Posts about college athletics appear separately on this site in the Ongoing Debate section under NCAA Sports.

0

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

 

Continue Reading

0

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

Continue Reading

0

Below, this National Archives account of Wednesday night’s Gala describes a thrilling honor for me.

Christy and Franklin joined me there, along with our nieces Morgan and Madeline all dressed up in ball gowns.

Beforehand, archivists showed us documents from the vaults, including a 1799 petition against kidnapping free blacks into slavery from Philadelphia. The ceremony featured the 8-minute film on view at a link below, plus a lively dialogue in which I tried to keep up with former AG Eric Holder. They stunned me by bringing out all 15 members of our Baltimore gospel ensemble, Soulful Revue.  I jumped up to sing with them.

We moved with several hundred guests to an elegant dinner in a normally-closed gallery that houses the 1776 Declaration and the 1787 Constitution. Actor Nicholas Cage did not re-appear from his movies to pilfer our national treasures, which remained safe.

I am deeply grateful to the Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, to Eric Holder, and to all who helped make this evening unforgettable.

[…]

National Archives Foundation Honors Taylor Branch with Records of Achievement Award

October 29, 2015

The National Archives Foundation honored American author and Pulitzer Prize winner Taylor Branch with its 2015 Records of Achievement Award at a black-tie gala at the National Archives last night. The honor recognizes Branch’s lifelong work to chronicle the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the history of the Civil Rights movement in his landmark series America in the King Years.

The Records of Achievement Award is an annual tribute given to an individual whose work has cultivated a broader national awareness of the history and identity of the United States through the use of original records, including those preserved by the National Archives.

National Archives Foundation Executive Director Patrick M. Madden, former Attorney General Eric Holder, Records of Achievement Award honoree Taylor Branch, Foundation Chair A’Lelia Bundles, and Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero with the 2015 Records of Achievement Award, featuring facsimilies of a redacted document from Mr. Branch’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the FBI, as well as a facsimile of that same document, which has recently been declassified. Photo by Pepe Gomez for the National Archives Foundation.

SK__5536-300x200Foundation Chair A’Lelia Bundles, Executive Director Patrick M. Madden, and former Attorney General Eric H. Holder joined Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero in presenting the award.

“As our nation observes the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, it feels especially appropriate to salute Taylor Branch’s meticulous scholarship and his gift for bringing the details of that pivotal era to life,” said Foundation Chair Bundles.

“Branch’s Pulitzer Prize-winning narrative history of the United States during the Civil Rights era has shaped the public’s understanding of this transformative period of American history,” said Archivist of the United States Ferriero.

“The country’s living history is found within the walls of the National Archives. Last night’s event gave us the chance to showcase not just Taylor Branch’s legacy, but the breadth and depth of the stories in the National Archives,” said Foundation Executive Director Madden.

“From marriage equality, to law enforcement engagement with the communities they are sworn to protect and serve, to that most fundamental American right – the right to vote –the need to learn from the civil rights struggles of the past remains vital and urgent,” added Holder.

Mr. Branch’s efforts to preserve the legacy of one of the most influential periods in American history emphasizes the essential value that the National Archives, with facilities throughout the country, continues to provide in recording and protecting American history. National Archives holdings include original records of the Civil Rights movement including the landmark legislation outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin: The Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“I am humbled to join the list of scholars and artists recognized by the National Archives Foundation,” said Taylor Branch. “Because our country is founded on an idea rather than a language or ethnicity, the U.S. National Archives can serve an inspirational purpose: to light the future by confronting the past. I salute your mission.”

20151028_193909-300x168Last night’s gala included a red carpet reception, an awards ceremony in the Archives’ William G. McGowan Theater, and a seated dinner in the Rotunda Galleries, celebrating the public-private partnership between the National Archives and the nonprofit National Archives Foundation. Soulful Revue – the all-male ensemble choir for which Branch serves as Director – made a surprise appearance, with a shocked Branch joining them in an impromptu performance.

Previous recipients of the Foundation’s award include: Steven Spielberg, Tom Brokaw, Ken Burns and David McCullough.

The Gala and Records of Achievement Award Ceremony is made possible with the leadership support of AT&T. Major support provided by Governor Jim Blanchard and Janet Blanchard, and the Maris S. Cuneo Foundation. Additional event support from Marvin F. Weissberg.

Continue Reading

0

White House naturalization ceremony to commemorate the 50th
anniversary of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act

Eisenhower Executive Office Building
Indian Treaty Room
Washington, D.C.

Taylor Branch at the podium

At the podium with (l-r) Cecilia Munoz, Director, White House Domestic Policy Council; Alejandro Mayorkas, Deputy Secretary, Department of Homeland Security; and Leon Rodriguez, Director, US Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Congratulations and welcome, fellow citizens! Let me thank Cecilia Munoz from the White House Domestic Council, Alejandro Mayorkas from Homeland Security, and Leon Rodriguez from USCIS among the gracious officials who have allowed me to share another thrilling ceremony like this, when people born around the globe formally join our Constitutional compact to uphold freedom in self-government.

Your moment is special for me many times over—personally, patriotically, and professionally. My sister Cherry, a Korean War orphan, has not enjoyed cultural peers in the United States because our laws virtually forbade immigration from Asia. Indeed, my father had to flirt with civil disobedience by taking his first, long, international flight, on prop-planes of the 1950s, to bring home a malnourished toddler from a remote village near the Korean Demilitarized Zone, on a dare, without approved papers. Not until my sister finished college did immigrant Korean families begin reaching Atlanta. My dad, a dry cleaner, came to know several industrious ones in that business. […]

So immigration blessed us with Cherry in spite of the old immigration policy, long before I knew anything about the 50-year-old Reform Act we celebrate today. Many Americans still know very little about that historic law. You may be familiar with the origins from your application process, but I have been asked to review for you its central place in our Constitutional history.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 grew directly from momentum built by the modern civil rights movement, in the era of Dr. Martin Luther King. Having been enthralled to study and write about that history for nearly 40 years, I can assure you the 1965 law was difficult to pass. Some called it a miracle. Anti-civil-rights forces filibustered to preserve restrictions that had choked down immigration from all but a few countries in northern Europe, excluding most of the world. Senator Edward Kennedy said political success was unimaginable until 1964, when civil rights cracked open the gate. Even so, President Lyndon Johnson had to cajol, wheedle, and cuss. “Where’s my blankety-blank immigration bill?” he yelled day and night. As full-fledged citizens, you may be entitled now to hear his actual profane words, but not from me here in this dignified space.

President Johnson’s allies pushed immigration reform through Congress only a month after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, breaking Senate filibusters against the two bills by almost identical landslide votes. Then on October 3rd, fifty years ago Saturday, President Johnson stood beneath the Statue of Liberty in New York to correct what he called “a cruel and enduring wrong in the conduct of the American Nation…the harsh injustice of the national origins quota system.” With his signature, the 1965 Act abolished that pretension to an ethnic empire. “We can now believe,” he declared, “that it will never again shadow the gate to the American Nation with the twin barriers of prejudice and privilege.”

These are ringing words of freedom. They affirm that the United States is founded not on any language or ethnic identity, but on the pioneer ideal of equal citizenship embodied in the Constitution’s first three words: “We the People.” A few historians like me have proclaimed the 1965 Act a third pillar of democratic fulfillment from the civil rights era, along with Voting Rights and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. You are a testament to that ideal. No other nation holds naturalization ceremonies quite like this one.

And yet, the law that brings you here lacks public appreciation for its impact and promise. There is no Martin Luther King of immigration reform—nor any landmark anniversary on par with Selma and the March on Washington. Our immigration stance, which embraces applicants worldwide, earns nothing like the stature it deserves here in the United States. Critics still ignore or belittle the 1965 law, branding it merely a Cold War measure to admit more refugees from Communism.

There remains an underside to American performance for immigrants, legal and otherwise. Even on this happy day—perhaps especially on this happy day—we should pause briefly to fortify hope by acknowledging reality. I would be shocked if most of you do not suffer moments of isolation, doubt, and rejection, not only from Americans by birth but from members of other immigrant groups. The United States has not reached its perfect Union. We must seek to understand flaws from the past in order to overcome them for the future.

The very first naturalization law, which established in 1790 the oath and other features of today’s ceremony, required an aspiring immigrant to be “a free white person.” For more than a century, as our upstart nation grew slowly into a world power, nativists labored to place the “white person” standard within some scientific hierarchy of races, always with white people on top. This ruling conceit culminated in signal embarrassments for three consecutive years.

In 1922, the Supreme Court unanimously refused the citizenship application of one Takao Ozawa, a Japanese immigrant of 28 years’ legal residency, on the ground that his light skin did not meet an objective test of membership in “the Caucasian race.” Promptly in 1923, however, the Court confronted an applicant whose experts testified that Punjabi descent made him Caucasian along with certain Polynesians, Hamites, and others. In United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind [261 U.S. 204 (1923)], our Supreme Court abruptly reversed course, again unanimously, once science failed to support popular prejudice. Spurning what they called the previous year’s “speculations of the ethnologist,” the Justices denied naturalization to Thind by formulating a new legal standard of whiteness to be based on public opinion, “interpreted in accordance with the understanding of the common man.”

In 1924, Congress debated the Court’s floundering definitions. Theories clashed over basic racial categories, let alone details, with eminent social scientists counting variously three, five, eleven, sixteen, on up to sixty-three distinct races. Worse, the whole “Caucasian” category turned out to rest then and now on one antique shipped in 1795 to Johann von Blumenbach, a founder of sociology, who said the skull arrived from the Caucasus resembled many German specimens in his collection. Congress, attempting to circumvent an exposed charade, substituted nationality for the vagaries of race in laws governing immigration and naturalization. The National Origins Act of 1924 favored allegedly “sturdy stocks” of northern Europe. It reserved seventy percent of annual immigration quotas to England, Germany, and Ireland. Most observers at the time endorsed a notion of Nordic or Teutonic citizenship in the new law, which the Chicago Tribune called “a Declaration of Independence, not less significant and epoch-making for America and the world than the Declaration of 1776.”

This was the national origins quota system we abolished half a century ago with President Johnson’s Immigration and Nationality Act, whose anniversary we celebrate today. Over the past fifty years, our openness to applicants from all nations has transformed the face of the United States literally and figuratively. Today you join 48 million naturalized legal immigrants since then, of whom some 34 million survive. They supply not only half our population growth but also a comparable portion of new skilled employment. More than we realize, Americans are at home with our national creed of multi-national, multi-ethnic citizenship. All of us must help stragglers reach out, too, perceiving 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. “We, because of who we are,” he said, “feel safer and stronger in a world as varied as the people who make it up.”

From this day forward, I urge you to proceed as though you own an equal share of our nation’s faults as well as her glories, because you do. Our votes count the same. We are pledged to make real that equal responsibility from the founders, and your experience is vital. Be pushy if need be. Help us lay claim to the converging path of justice that you have marched in good faith, drawing strength from inclusion—rising from discrimination toward full respect and opportunity alongside still-disfavored groups such as women, the disabled, persons of color, and gay and lesbian communities, among others.

Help us restore the determined public trust at the heart of our American experiment. Summon us to dispel cynicism and gridlock in public discourse, inspired anew by the example of our first African American president to tackle the most difficult national problems. Remind us all—not just on occasions like this—of the cumulative audacity and optimism packed into the breathtaking Preamble sentence you now inherit: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

American citizenship is a tough job. Here’s hoping no one told you it’s easy. Welcome again. I am honored to join you. God bless.

After today's ceremony with newly naturalized US citizen Gina Haller (center, with official certificate).

After today’s ceremony with newly naturalized US citizen Gina Haller (center, with official certificate).

A new citizen comes forward for her US citizenship certificate

A new citizen comes forward for her US citizenship certificate during today’s ceremony.

Continue Reading

0

bs-md-taylor-branch-jpg-20131124

Happy New Year. This is a personal note about career innovation in the works.

December’s front-page headline in the Baltimore Sun captures our leap of faith: UB Hopes New Type of Online Class Will Transform Education. UB is the University of Baltimore, here in my home city, and “hope is the operative word. We are excited and unsure, improvising every day, signing up various kinds of students from potentially the entire globe for our first weekly seminar on Tuesday, January 28, 2014.

[…]

The path of adaptation strains upward but rushes ahead. Only a year ago, Simon & Schuster published my compact narrative history, The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement. Based on classroom discussions from Alabama to Idaho, I gave the book an unusual author’s dedication,  “For students of freedom and teachers of history.

Civic education has suffered in part because school standards now emphasize math and reading above history. This is a special hazard in a country founded as a bold experiment to secure freedom in the capacity of citizens for self-government.

KingYears

Many teachers, under siege, had urged me to preserve the storytelling engagement of my civil rights histories in a shorter format for the digital age. These selected moments now reach back fifty years to a dimly remembered civil rights era, when movements led by ordinary citizens uplifted the founding premise of We the People. Their disciplined public trust dispelled cynicism. Their struggles offer abiding lessons for the future.

I had taught seminars in civil rights history since the 1990s, most recently at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Our recent experiments at the University of Baltimore have measured the promise of online learning by the standards of academic rigor. Can a course fairly serve both in-class students and digital participants from Hawaii or Russia? Such problems occupied us through most of 2013.

 

Now we take the next step. Citizenship & Freedom is not a MOOC. Freedom is not free, but quality education should be affordable.

Course information is available on www.freedomclass.org which includes the 14-week syllabus and registration procedures for several student categories.

I am grateful to the new associate instructor, Dr. Jelani Favors, and to colleagues within the hosting University of Maryland system for their entrepreneurial courage.

Adventures and thickets loom ahead. Updates soon.

Continue Reading

A Dad’s Dream

Published on 27 November 2013 by in General

0

090113_McCASKIL_0629

This website has tracked a number of my professional pursuits, from author’s notes and speeches to ongoing clashes with the NCAA and our experimental online college history class, “Citizenship and Freedom.” Here is something different.

Our daughter Macy married John Macaskill on September 7. The official wedding photos offer glimpses of a storybook moment for our merged family and friends. Christy and I are still amazed that we could produce such a beautiful, happy bride.

 

[…]

090113_McCASKIL_0498

The ceremony took place at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Cold Spring Harbor, NY, where Macy had been christened. Her maternal grandmother, Kay Macy, has belonged there since 1950, and we were blessed to have “Mum” the wedding’s senior attendant at 101 years old! The immediate families posed afterward outside, with brothers Ben Macaskill (l) and Franklin Branch on the flanks.

090113_McCASKIL_0751

At the reception, hosted by our new in-laws John and Bridget Macaskill, Macy asked me to sing “My Girl” for her.  This was a thrill second only to walking her down the aisle, but there was drama on the stage.  Starlight’s bandleader said I was supposed to accompany myself.  I panicked.  With aplomb, she told me to stall while she urgently recalled musicians from their break.

This video, courtesy of my brother Gary’s cell phone, picks up in mid-stall.

Tradition obliges the father of the bride to offer a toast during the reception dinner. Despite rambling praise, mine did beat the strict 10-minute time limit.  What bubbled up included a surprise tribute for Christy, who once saved Macy’s life, and my sister Lucie’s cell phone captured family memories for those who care to indulge them.

Macy Branch Wedding Photo

All pictures courtesy of Raquel Reis Photography

Continue Reading

0

National Book FestivalFirst, the pleasant news.  Christy and I were invited to attend the 13th annual National Book Festival in Washington.  It was my second appearance there as one of the 100 or so featured authors for the year.

The reception on Friday night September 20 took place in the main Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress, with its stunning vaulted ceilings of classical mosaics.  That entrance hall is one of the most beautiful public spaces in the world.  It lifts the spirit.  I wish every child could spend time there on a school visit to the patriotic sites of Washington.

We visited a number of friends at the reception, including our former Baltimore Orioles compatriot Jonathan Yardley, who is now a transplanted Washington Nats fan, and his wife Marie Arana, author of an acclaimed new biography of Simon Bolivar.  I got a novel about John Brown signed by author James McBride, but I missed Linda Ronstadt, whose book “Simple Dreams” sold out quickly, spurred by poignant news that Parkinson’s Disease has ended her singing career.

Rumors circulated that the National Park Service will banish the Book Festival from the National Mall beginning in 2014, for security reasons or merely to spare the grass.  Future festivals would be moved indoors to the Washington Convention Center.  If so readers will suffer a loss, because the outdoor event draws crowds up to 100,000 people circulating among open tents marked by pennant flags for book categories from fiction to poetry.

My hour’s presentation in the History and Biography tent was fairly raucous by literary standards.  I argued that our contemporary political discourse is sadly out of balance with the legacy of freedom from “The King Years” 50 years ago.  Fearful hostility erodes pubic trust, and liberals are partly to blame.  Not even President Obama can discuss the influence of racial politics.

The audience jumped in with lively questions and comments.  Here’s the C-SPAN video:  http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/KingYea.

Continue Reading

0

The PBS “News Hour” will televise my interview with Gwen Ifill tonight (Friday August 30) at 7:00 PM ET in most areas.

One of the points we discussed would generate Ifill’s question to President Obama about the racial underpinnings of partisan gridlock in the United States.  She and co-anchor Judy Woodruff talked with President Obama in the White House the next day, immediately after his speech at the 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

The 50th anniversary drew widespread news coverage for a week.  Its impact on politics and national discourse is still uncertain.  Here are three recent tweets with links to programs that raise what I think are the most significant legacies and challenges from the 1963 March:

[1] This clip from Sunday’s @FaceTheNation with NAACP’s @BenJealous, Marian Wright Edelman, & me on the MOW’s legacy: http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=50153666n …

[2] An NBC Press Pass clip with @davidgregory on why MLK & the civil rights movement are “modern Founders” in US freedom: http://presspass.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/08/22/20143058-press-pass-taylor-branch-and-martin-luther-king-iii?lite …

[3] Pres Obama on whether partisan gridlock is driven by race: http://ow.ly/opL7n . Tonight’s PBS @NewsHour traces that sensitive question.

Other programs about the March are listed under “Appearances/Past Appearances.”

Continue Reading

0

1. Martin Luther King’s prepared speech did not include any of the famous “dream” sequence.

2. White officials and the news media anticipated race riots or worse.

3. The freedom movement itself diverted female leaders into a secondary march along Independence Avenue.

4. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover secretly decreed that King’s “demagogic speech yesterday” made him the nation’s “most dangerous Negro.”

5. Hostile reactions spawned a pervasive “government is bad” vocabulary in national politics.

6. The movement for civil rights opened gates to many collateral freedoms, keeping racial change “the central drama of democratic progress.”

7. President Barack Obama hesitates at a “tip-toe stance,” even though silence about race “collapses American history into a fairy tale.”

8. Racial and ethnic division remains a prime but unaddressed cause of partisan gridlock.

 For more on these themes, see my current essay “Remembering the March”.

Continue Reading

0

______________________

[Excerpts from this essay are published in the August 18, 2013 USA Weekend]

[Press Contact: Chrissy Terrell, The Gannett Company, 703-854-5292]

[Press Contact for Taylor Branch: Julia Prosser, Simon & Schuster, 212-698-7529]

______________________

            Fifty years ago, on August 28, 1963, one of many American protests became the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, achieving worldwide acclaim with four simple words: “I have a dream.”  The legend endures beyond memory from a dwindling number of witnesses, but no one alive that day anticipated its sweetly patriotic glow.  Dr. Martin Luther King groaned under pressure, planning to say nothing like those four words.  Bayard Rustin, a fabled pacifist in charge of logistics, prepared feverishly for the unknown.  “If you want to organize anything,” he shouted to volunteers, “assume that everybody is absolutely stupid.  And assume yourself that you’re stupid.”  Some of Rustin’s helpers slapped together 80,000 cheese sandwiches.  Others hauled twenty-one first-aid stations to outdoor spots along the stately National Mall.

[…]

The public girded for mayhem.  NBC’s Meet the Press aired official predictions that it would be “impossible” for Negroes to petition in numbers without civic disorder. A preview in Life magazine surveyed Washington’s “worst case of invasion jitters since the First Battle of Bull Run.”  The Kennedy Administration quietly deployed 4,000 riot troops near downtown, with 15,000 paratroopers on alert.  A District of Columbia order banned liquor sales for the first time since Prohibition.  Local hospitals stockpiled plasma and canceled elective surgery to save beds.  Most federal agencies urged employees to stay home.  Eighty percent of private business closed for the day.  A week ahead, to be safe, Major League Baseball postponed not one but two home games for the Washington Senators.

Early arrivals confounded these apprehensions.  One jaunty teenager wafted along Pennsylvania Avenue on roller skates, finishing a week-long journey from Chicago.  Trainloads of pilgrims spilled from Union Station singing spirituals.  A CBS camera mounted high in the Washington Monument showed a panorama that swelled crowd estimates upwards of 250,000.  Bob Dylan strummed his new folk anthem, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and the first black “airline stewardess” led cheers for progress.  Rustin herded dignitaries briskly through a long program, allowing emcee A. Philip Randolph to introduce the final speaker ahead of his appointed time.

King looked over a vast spectacle.  He had failed this closing task once before from these steps at the Lincoln Memorial, with many of the same civil rights leaders present.  Relatively few Americans noticed or remembered his 1957 “Give Us the Ballot” speech, and King himself had pushed for a second chance to define the historical moment.  “We are on a breakthrough,” he argued over wiretapped phone lines, startling aides accustomed to his caution, telling them to contact Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, about a “mass protest” for jobs and freedom.   King aimed to build on national momentum spiraling from spring demonstrations in Birmingham, but he carried a burden described intimately there in his letter from jail: “…when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at a tip-toe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments…”

He opened his address by reaching back to Lincoln.  “Five score years ago,” King paraphrased, “a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today signed the Emancipation Proclamation.”  Against Lincoln’s fidelity to national purpose, he threw up a clanging image of deadbeat history.  “America has given the Negro people a bad check,” King proclaimed, “a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”  He said segregation stamped default on freedom’s core promise.  Heartfelt voices cheered his raw illustrations along with his wishful hope not to find always that “the bank of justice is bankrupt.”

Suddenly King balked.  He could not bring himself to deliver his carefully written conclusion, beginning with the next line: “And so today, let us go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction.”  He improvised a warning not to “wallow in the valley of despair.” Then he stalled for an ending.  “I say to you today, my friends, and so,” said King, an orator dancing on edge, “even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow–”

______________________

USA Weekend has published a shorter version of this essay replete with period photographs. View photo essay

______________________

Freedom in 50-Year Blinks

            King hesitated before a unique nation that was young and yet also the world’s seasoned pioneer in freedom.  The gist of our story fit within three 50-year blinks.  In 1813, fighting England, President James Madison pronounced his country “the first genuine democracy engaged in a war since the ancients.”   Madison, the Constitution’s chief framer, reluctantly accepted battle to show that a daring experiment in self-government could survive scornful empires abroad and dissent at home.  (“It is high time we had a king,” grumbled one doubter in Washington.)  Though a slaveholder himself, Madison condemned slavery, and he conceded from firsthand experience that slave power drove nearly every founding compromise of democratic principle.  “Great as the evil is,” he lamented, “a dismemberment of the union would be worse.”

Fifty years later, in 1863, President Lincoln stood fast in the crucible of Madison’s fear.  Preserving union through a war that doomed slavery, the Emancipator welcomed “a new birth of freedom” at Gettysburg, where he pledged “increased devotion” to the “unfinished work” of “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson dismissed the Lincoln message at Gettysburg’s 50-year commemoration, branding it an “impertinence” to discuss what the Civil War meant.  Wilson promptly segregated the federal government by race.  On the day he took office, six women on horseback led 5,000 suffragists down Pennsylvania Avenue in classical costumes with breastplates and plumed helmets.  Some 200,000 spectators ridiculed their plea for the female vote, heckling them for sex or supper instead, but news of this grand commotion sparked the novel concept of political drama in Washington by citizens at large.

Another fifty years brought King to pause at the Lincoln Memorial.  Two World Wars made his United States a preeminent global power.  Cherished claims of equal citizenship accommodated whites-only privilege down into public libraries and rest stops, on custom widely reinforced by criminal law.  Earlier in 1963, Alabama’s Governor George Wallace vowed to uphold “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”  Women had won their suffrage amendment long ago, but Rustin’s marshals still diverted female leaders into a secondary freedom march along Independence Avenue.   King, like Madison, saw no rational bridge across the chasms of empathy and perception.  Figuratively, he closed his eyes.

A Song with Three Refrains

            “–I still have a dream,” King resumed.  “It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.  I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed…”  He took flight extemporaneously on rhetoric ingrained in him but new to the huge national audience.  His cadence rose gradually through nine dreams of racial justice into a tenth, spiritual vision from the prophet Isaiah.  “I have a dream, that one day every valley shall be exalted,” he said, in pulsing delivery.  “Every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together!

“This is our hope,” King continued, pulling back from a glimpse of purified humanity.  “This is the faith that I go back to the South with.  With this faith…”  Like a jazz musician, he composed off this phrase a second riff on determination in pursuit of dreams.  “With this faith,” it ended, “we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”  King dramatized that prospect by reciting the first verse of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” from sweet liberty and pilgrims to “Let freedom ring.”

Quickening again, he pushed his baritone into high register.  “And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true,” King intoned.  “So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire…Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!”  Eleven times he launched variations on this third refrain, embracing not only the treasured landscape but also fearsome bastions of white supremacy.  “Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi!” he shouted.  “From every mountainside, let freedom ring!”  His distinctive voice enveloped the words in a furnace of warring release, fusing ecstasy with anguish and disappointment with hope.

“And when this happens,” King cried out, “when we allow freedom to ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up the day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last!  Free at last!  Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”

Reactions Divide History

            Most television viewers witnessed their first and last complete King speech that day.  “He’s damned good,” President Kennedy remarked at the White House.  The New York Times hailed the “Peroration by Dr. King” in one of five front-page stories about the March.  Life Magazine, with Rustin pictured nobly on the cover, gushed over scenes of “beatific calm” in a photo essay featuring “Negro Gothic” couples in crisp jeans, “reminiscent of [the] famous Grant Wood painting.”  To excuse their prior alarms, Rustin teased, reporters now lionized him as a dark Caribbean wizard whose tricks made scary Negroes nice enough for afternoon tea.

Not everyone shared the admiration and relief.  FBI Headquarters produced a hostile assessment that “in light of King’s powerful demagogic speech yesterday, he stands head and shoulders over all other Negro leaders.”  This distinction moved Director J. Edgar Hoover to approve a secret FBI directive on King: “We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security.”

Other appraisals ranged from conflicted discovery to confession.  Newsweek Magazine compiled a special issue after the March, asking, “How much equality is the white man willing to grant the Negro?”  Its polls found that eighty percent of white citizens, including sixty percent of Southerners, said minorities were denied fairness and basic rights, but seventy-four percent also believed “Negroes are moving too fast.”

NBC televised a three-hour news special, American Revolution ’63, in prime time without commercials.  Americans sensed “their lives are being altered forever,” said host Frank McGee.  His composure slipped in regret of commentaries that had patronized King’s bus boycotters as “teenagers demanding to stay out after 9:30.”  News anchor Chet Huntley starkly recalled his Montana childhood.  “We were a frontier people,” he said.  “…We never really looked with honesty at Negroes the way we examined the anatomy of a grasshopper, say, or speculated on the after-hours life of a teacher.  We looked, but we had been told what to see.”

For balance, the NBC documentary presented hardline segregationists.  “You are witnessing one more chapter in what has been termed the television revolution,” said Mississippi’s Governor Ross Barnett.  Charging that the media “publicized and dramatized the race issue far beyond its relative importance,” he formulated—ironically on network television—a “smoke screen” theory of phony news concocted to help King’s demonstrators and unscrupulous politicians.  “The real goal of the conspiracy,” Barnett told NBC viewers, “is the concentration of all effective power in the central government in Washington.”

No one adapted Barnett’s premise more adroitly than George Wallace.  By the end of 1963, with segregation losing its stable respectability, he dropped the word altogether from a fresh stump speech denouncing “big government” by “pointy-headed bureaucrats,” tyrannical judges, and “tax, tax, spend, spend” legislators.  He spurned racial discourse, calling it favoritism, and insisted with aplomb that he had never denigrated any person or group in his fight for local control.  Wallace, though still weighted by a hateful reputation, mounted the first of three strong presidential campaigns.  “We have shaken the eyeteeth of every liberal in the country,” he said.

King’s Dream at 50

            Now we come to a 50-year blink for the 1963 March on Washington.  This will be only the fourth such span since 1813, as noted, which offers a compact perspective on defining themes in American history.  King’s “dream” speech, along with the bus protest started by Rosa Parks, is remembered in school lessons for children here and abroad. His statue stands now across the Tidal Basin from Thomas Jefferson, not far from the Lincoln Memorial.  Of the official national holidays, only the one for him honors by name a leader who never sought or held public office.  King served a prophet’s role.  He made urgent the simple but profound challenge that runs through American heritage.  Putting one foot in the Constitution and the other in Scriptures, he refined an ecumenical standard of equal votes and equal souls.

Oratory alone cannot explain King’s impact.  He spoke for a nonviolent citizens’ movement that engaged representatives of the nation, in his words, to “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.”  Sacrifice amplified the speeches, and most bloodshed in the civil rights era followed the 1963 March, beginning with the grisly church bombing eighteen days later that killed four Birmingham girls.  Ku Klux Klan murders came hard upon the Kennedy assassination, from three students lynched in Mississippi to a Boston pastor beaten to death on a voting-rights march in Selma, and a dozen more martyrs preceded King himself in 1968.

By then the movement had opened stubborn gates to freedom.  The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 reduced not only segregation’s rank injustice but also a paralyzing stigma on the white South, leading to Sunbelt prosperity.  The Voting Rights Act of 1965 stripped white supremacy from democracy’s bedrock franchise, enabling the first two-party competition in the South since the Civil War.  Laws that criminalized racial intermarriage in most states fell void, along with many state laws that curtailed or prohibited jury service by women.

Such blatant restrictions have become difficult for new generations to remember, or believe, but female students had been barred from many professions and most prominent colleges, let alone from the military academies.  Segregated sports persisted beyond King’s life, as the 1969 Texas Longhorns were the last all-white college football team to win a national championship.  The notion of female rabbis, which was preposterous for two thousand years of rabbinic Judaism, became commonplace soon after the civil rights struggle.  Collateral citizens’ movements advanced marginalized causes from disabled persons to the natural environment.  Homosexual people emerged, beyond the imagination of King’s dreamers, from closeted terror to legal security approaching gay marriage.  Negroes shifted collective identity to black people, then African Americans, and the nation elected one of them President of the United States.

President Barack Obama stands at a pinnacle of breathtaking change since 1963, but he has scarcely escaped an undertow from the past.  Like King in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, the president himself remains “constantly at a tip-toe stance.”  It is a delicate matter for him to mention race at all, no matter how much it might inform his experience.  Recently, when he expressed qualified identification with Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American teenager tracked and killed with impunity in Florida, criticism erupted that President Obama was injecting himself and racial friction into matters best left alone.  The New York Times quoted a complaint that his remarks betrayed “the great achievement of our society, the possibility of not talking about race.”

This uproar exposes a dangerous wish.  To silence race collapses American history into a fairy tale, blotting out the central drama of democratic progress.  The original framers of the Constitution boldly designed horizontal ties across sensitive barriers of hierarchy, region, and belief.  Race has tested them ever since, and only subterfuge or willful amnesia can deny its residual force.  Race flipped the century-old “solid South” from Democratic to Republican after 1964.  Dragnets now search predominantly black teenagers to confiscate guns in New York, while zealous coalitions elsewhere stockpile guns into predominantly white hands—all professing a race-neutral public safety.  Partisan gridlock is racial by the numbers.   The House of Representatives has packed itself into Democratic districts that average twice the non-white population compared with Republican districts that average fifty percent more white people.  One national party tends to be skittish about race.  The other transmutes latent fear and distrust into a pervasive hostility toward government.

King’s “dream” speech abides.  Contrary to popular impression then, and lingering insistence today, he did not win favor by promising that African Americans would behave like white people.  He said nearly the opposite, quite plainly.  His ringing conclusion invited polyglot America—“all God’s children”—to join hands and sing a Negro spiritual, so that everyone for that moment could share inspirations forged during slavery.  King invoked a larger patriotism in which people of every stripe reach from tip-toe stance across divisions between them.  Free citizenship requires meeting each other half-way to build ties of comfort and strength.  King’s burden was not the tip-toe stance itself but flatfooted disregard on the other side.  His reward was small miracles of common purpose that made “movement” the watchword of national politics.

Now the watchword has atrophied to “spin,” cynical and stationary.  The glory of freedom is still there, however, in far better shape than our fractured discourse suggests. President Obama should speak more from his tip-toe stance about race in our national journey.  Spasms of objection can give way to more balanced history, but we all inherit the responsibility to make it so.  King and his colleagues leave us a patriotic lesson that every citizen can become a modern Founder.

 

Taylor Branch wrote a prize-winning historical trilogy on the civil rights era, beginning with Parting the Waters (1988).   His recent books are The Cartel (2011), about NCAA college sports, and The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement (2013).  He lives in Baltimore with his wife, Christy Macy.

Continue Reading