Freedom Summer. Bob Moses is doing Freedom Summer, Lyndon Johnson is trying to push through the civil rights act of ’64 to outlaw segregation, Dr. King is in jail in St. Augustine, Florida. And in that one summer, partisan politics turned upside down in the United States. The Democrats went from the party of solid south segregation that they had been from a century to the party that was tentatively moving toward cross-racial alliances which is what we have today.
And the Republicans, who had voted over 80% in both the House and the Senate for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as soon as Barry Goldwater announced that he was going to oppose the Civil Rights Act as a usurpation of states’ rights and a sign of tyranny in the federal government, the very first Republicans popped up in the south where I was and the party of Lincoln gave way to the party of presumptive white people. So it turned partisan politics on its head in one summer. There wasn’t a single Republican Congressman in the House of Representatives between the far reaches of Texas and the Atlantic Ocean in 1964, but the very first ones came up.
So the chapter right in the middle here shows how the power of race and the power of this movement really drove partisan politics in ways that people don’t appreciate today. That’s part of our misremembering. We do not want to remember how powerful a force race can be in our politics, both for the bad and for the good.
Tavis: What does this moment in history, Taylor, say to us? You’ve been using the word movement a lot and I take that and this was clearly one of the greatest movements in the history of this nation. But what does your study of this era say to us about the through-line that allows us to go from moment to momentum to movement, from moment to momentum to movement?
Whether you’re talking the environment, whether you’re talking the random use of drones, whether you’re talking poverty or immigration or gun control, what are the takeaways, the abiding lessons, from this movement about that through-line from moment to momentum to movement?
Branch: Man, that is a wonderful question. That’s what I talk to my students about. I’m trying to teach this history myself. The inspirational thing to me about really the college kids from the time they went from the bus boycott to the college kids starting in 1960 and in the freedom rides, they argued about this all night. What is our responsibility? What is the citizens’ role? Do we have a role even if America says we’re not citizens and can’t vote?
The inspirational thing about someone like Diane Nash is that she said even though we are not allowed to vote, if we really believe in the promise of this country, we have the responsibility to figure out how to move forward and enact and move the country toward a situation where we will be able to vote, and that’s what the freedom rides were.
She actually intervened when the first freedom riders were burned and beaten in Alabama. She said the movement cannot stop by violence. If violence can stop us, the movement is dead, and she recruited students to go down and take it up.
So people debated and argued about creating a sense of new community and getting outside their comfort zone and debating what it really means to be an American. And most of America had no idea that such a profound debate was going on on predominantly African American college campuses in the early 1960s.
Tavis: He grew up a young white male in Atlanta, went on to the University of North Carolina, and somewhere along the way, made his life’s passion, his life’s work looking at the King years and getting America to come to terms with what we still have to learn from this historic and iconic era of American history.
The new book from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Taylor Branch, is called “The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement”. Taylor, I’m always honored and humbled to have you on this program, and thanks again for the text.
Branch: Always enjoy talking with you, Tavis. Thank you.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. See you next time on PBS. Keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
Wade Hunt: There’s a saying that Dr. King had that he said there’s always the right time to do the right thing. I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger and we have a lot of work to do. Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we could stamp hunger out.
Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.