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Citizens' Rule

Taylor Branch


... historian. At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965-1968 completes best-selling author and historian Taylor Branch’s incomparable narrative trilogy on America and its Civil Rights Movement. Among the wealth of major awards given to Dr. Branch is the Pulitzer Prize for History for Parting the Waters, which began the series. With two additional nonfiction books and a novel to his credit, he lectures widely and is a former staff member of The Washington Monthly, and has been published in Harper’s, Texas Monthly and Esquire. A native of Atlanta, Baltimore, MD has long been his home.


Americans have lost track of fundamental democratic truths embodied in its own profoundly democratic Civil Rights Movement, says The Movement's great historian, Taylor Branch. In a democracy, every person's opinion matters. An unknown citizen and the President of the United States have an equal stake and share in running the country. The vote of the one counts just the same as the vote of the other.

We now take for granted the profound and positive ways in which The Movement improved life for every American, of every ethnicity and gender, in every region of the nation. That's dangerous in today's America, Dr. Branch says, when the whole country is speaking the language of democracy, but is being governing as if by Caesar. Only citizens can change this, he says, full of lessons learned from The Movement, especially its young people, took citizenship with the utmost seriousness, using democracy to defeat the privileged few who had for centuries used deadening fear to maintain their bloody status quo.

After decades immersed in The Movement, Dr. Branch says nonviolence is what particularly jumped out for him. While it is the most powerful and influential element to come out of the Civil Rights Movement, he says, there's more. Nonviolence is crucial to a democracy. By definition, it is at democracy's heart -- every vote is nothing more than a piece of nonviolence, an institutionalized consent with which we struggle to settle our political differences, he says. It also was the first idea to become passé and ridiculed, living more overseas than in America after Dr. King died. But we ignore at our peril nonviolence's central role in democracy.

Nonviolent "witness" was equally crucial, of course. This is the "redemptive suffering for democracy," of which Nobel Laureate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke: the willingness to accept blows from people who hate you, to maintain the openness that you can develop a fellow-citizenship relationship even with the Klansman who is about to beat you. This, Dr. Branch says, is an incandescent example of self-government and of the democratic attitude.

Attitudes America's Found Fathers wrenched from history also impressed Dr. branch deeply, particularly the idea that people can be self-governing. This distinctive democratic attitude says people can develop public trust in one another, across lines, despite what all the monarchs and rulers over thousands of years have insisted -- that somebody's got to tell people what to do. Ordinary citizens -- many desperately poor, never in their lives allowed to register, much less vote -- changed the course of history by taking up the responsibilities of citizenship.

In the face of the great divide in politics between public servants and would-be rulers, it's time again for ordinary citizens to take responsibility for governing ourselves. Resist those who use fear as an anti-democratic tool, reinforcing inherited forces which are anathema to democracy: command, violence, secrecy, arbitrary rule and subjugation. Remember, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself."


[This Program was recorded January 31, 2006, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]

Conversation 1

The health of American democracy is again in question, Taylor Branch assures Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, as he addresses the question of his lifetime: Where did America’s Civil Rights Movement -- which provided so much good to the world -- come from? He describes what guided him as he wrote his monumental trilogy.

Conversation 1 RealAudio7:49

Conversation 2

The seriousness with which the young people around Dr. King took citizenship is explored, the terror with which white supremacists in Alabama denied justice and citizenship to African-Americans is remembered. Dr. Branch examines the admirable discipline and faith required to practice nonviolence, in light of the Stokely Carmichael’s heroics before devastatingly wrong “New York Times” editorials contributed to his turn away from it. Dr. Branch demonstrates the many, profound and long-forgotten ways The Movement liberated all Americans.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:43

Conversation 3

The concept of justice is explored through troubled and troubling mistakes the “New York Times” made covering The Movement. Vietnam overlaps and ambushes this Movement, Dr. Branch says, and expands on how it affected Dr. King and The Movement when they moved into the North. Chicago nationalized race, Dr. Branch says. He begins to examine the tension between the nonviolence which Dr. Branch demonstrates lies at democracy’s core and the long history of the violence which America both loves and hates.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:59

Conversation 4

Dr. Branch’s most overarching conclusion at the end of his trilogy was that the concept of nonviolence -- by definition at the heart of democracy as exemplified by the vote -- is the most powerful and influential element to come out of the Civil Rights Movement. He recalls Dr. King codifying his belief in his important Nobel Prize acceptance speech, summed up by “Equal Souls, Equal Votes.” Dr. Branch gives political examples.

Conversation 1 RealAudio13:12

 Conversation 5

People’s opinions matter, citizen engagement was and is critical to democracy, Dr. Branch reiterates, pointing out a great divide in politics between public servants and rulers who will use whatever they can to get people to forfeit their sense of citizenship. He makes Diane Nash’s convincing case that tyrannical acts and the royalist credo of the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover were always the responsibility of America’s citizens, because they didn’t stop him. Hoover’s reprehensible role in the murder of Viola Liuzzo is recounted.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:00

Conversation 6

Following the Selma march, Stanley Levison gave Dr. King wise, cautionary counsel, drawn from an ordinary citizen who had declared there, “We won when we started.” Citizens taking responsibility, as they did during the Civil Rights Movement, goes to the heart of democracy, Dr. Branch concludes, hoping that time has come again.

Conversation 1 RealAudio2:25


The stories Dr. Branch has luminously lifted up for all time are a celebration of what citizens can and must do to fend off the constant threat of tyranny from the few, the rich and the powerful. These stories also offer never-ending lessons: the critical importance of an informed and responsible citizenry; the vigilance required to preserve America’s founding commitment to sovereignty residing in “We, The People”; the ever-present threat of those whose willingness to betray the many in order to profit the few is anathema to democracy; and the bright light of self-government that must be protected if it is to continue to shine out from humanity’s long dark history of monarchs, aristocracies, tyrants and mobs.

All people who love freedom are profoundly and forever indebted to Dr. Branch for preserving the stories of what it took to create, shape and drive the great Citizen’s Revolution now known as the American Civil Rights Movement. For almost a quarter century, in researching and building his astonishing trilogy, Taylor Branch has kept company with an authentic American hero, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And Dr. Branch also offers additional greatness embodied in people and stories from whom we can learn: the legions of freedom fighters of both genders and all colors over generations whose names will never be known; those who more recently played roles in the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, Freedom Rides and the seminal march from Selma to Alabama’s capitol city; Diane Nash, James Bevel, Bernard Lafayette, John Lewis, Stokely Carmichael and thousands of their young colleagues in The Movement who sprang up from and worked in all parts of America; the Highlander School in Tennessee, Koinonia Farm in Georgia and other pioneers of both integration and nonviolence; and that oft-maligned but never defeated champion of liberty, Stanley Levison.

In this monumental work, Dr. Branch has also engaged with the worst of America -- from the lawlessness and tyrannical behavior of the FBI’s founder, J. Edgar Hoover, to those named and nameless cowards and terrorists whose fears, malice and greed stained the American soul, South and North, by supporting and participating in state-sponsored oppression. Those who cherish liberty also will thank Dr. Branch far into the future for capturing the bitter fruits of human exploitation, the roots of which have been inseparable from the foundation of North American colonies from the beginning, as well as the Movement that Overcame. The lesson never ends.

Additional Links:

Taylor Branch’s trilogy -- Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire and At Canaan’s Edge together offer an incomparable understanding of “America During the King Years.” They are all published by Simon & Schuster.

Find more at Taylor Branch’s website.

During our first conversation with Taylor Branch, we focused on the second volume of his trilogy Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-1965.

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

In American Patriots Gail Buckley tells the stories of African Americans who fought and died for America, starting with the American Revolution.

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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