Taylor Branch

Taylor BranchTaylor Branch is an American author and public speaker best known for his landmark trilogy on the civil rights era, America in the King Years. He has returned to civil rights history in his latest book, The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement (2013). His 2009 memoir, The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President, chronicles an unprecedented eight-year project to gather a sitting president’s comprehensive oral history secretly on tape. His cover story for the October 2011 issue of The Atlantic, “The Shame of College Sports,” touched off continuing national debate. Aside from writing, Taylor speaks before a wide variety of audiences. He began his career as a magazine journalist for The Washington Monthly in 1970, moving later to Harper’s and Esquire. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Read full biography > (Photo Credit: Jean-Pierre Isbendjian)

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“City of Immigrants”: A Baltimore Rally Hosted by David Simon, creator of “The Wire”

David Simon is funny and blunt. He announced at this packed immigration rally that he and I have failed so far to get a “green light” for our miniseries based on my MLK-era books. But we haven’t given up, either. A freedom story from the guts of racial struggle remains urgent and timeless.

Below is the written text for my speech. They gave me only five minutes to cover the historic highs and lows of U.S. immigration history, but I was honored to try. Other speakers offered a wide variety of perspectives both personal and profound. They are listed at the bottom along with a link to the Washington Post live stream video of the rally. There is also a link for contributions to the four groups working for immigrant rights.

I have been laying low on social media in recent months, working on a book, but I hope to take a more active part in national dialogue again soon.


Remarks by Taylor Branch

“City of Immigrants” Rally
Baltimore Beth Am Synagogue
February 13, 2017

Thanks to Beth Am, the organizers, and all of you for coming.

The issue that brings us here has deep roots in American history. Our founding heritage is compromised by embarrassment and disgrace regarding immigrants, but also, as with slavery, it contains profound inspiration with tools for freedom.

I submit two tasks tonight. First we must ground ourselves in democratic principle. Second, we must recognize that those principles require personal engagement across the inhibiting lines that divide our nation and the world.

In 1790, America’s first naturalization law required an aspiring immigrant to be “a free white person.” For nearly two centuries afterward, our leading intellectuals helped nativists secure the “white person” standard within a pseudo-scientific hierarchy of races, always with white people on top.

In the late 19th Century, Hopkins professor Robert Bean weighed brains, seeking to prove that white ones were heavier and therefore smarter. John Fiske at Harvard analyzed the wrinkles in brain lobes, and phrenologists measured the angles of foreheads and jawbones. Anthropologists catalogued up to 34 distinct shades of skin color. The founders of sociology, psychology, and many other social sciences joined naturalists to make eugenics a centerpiece of progressive movements to improve mankind by making foreigners more like themselves.

In 1907, Congress raised the stakes of whiteness by mandating that any American woman who married a non-white immigrant would be stripped of her own citizenship without trial. Such exclusions persisted in spite of contradiction and embarrassment. Definitions floundered over basic categories, let alone details. Eminent social scientists counted variously three, five, eleven, sixteen, on up to sixty-three distinct races.

Worse, the whole idea of a “Caucasian” race turned out to rest on a single sample shipped in 1795 to Johann von Blumenbach, a founder of sociology, who said this lone skull from the Caucasus resembled German specimens in his collection. On this flimsy basis, some people today still think they are being scientifically precise when they refer to someone as “Caucasian.”

Nevertheless, race-based immigration quotas persisted until well after World War II. Here I can speak personally. My sister Cherry is a Korean War orphan who has lived her whole life without knowing any Asian peers or peer families. She was abandoned among other starving infants in 1954, when there were no immigration slots for Asians, and a lawyer advised my parents that authorities in Georgia never would approve refugee status for a non-white baby from an orphanage near the border of communist North Korea. The lawyer confided outside the law, however, that those same cowardly authorities probably would not seize and deport an actual baby who arrived without papers.

So my father flew to Korea on slow airplanes with propellers. Sure enough, desperate nurses at the orphanage agreed to release Cherry but only if my father agreed also to take—meaning technically kidnap—a second malnourished baby to an adopting family in California.

This is a blessed, hopeful story for our family. Cherry usually hosts the sibling reunions, but she grew up with no exposure to Asian people or culture. That’s really a gross understatement. We didn’t even have Italians in Atlanta. I think the first pizza restaurant opened when I was in high school. We lived among homogeneous white Protestants segregated from black people.

From my own work in civil right history, I urge you to recognize that the black-led freedom movement of the 1960s provided sacrificial leadership and political genius to open our immigration laws to the world. A largely invisible people, who lacked every political advantage from wealth and social status to the vote, displayed stupefying courage. Small children, mostly girls as young as six years old, broke the emotional resistance of segregated America by singing freedom songs as they marched into police dogs and firehoses in Birmingham. How’s that for conquering your fears and inhibitions to make witness for a larger cause?

Two years later, lessons and inertia from Selma helped move the United States toward a universal measure for citizenship when Congress overrode two protracted filibusters by almost identical votes—first to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, then to repeal strict immigration quotas that long had choked off entry from most of the world. President Lyndon Johnson, on signing the immigration bill into law at the Statue of Liberty, vowed that such quotas “will never again shadow the gate to the American nation with the twin barriers of prejudice and privilege.”

Since then, applicants from all countries have met neutral standards passing through U.S. immigration. Whole communities flourish that never before existed, even here in immigrant-rich Baltimore, pledging together to uphold our Constitution-based nationhood above every ethnic prejudice.

Over the past fifty years, our openness to newcomers has transformed the face of the United States literally and figuratively. More than we realize, Americans are at home with our democratic creed of multi-national, multi-ethnic citizenship. Universities that once admitted only white males now spearhead diversity with students and teachers, doctors and patients, administrators and workers, from many nations.

Tonight this beacon is endangered by the resurgence of tribal hatreds and fears in our politics. All of us must rally to defend not only this diverse community but also the ideas that support it. We must stand up for stragglers and against bigots, recognizing that no foreign origin is too foreign to yield a fellow citizen. The stakes are far greater than courtesy or manners. At the Statue of Liberty, President Johnson proclaimed a vital imperative for our shrinking globe. He said, “We, because of who we are, feel safer and stronger in a world as varied as the people who make it up.”

If you find it hard to imagine such noble sentiments from a drawling old Texan fifty years ago, let’s join together to achieve and defend something nobler. I think Lyndon would be happy.


Watch all of the speakers below

My portion begins at about 1 hour and 27 minutes in.

Program

David Simon
Writer and Producer, Blown Deadline Productions

Maciej Ceglowski
Founder, Tech Solidarity

Marielena Hincapie
Executive Director, National Immigration Law Center 

Dr. Leana Wen
Health Commissioner, Baltimore City 

Kristen Strain
Executive Director, Baltimore, Tahirih Justice Center

Taylor Branch
Author and Historian, The King Era Trilogy

Ruben Chandrasekar
Executive Director, International Rescue Committee in Maryland

DeRay McKesson
Activist, Organizer, Educator

Sonia Kumar
Staff Attorney, ACLU of Maryland

Nancy E. Kass
Professor of Bioethics and Public Health, Johns Hopkins

Beau Willimon
American Playwright and Screenwriter

Steve Earle
American Rock, Country, and Folk Singer-Songwriter

Donations Benefit These Four Organizations

National Immigration Law Center

Tahirih Justice Center

International Rescue Committee

The ACLU of Maryland

 

Make a donation

 

Free Holiday Music to Relieve a Rough Year

Dear Friends,

If you have time for one song over the holidays, please try Jim Cox’s version of “City Boy.” Our Baltimore men’s spirituals group, Soulful Revue, slightly adapted the lyrics by blues artist Keb’ Mo’ in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death not far from our church. Judge Mike Reed plays the harmonica. You can listen to “City Boy” and read the lyrics here >

On a much lighter note, Off Our Rocker released in November my second recorded tribute to the great Roy Orbison. His voice and creativity are matchless, but I took a shot at the high finale in “Only the Lonely.” Listen to “Only the Lonely”

Off Our Rocker’s third album, “Songs We Forgot,” continues a joyful reunion of three 1960s college band-mates at UNC. Samples Here. John Yelverton still rips through “Good Lovin” by the Rascals, and we think Bill Guy sounds better than Peter Noonan. Did you know that Burt Bacharach wrote “Any Day Now” for Chuck Jackson and “Baby It’s You” for The Shirelles?

This year marked Soulful Revue’s 10th anniversary at Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in downtown Baltimore. We aim for close harmony on spirituals both somber and playful. Our senior pastor beatboxes in Ed Sheeran’s version of “Wayfaring Stranger.” Our radiologist goes full gospel in “Plant My Feet on Higher Ground.” We try a song by Van Morrison. To listen, click on any song title on this page.

Happy holidays. In anxious times, reach deep for the best in us all.

Taylor

 

City Boy

I hear a voice, I hear the sound
The sound of my shoes, shuffling on out of town
Too many wounded, too many cars
Take me to Memphis, Mercury, or Mars
‘Cause I wanna go, where my spirit rarely roams
Just a city boy, looking for a home

I can’t breathe, I can’t see
This city is no place for me
I can’t seem to find my way
Just existing from day to day
But I want to be where my soul can run free
I’m just a city boy, trying to make a home

Now, I don’t wanna be no prisoner
And I sure don’t wanna be no slave
I want to look out at night and see stars in the sky
The Little Dipper and the milky way

I can’t sleep, it’s too loud
Everywhere I go there seems to be a crowd
Tired of all these boarded-up streets
I want to feel the dirt underneath my feet
Then I wanna go where my children can grow old
I’m just a city boy, tryin’ to make a home

I wanna go where the buffalo roam
I’m just a city boy, trying to make a home
Just a city boy, lookin’ for a home
City boy
City Boy
by Keb’ Mo’
Lyrics Slightly Adapted 2015
Baltimore’s Soulful Revue, soloist Jim Cox