Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch admits that he is an unlikely chronicler of the civil rights movement. The apolitical son of a dry cleaner in Atlanta who thought he’d end up a surgeon, it wasn’t until the end of Branch’s time at the University of North Carolina in 1968 that he got involved registering black voters in south Georgia. He’d met civil rights leader Julian Bond, who would become a lifelong friend.
“Even as early as 1963, though, I wondered ‘Where did this all come from?’” he said, as he watched children in Birmingham face down dogs and fire hoses in
a breakthrough moment for the movement. He called the decision to use children in Birmingham “the greatest risk of King’s entire career.” But it worked: National leaders could no longer ignore the injustice of segregation and the movement’s demands.
Branch spoke to a lunchtime crowd as part of the second day of the MLK50 Symposium: Where Do We Go From Here? In addition to the keynote speech at lunch, panels throughout the day covered labor history and current struggles, issues of economic justice, and the role and promise of education.
When Branch came to Memphis for the first time in 1983, he had decided he wanted to write a book to explore how the civil rights movement happened
and the themes behind it. But he was stuck, and thought that being in the place King was killed would help him get going on his project. He checked into the Lorraine Motel, Room 308.
“One of the miracles of Memphis is the civic miracle it took to take the Lorraine I saw in 1983 and turn it into the magnificent museum you have now,” he said, to laughter and applause in the room.
He ended his talk with three signposts to consider if we want “freedom’s gate to spring open once again.”
First, “there is room for a healthy debate on styles of leadership,” Branch said, as well as debating who’s responsible for leading change. He has been heartened by the citizen marches of the last year, and particularly the leadership of the teens from Parkland, Florida.
Second, he wants America to understand the power of nonviolence, debatable in King’s time as well as our own.
“I remember King walking and talking with Stokely Carmichael about the merits of violence and nonviolence to make social change,” Branch said; Carmichael was an activist and founder of the Black Power movement. These conversations are part of his new documentary, King in the Wilderness, which debuted Monday on HBO. “Stokely said, ‘Why should we have to be nonviolent? It’s not fair.”
King agreed, but he had adopted nonviolence as a leadership doctrine. “If we use violence, we’re going right back to where they are,” King told Carmichael.
Finally, Branch said, is the most difficult challenge of all: Holding on to hope.
“Cynicism is not a judgment, it’s an appetite,” said Branch, who has studied the vitality and optimism of the civil rights movement, even in the face of overwhelming rejection and violent opposition. “Do not let us give in to cynicism by saying our government is fatally poisoned against justice.”
King was well acquainted with injustice, Branch said, but he still offered optimism every time. “Even his voice was a hymn to hope.”
Our Constitution offers our best hope, Branch said, with every election a “festival of nonviolence.” He closed by quoting an article in Look magazine that King wrote just before he was killed in Memphis. It was published after he died.
“The American people are infected with racism. That is our problem. The American people are also infected with democratic idealism. That’s is our hope.”
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Center for Community Change and the Surdna Foundation.