Taylor Branch never met Martin Luther King, Jr. But, nearly 40 years after working to organize Black voters one summer in Georgia, he knows the civil rights leader better now than most people did when King was alive.
That's because Branch has spent most of his life researching and detailing the struggles that King and other freedom fighters went through to end segregation and win voting rights for Black Americans from 1954 to 1968. The result is his historical trilogy, America in the King Years, the last volume of which -- At Canaan's Edge -- was released last year.
In it, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author relies, in part, on formerly sealed FBI files and White House tapes to elucidate how the Vietnam War "poisoned" the non-violent beginnings of the civil rights movement, an idea that echoes loudly against today's backdrop of the war on terror.
The trilogy started with a diary that Branch kept in the summer of 1969 while working on a voter registration project in his native Georgia. The year before, as a young college graduate, Branch had helped recruit a Georgia delegation of Blacks and whites to send to the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The next year, after enrolling in a master's program at
Princeton University, he struck out to canvass 20 Georgia counties in search of Blacks to lead voter registration drives.
It was a project from which he would never return.
How did you come to work on voting rights in Georgia?
Like Dr. King, I was born and grew up in Atlanta. I was younger. I was a non-political white southerner. My dad was in the dry-cleaning business. But gradually the civil rights movement in my formative years mesmerized and frightened me like a lot of southerners. In 1963, when I was 16, I saw and was kind of stunned by the demonstrations in Birmingham in which dogs and fire hoses were put on small children marching. And I just said, how can this be and where does this come from? It just horrified me as to what this meant about our country ... Six years later, as a graduate student at Princeton, I knew the civil rights movement had had a powerful influence in changing the direction of my interest, and I wanted to experience a little of it. It was dissipating and fading away, and I arranged to go down to south Georgia and look for people willing and able to run voter registration drives. It was like stepping off of the end of the world. I felt like Christopher Columbus because many of these tiny counties were still very feudal and almost none of the Black citizens were registered to vote, and there was a tremendous sense of fear. I was by myself, and I wrote a diary of that summer -- the first thing I ever wrote that a teacher didn't assign -- because I was so amazed by what was happening every day. I started out the summer looking for [a] Martin Luther King, and by the end of the summer, I didn't pay attention to any of the Black preachers or any of the Black men. I would go walk in cornfields talking to women, and wound up recommending three women in three of the 20 counties to run voter registration drives, and they were all midwives. I never would've dreamed when I started out looking for Martin Luther King that I'd wind up looking for midwives.
Tell me about the midwives. Why did they feel empowered to participate?
They weren't dependent on the white-segregated power structure for their livelihoods like the schoolteachers and the school principals and, to some degree, even the business people....They had an independent quality, plus they had been in everybody's homes and they'd gone through life's crises, and they were people you had to trust at the moment of birth in a culture that couldn't afford hospitals, so they had kind of a natural leadership. It was a frightful thing for a lot of people even to come to a meeting to talk about voting, which was a discovery to me, and time after time I'd see these midwives say to these big, strapping farmers, "Yes, you ARE coming to this meeting, because I've birthed you and everybody in your family and I'll spank you harder than I did when you were born if you don't come!"
One thing that fascinates me is civil rights and Vietnam being part of the same story. Talk about that connection.
War is about dehumanizing people, cultivating enemies and winning, and the civil rights movement is about refusing to think of people as enemies and overcoming a sense of enemy by creating new, fellow citizenship. So civil rights and Vietnam were hostage to one another and, of course, at its most basic level, [we] were testing whether violence or non-violence is the better avenue to foster a democracy. We were trying to foster democracy in Vietnam by force of arms, [but] the civil rights movement said the essence of democracy is non-violence, and that one way of thinking about that is that every vote, which is the heart of democracy, is nothing but a piece of non-violence. A ballot is kind of a commitment to non-violence that's been wrung out of eons of sacrifice.
All the non-violence, the sit-ins, the marches, had achieved so much, yet by the time of Dr. King's assassination, that had already fallen away as the favored form of action. Why? People were tired. They'd been sacrificing for non-violence six or seven years ... and they were frustrated that it wasn't changing faster. They were also frustrated that America expected Black people to be non-violent but otherwise admired James Bond and John Wayne -- white tough guys. ... Plus you had the poison of Vietnam, so non-violence was never fully appreciated because a combination of frustration and the poison of war made people despair of it.
How did Dr. King's public opposition to the war affect his civil rights efforts? In the book, you talk about the rift that developed between Dr. King and President Johnson. He never supported the war in Vietnam, and he criticized it right from the beginning. What was a ferocious battle behind the scenes that I try to chronicle in the book was how public he was going to be, and how vocal in his criticism, and how painful that was at a time when the civil rights movement had in Lyndon Johnson the first great historical alliance between civil rights leaders and a President of the United States. But that President had staked his presidency on Vietnam and King, for a certain time, muted his criticism and then realized that the poison of Vietnam [was] eroding the civil rights movement's gains and that he hadn't been espousing his own view on the war. That was a very wrenching process. Most of his advisers unanimously opposed his big speech against the Vietnam War at Riverside Church exactly one year to the day he was killed.
And that led to a parting of ways between LBJ and Dr. King? Yes, it seems to me [that the] subtle cooperation turned into a really pained estrangement. They didn't ever call each other names. Dr. King said, "I don't think Lyndon Johnson is a war monger. I don't think he wants to do this in Vietnam, but he just can't figure out any other way." And Johnson, while he was furious at losing political control, I believe always understood the reasons that King criticized his Vietnam position, because in large measure, Johnson agreed. Johnson said, "This war makes chills run up my spine, but I'm afraid that if I don't do it, the American people will think I'm a coward and run me out of office."
What other parallels are there to the war in Iraq?
We don't even talk about how you go about creating a new democracy. We kind of just assume we're just going to move obstacles out of the way with the Army and democracy will spring up. The civil rights movement, by contrast, had to struggle with that at a very basic level. We were trying to figure how you created, how you institutionalized, how you get new citizenship, and get messages across . . . I don't think we're doing that now. We went into Iraq for weapons of mass destruction and didn't find them, changed our purpose to one of democracy and, as far as I know, there is almost nothing about whether that whole new purpose required an even slight change in status. That's how superficial our debate is on what it takes to create democracy. Of course, we're having the same thing at home after [Hurricane] Katrina, but not just because of race -- instead, because of our whole attitude toward government. Have we poisoned our attitudes of public service and what is possible through government to extend public service and freedom in a couple of generations of resentment against the government and the defining idea? The civil rights movement was not pollyannish about government. They knew that flaws in the federal government were carrying on the wiretaps and persecution, but Dr. King said we have to rise up and live out the true meaning of our creed and we have to refine our politics and make our government an instrument of freedom.
You mentioned Katrina. Can you speak to where we are today with civil rights given those images from Katrina?
The images of Katrina speak more broadly to poverty and I don't believe that has really been an emphasis in American politics since the 1960s, since King and Johnson. Ronald Reagan [became] much more the dominant figure and his comment on that was that we tried to have a war on poverty and poverty won. Therefore, those things became invisible and, of course, allowing those things to become invisible is what Dr. King called the most dangerous omission. He called it a sin when you allow the poor and your enemies to become invisible and that, as human beings, you risk violating the core principles of democracy and spiritual values.... I think we saw some of that in Katrina when people in government seemed helpless to even know how to address the needs of that crisis.
Can we ever really come back to a place where the deliberations and debates are more serious and recapture the popular imagination about the importance of these issues, which is something I think the Democratic Party can sure stand to be infused with?
I think both parties can stand to be infused with it, quite frankly. The lesson of the '60s is that miracles happen when the people with all the votes, which is all of us, take citizenship seriously and really debate as though [our votes] matter.