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Author Taylor Branch visiting MSU

(Courtesy photo)
Historian Taylor Branch

By Scott Pohl, WKAR News



Pulitzer Prize-winner Taylor Branch wrote what may be the definitive history of the civil rights movement. His trilogy "America in the King Years" recounts the work of Martin Luther King Junior and his contemporaries from 1954 to King's death in 1968.

Tonight, Branch will speak at Michigan State University's Black History Month faculty lecture series.

His most recent book, based on 79 conversations with Bill Clinton during his presidency, is called "The Clinton Tapes."

Branch's talk at MSU's Kellogg Center this evening begins at 5 p-m.

WKAR's Scott Pohl spoke with Branch about tonight's talk, and what put him on the path to his three-volume history of the civil rights movement.


TAYLOR BRANCH: "The general theme of what I try to get across, at Michigan State and elsewhere, is that the civil rights movement is not about America's past, it's about America's future in the critical sense that its real meaning is about how we apply American principals and values to difficult problems. And, of course, you can see that right in Egypt and the Middle East right now, where you've got people in the streets and enormous tension as the whether this is going to be something like, liberating like Selma, or something like the Iranian revolution, that's tyrannical. And, of course, the only way to understand that is to look at its underlying principals in what people are doing, and the civil rights movement is the best laboratory for good outcomes in that regard, and it didn't happen by accident."

SCOTT POHL: "When you look back at writing those books about the King years, what motivated you to begin a project of that scope?"

BRANCH: "Well, I grew up in Atlanta, the son of a white dry cleaner in segregated Atlanta. The Brown decision was when I was in first grade, and the sit-ins and freedom rides were when I started high school, and Dr. King was killed when I finished college, so it was all through my formative years, all around me, scary for everybody. I did my best to resist it. I wasn't interested in politics, but it was such a tenacious and amazing movement that it changed the direction of my life's interests against my will, and by the end I just kept wondering, where did it come from, and how did it resonate so deeply, and across racial lines, and why did it seem so patriotic, and those questions kind of enthralled me for 24 years."

POHL: "I'm curious to know if people you meet, be they African-American or white Americans, respond to you and your work any differently because you're a white historian. Is there any sense that some people think these books should have been written by African-American historians, or perhaps they haven't read books that have been written by African-American historians that you suggest?"

BRANCH: "Well, there are always glib claims that history is proprietary for whoever makes them, and yes, that's a trouble sometimes, but very few people in the movement say that. They say, in a way, that it would be harder for an insider to write this book, because inside the movement, it's such a specialized culture, and I'm an outsider. It's all a marvel to me, and there were times when it was hard, when people resisted, or even now, some people say that I interpret the civil rights movement as a lesson for the future and as an abiding lesson, because I see the civil rights leaders, the African-Americans, as modern founders doing just what Jefferson and Washington and Lincoln did in the sense of creating new freedom. Some African-American leaders say that interpretation diminishes the purely racial part of it, that they were doing it just for black folks. But, you know, I think that the larger benefits actually enhance this movement and will preserve it, including the racial one."

POHL: "One final question. I expect that you are in great demand every February, as Black History Month is observed."

BRANCH: "Well, I do try to get around. I have my own deadlines to write; I'm on other projects, but I love talking about this subject, particularly with young people and students who are engaged with the details, engaged with the stories, and above all, engaged with the notion that in the civil rights movement, people their age really made a great positive impact on history."

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