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Taylor Branch

      . . . spent more than 15 years doing research for Parting the Waters, the best seller which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1989, and Pillar of Fire, volume two of his anticipated trilogy. Mr. Branch has written two other non-fiction books and a novel and is a former staff member of The Washington Monthly, Harper's and Esquire.  He, his wife and their two children live in Baltimore, Maryland.

Excerpts3:25 secs

Truth comes from questions, not from answers, Taylor Branch discovered. He's the historian and author who has brought America's Civil Rights Movement back to life. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his best selling book Parting the Waters, now continues the story in Pillar of Fire.

Branch did almost 2,000 interviews and more than 15 years of research into the Civil Rights Movement, but he resists being "analytical." Instead, uses the craft of a master story-teller. The saga is America freeing itself, growing away from the parochialism which sanctioned state-sponsored terrorism and apartheid-style segregation. He tells the stories of ordinary people who rose to extraordinary challenges, people across America who stood up, sat down, and died ... for freedom.

America was transformed between 1963 and 1965, according to Branch. What happened? The Civil Rights Movement expanded as long as people were asking questions of each other and took risks about what freedom means, how we get there, Branch found. The Movement imploded as soon as people started quarreling over who should get credit and started announcing decisions. Freedom needs Abraham Lincoln's "new births" because democracy is still painfully young and fragile.

Even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. could not simply preach America out of segregation it turned out. Dr. King acknowledged the genius of the students' contribution of asking the questions with their bodies. "Witnessing." Branch found that the '60s were not, as some proclaim, a time of destruction. He can think of no one more patriotic and disciplined that a Freedom Rider. And what of Dr. King? He was a prophet. The prophesy? Justice will come when we subdue our pride, measure ourselves by how we treat people who are different from us. And justice is essential in the world's first multi-ethnic, multi-racial democracy. Together, The Movement redeemed America.

The years 1963-1965 are good teachers for us now, according to Branch. Our future is about how we relate to one another. He‚s clear that these interactions must happen in public spaces, in our institutions and our political culture. That makes it essential that we reform the way we talk to each other. When that's done, it's fine to disagree. Stretch a little to discover what it takes to function in this new world. Democracy requires it, freedom demands it.

Then stop pretending we are self-sufficient, says Branch, who brands that notion ridiculous. Accept that we feel daunted by our challenges, then engage. Don't withdraw and go home! If we isolate ourselves from each other, Taylor Branch is certain we will recreate the kind of fearful imprisonment America experienced under segregation. And that would be a terrible betrayal of the very transformation which has inspired the rest of world, from Northern Ireland to China, one person at a time.


Conversation 1

Taylor Branch shows Paula Gordon and Bill Russell how the whole world changed as a result of America's Civil Rights Movement which was full of "movement" -- from Freedom Riders trying to take the bus out of Birmingham, Alabama, to the crippled old woman who helped liberate St. Augustine, Florida, from the paralysis of segregation. Mr. Branch describes how America transformed itself from 1963 to 1965, becoming more of an inspiration to the world than to ourselves.

Conversation 2

All through American history, Branch believes, the test of America's "experiment in self-government" has been what "all people are created" means. He tells stories about slavery, the fight for suffrage for women, treatment of foreigners and non-Christians. He describes how the Civil Rights Movement emerged after in the middle part of the Twentieth Century, when major ideologies were rivals and the outcome was far from clear. He describes the world of America's apartheid-style segregation and state-sponsored terrorism, when America was still very parochial. Then he turns to the uprise in freedom around the world which we inspired when we left that behind. He honors the martyrs who helped the world‚s first modern democracy create the world‚s first multi-ethnic, multi-racial democracy.

Conversation 3

Branch describes America when "race" finally bubbled to the surface on strength of witness and stories and suffering. He shows how The Movement began in the Southern black churches, then how "everything happened at once." He tells how people learned about themselves, their humanity, democracy and American values in this period of suffering, and recalls Dr. King's belief that unmerited suffering is redemptive. Mr. Branch tells his own stories about visiting present day prisons, and all that he's learned there. He goes on to describe the self-constructed prisons of segregation, reminding us that Dr. King preached that when black people won their freedom, among the greatest beneficiaries would be white people, which history has borne out.

Conversation 4

Branch tells how The Movement came out of people's very hearts and tells his own story of growing up in the South during this era. He tells why he believes the Movement was about power and explains why he chose story telling as the way to get across his message. In the face of romantic distortions like Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, Branch tells why he thinks Freedom Riders defined patriotism and discipline. He tells how the big changes of the era came on the strength of a great flow of religiously minded people. He describes how non-violence led people to discover what they were willing to die for rather than kill for. He offers his own "two-bit theory of human history," then tells the story of how The Movement changed First Amendment and Liable law in America. Music, he believes, can play a large part in helping people change and tells how it affected him.

Conversation 5

Mr. Branch thinks we have a great deal to learn from the period 1963-65. He tells why he thinks our future is about how we relate to one another, and how that will be "out in public." He tells why it's "ridiculous" for people to withdraw into their families and pretend they are self-sufficient. He‚s concerned that such thinking will recreate the kind of fearful self-imprisonment that we had under segregation. He reminds us of the time when people were willing to die for the right to vote, comparing it to today. He describes how in 1964, the Republican Party changed from the party of Lincoln to one which based its appeal on claims that government is bad. Mr. Branch asks if we have the self-discipline to govern ourselves and worries about avoiding the dangers of letting freedom atrophy.

Conversation 6

The period of the Civil Rights Movement has a special hold on Mr. Branch, which he describes, sharing the sources of his inspiration. He summarizes Dr. King's role and that of the students whom Dr. King admired for solving problems which had baffled their elders. Mr. Branch describes the confusion of the times' "Shakespearean characters," tells us why he thinks Dr. King is a prophet and describes the prophecy. The conversation ends of a decidedly optimistic note -- if we reform the way we talk to each other!


After our recording with Taylor Branch at The Commerce Club, those who had until then watched joined in. We thank all the guests with whom we shared a remarkable experience and we thank The Club for providing the setting for moving the dialogue forward a bit more.

Related Links:

Parting the Waters and Pillar of Fire are published by Simon & Schuster.


During our second conversation with Taylor Branch, we focused on the third volume of his trilogy At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965-1968.

Congressman John Lewis played a central role through much of the American struggle for Civil Rights.

In a wide ranging discussion, one of the points that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. makes is how one of the outgrowths of this era, affirmative action, helped him become a tenured professor at Harvard University.

In her teaching and her poetry, Nikki Giovanni exposes and attacks the racism still afflicting America.

In our conversation with Harvard Law professor Lani Guinier we discuss the progress which was and was not made in civil rights in the U.S. during the last quarter of the 20th century.

Journalist David Halberstam covered the Civil Rights Movement for the Nashville Tennessean and later wrote The Children about the young people who changed the Movement and American history.

One of those “children” about whom David Halberstam wrote is John Lewis. Former president of SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) and now a U.S. Congressman for Atlanta, Mr. Lewis wrote of his experiences in Walking With the Wind.

Though frequently overlooked, African-American women were the backbone of the Movement. Darlene Clark Hine (with co-author Kathleen Thompson) starts with the colonial era to provide a comprehensive history of those women in A Shining Thread of Hope.

Syracuse University historian Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn looks at what happened to the Civil Rights Movement after Dr. Kings assassination in Race Experts: How Racial Etiquette, Sensitivity Training and New Age Therapy Hijacked the Civil Rights Revolution.

Barney Pityana, Hugh Masekela (both South Africans) and Gerry Adams (Irish) have each been deeply involved in their countries’ struggles for democracy and civil rights.

In John Brown, Abolitionist David Reynolds presents John Brown as a pivotal character in helping (forcing) America to live up to the oratory of the founding fathers and the promise of the Constitution.

For 30 years, the Rev. Joseph L. Roberts led Martin Luther King’s church (Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta). Day by day Dr. Roberts worked to support and sustain “the least of these” while holding the powerful to account.

David Shipler reports in The Working Poor: Invisible in America that Dr. King’s vision of economic justice has not yet been achieved in America. Jason DeParle examines the history of welfare and the effects of welfare reform in American Dream: Three Woman, Ten Kids and Welfare Reform.

Historian and novelist Richard Slotkin says that America needs a new organizing myth, one that must deal with racism and with violence.

In Democracy Matters Cornel West argues that by drawing on our Greek, Hebrew and African heritages we can build a better democracy.

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