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DC at Night

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The King Years: Understanding Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement

Acclaimed author Taylor Branch isn't exactly sure when he first became fixated on the issue of race and the Civil Rights Movement, but he believes it probably stems from the relationship he observed that his father,  an Atlanta dry cleaner, had in the 1950s and early 60s with his close black friend Peter Mitchell.

Branch would be in the dry cleaning shop and listened to the 2 men talk and joke, but when the time came to go to the baseball game his father and he would go see the local white team the Atlanta Crackers, while Peter could only see the black pro team, the Atlanta Black Crackers

"It was a very strange era and I could tell my Dad didn't like it," Branch says. When Branch was still a pre-teen, Mitchell died. Branch and his father went to the service, the only 2 whites there. "My Dad got up and spoke about Peter and it made a huge impact," Branch said. "I couldn't understand how there was such a bond and such intimacy, but there were all these barriers."

Two of the most significant events in American race relations bracketed Branch's youth: he was born in the same year that the Supreme Court handed down its school desegregation ruling in Brown vs. the Board of Education and he completed his college studies in 1968, the year that civil rights leader Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis.

So when he began his writing career, it wasn't surprising that he chose the life of King and the Civil Rights Movement as his subject. "I think race went deeper in me than anything else," Branch says. The author wrote a 3-book series on the subject of the movement, 2,306 pages that are acknowledged to be the best, most comprehensive examination of that era ever written and also garnered Branch a Pulitzer Prize..

Now, Branch has released a much shorter work entitled The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement, which explores the same time period through an examination of 18 pivotal events. Branch recently appeared at the National Museum of American History to discuss his new book.

Branch says he still "gets an awful lot of blank stares" from fellow whites who don't understand his passion for this subject. "But that is nothing compared to the adjustments that African-Americans have to make to the majority culture every waking moment of their lives," he maintains.

Studying Rev. King, the movement, and its other fearless leaders is important, Branch contends. "They are the Founding Fathers for us. Learning about Martin Luther King is a way to the future, not the past. If they could be nonviolent in the movement and have hope, then surely we can do that today," Branch told the large crowd gathered to hear his remarks.

Branch believes there have been major strides in his lifetime toward better race relation, but there still is much distance to travel. "People say race is solved and in the next breath they say it's insolvable," he said. "They say we don't need to talk about race anymore, but when everybody says it's not about race, to me it is all about race. Everybody is in a perpetual state of conflict about what to do."

Part of the difficulty might focus on an idea that Branch endorses, that slavery and racism are America's "original sin." To actually eliminate racism, a first step must be to acknowledge its deep roots. "Race was, and is, very powerful and very scary," Branch said. "Some people feel too embarrassed to talk about it. But you need to build up your comfort with discomfort. Race is the doorway to all these freedoms. But we all have to get involved. Something this pervasive cannot be done by just the bad guys."

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Taylor Branch's talk was co-sponsored by the National Museum of African-American History. That museum is now under construction and is expected to open in 2015. Until then, special exhibitions and programs such as Branch's talk are being held in the History Museum.

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