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


The King Years in paperback Below is the press release from Simon & Schuster announcing publication of The King Years in paperback.  The soft cover edition is being published in stores today, August 13. E-Books and special Enhanced E-Books continue to be available online.

The paperback edition is written for general readers, but its compact size also meets suggestions from teachers at many levels.  This is the first of my civil rights histories to be accompanied by a Teacher’s Guide, prepared by the award-winning educator Rosanne Lichatin.

I am grateful to Simon & Schuster, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and to the Preserve America Foundation for helping to crystallize vital lessons from history in civil rights and citizenship.


“Branch is as eloquent and trenchant as ever…the book recalls and revitalizes a history that deserves its details.” —Boston Globe

“A welcome addition to any civil rights bookshelf…In cutting his epic down to size, Branch intended ‘to convey both the spirit and the sweep of an extraordinary movement.’ With his highly readable anecdotal approach, he succeeds admirably…Branch’s storytelling skill makes this slim anthology so much more than the standard King-Parks story.”—San Francisco Chronicle

“…instead of getting a dry dates-and-events history book, readers are gifted with glimpses of life and ‘historically significant’ events, presented almost in the form of a novel….a well-known story from a new point of view…. very accessible for veterans of the movement, youngsters who weren’t born yet and for students of this subject. So if you’re looking this week for fresh reflection on a tumultuous period of time, find this.” Augusta Chronicle

Taylor Branch is the author of the acclaimed America in the King Years trilogy, which includes the books Parting the Waters (which won the Pulitzer Prize for History), Pillar of Fire, and At Canaan’s Edge. The three-volume narrative history endures as a masterpiece of storytelling on American race, violence, and democracy. With this new book now available in paperback, The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement (Simon & Schuster; August 13, 2013; $16.00), Branch has identified eighteen essential moments from the Civil Rights Movement, and providing selections from his trilogy, has placed each moment in historical context with a newly written introduction.  The captivating result is a slender but comprehensive view of America in the turbulent, transformative 1960s, by our nation’s foremost authoritative voice on the subject.

Branch looks back on his own work with fresh insight about what lessons and challenges remain most salient today. This compact book conveys the full sweep of an era, showing how a small bus boycott evolved into the signature freedom movement of the 20th century, generating worldwide inspiration and sustained progress toward equal citizenship in areas far beyond racial discrimination.

The King Years is meant for general readers, but Branch designed it also as a teaching tool for the digital age.  Starting in January 2013, from his home town, he made this book the centerpiece for an experimental on-line seminar offered by the University of Baltimore. New, interactive technology promises an unmatched course on democratic leadership for a potentially worldwide audience. With this unique, handy addition to the literature on civil rights, readers can equip themselves for an uncertain future by absorbing hope from our resilient past.

The eighteen chapters include well-known, dramatic events such as the March on Washington, and major clashes over the Vietnam War, along with up-close views of iconic figures such as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the Kennedy brothers, and President Lyndon Johnson. Branch also features underappreciated characters such as Diane Nash and the mystical student leader Bob Moses, and he illuminates small but significant turning points in history.  His chapter on voting rights, for instance, focuses neither on Selma’s famous Bloody Sunday assault nor the triumphant march into Montgomery.  Instead, Branch takes readers inside the aborted “turnaround” march in between, when a divided nonviolent movement faced maximum pressure from every level of government.  At a crossroads, Martin Luther King made uncertain choices amid fierce internal conflict.  Were political threats or promises real?  Was the hope of federal legislation more important than the cohesion of a battered citizens’ protest?  How does one find the true path between prudence and bravado, hope and fear, cooperation and self-reliance?

Branch argues that these upheavals remain crucial for anyone who wishes to understand our divided political climate. In September 1963, network television doubled nightly coverage from only 15 to 30 minutes, sending into millions of homes extra images of ugly violence against a previously invisible black culture. Television showcased primal reactions for and against its projected new world.  Governor Ross Barnett of Mississippi appeared on an NBC News Special to accuse the media of a biased racial agenda, asserting that “the real goal of the conspiracy is the concentration of all effective power in the central government in Washington” (page 72).

A year later, final passage of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act coincided with two historic U-turns at the presidential nominating conventions.  Chapter Ten reveals President Lyndon Johnson privately in anguish, on the verge of breakdown as he turned Democrats away from their century-old base in solid-South segregation, while the Republican candidate, Senator Barry Goldwater, turned the Party of Lincoln against its emancipator’s tradition by voting against the civil rights bill. “The 1964 election marked an unprecedented shift in the structure of national politics,” writes Branch. “A partisan reversal would take hold over decades, driven and yet muffled by race, tainting the word ‘liberal’ in both parties” (page 90).

Other chapters mention wrenching changes from the era that have become taken for granted and largely unnoticed.  The Supreme Court struck down criminal laws that restricted marriage by race. The Immigration Reform Act of 1965 opened naturalized U.S. citizenship to areas of the globe that had been excluded. Once desegregated, a new Sun Belt prosperity rose in southern states that had been stigmatized and poor. Women entered Ivy League colleges, military academies, new professions, and much of the clergy. To cover urban areas sealed off in a riot, the Los Angeles Times hired its first Negro reporter in 1965. Prisons turned darker and far more crowded.  Nonviolence, the most powerful doctrine of the early civil rights movement, receded from public discourse. Cultural experts detected a broad de-glamorization of the word “city.” Negroes became black people, then African-Americans, prominent in the arts and exceptional in high places.

Throughout the book, Branch communicates this watershed history in personal stories. Profound debates move from church kitchens to the White House. Ordinary citizens risk their lives for equal treatment, and people contend over many styles of leadership. Through dramatic narrative, readers experience suffering that tested the basic premise of self-government. They also feel the perseverance and discovery that enlarged historic movements to refine democratic freedom.

The King Years is being published in paperback, ebook, and enhanced ebook editions. The enhanced ebook showcases additional videos and music throughout the text, making it a rich multi-media learning experience. Such resources include film of Walter Cronkite interviewing President Kennedy, King discussing his early plans for sustained demonstrations in Birmingham, b-roll of sit-in demonstrations, and tracks of Freedom songs. Simon & Schuster has also created a teacher’s guide of The King Years for classroom, library, and reading group use.

A special note from the author to educators and all of us still learning:

“For nearly twenty-five years,” says Taylor Branch, “since publication of Parting the Waters, teachers have pressed upon me their need for more accessible ways to immerse students in stories of authentic detail and import. Against my published habits, which are hardly succinct, the goal here is to accommodate them and others by careful choice.”

“This single-volume project has been a daunting but exhilarating challenge,” Branch adds. “American history teachers are embattled, partly because the United States has decided to evaluate schools by test scores limited to reading and math.  By downgrading the history of our distinctive national experiment, we would leave future generations less prepared to understand and exercise their vital responsibility as free citizens.”

Branch continues, “For all readers, I believe, lessons from the civil rights era apply not to bygone forms of racial segregation but most urgently to a troubled future. Drawn from the core of our national purpose, they show how ordinary people can work miracles against intractable burdens to advance both freedom and the common good.”



Taylor Branch is the bestselling author of Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63; Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65; At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968; and The Clinton Tapes. He has won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He lives in Baltimore.

Simon & Schuster has created a teacher’s guide for classroom, library, and reading group use. Please request a copy.

Continue Reading


Here is the song John Lennon wrote for his mother, Julia, ten years after her tragic death in 1958. Today, March 12, would have been her 99th birthday.

Listen to the full version of Off Our Rocker’s, Julia.

Off Our Rocker“Julia” is the last track that our 1960s college band recorded for a 2008 tribute CD to the Beatles. Our weekend reunion was a musical lark, but Lennon’s haunting solo made us hesitate. With some trepidation, we finally decided to go ahead with slight touches of harmony.

Anyone can find samples from two commercial CDs we released as the mock cover group, Off Our Rocker. Or you can simply wait to hear the full songs for free. We did them for fun, anyway–lots of fun–for friends rejuvenated by music. So we’ll post other songs from time to time with our compliments.

The three of us are scattered, with many aches and a few grandchildren, but Off Our Rocker may soon sing again.


Continue Reading


Technology is changing the world of books rapidly for everyone, including authors, and I am rushing to catch up with novel aspects about this month’s publication of The King Years. One frontier innovation is the “enhanced” digital edition, which gives ebook readers access to audio and video illustrations of passages in the text.

Simon & Schuster has prepared this trailer of sample enhancements:


An activation link appears in the ebook text at the appropriate spot for each enhancement. Some of my favorite ones, not shown in this trailer, are audio/only excerpts of dramatic phone conversations with President Lyndon Johnson. I helped find and select the illustrations, but I admit seeing the final enhanced ebook only on our son Franklin’s iPad. Frankly, I’m a lifelong lover of hardcover print who has not quite accepted even regular ebooks, and I don’t own a device that can handle the enhanced version.

Inevitably, there are adjustments in new technology. I am told that the enhanced version works beautifully on popular platforms except for Kindle. Because Kindles can access only the ebook text, and some Kindle readers have been disappointed not to have the A/V enhancements, Simon & Schuster issued a guideline statement: *Audio/Video content only available for iPads, iPhones, and iPod Touch devices in iBooks, or a Nook color/tablet (NOT Kindle).

This too will change, and enhanced ebooks probably will expand as publishers master the difficulties of locating and licensing A/V illustrations. Already, I hope, enhancements can help bring The King Years alive for new generations of teachers, students, and general readers. An author like me can describe in words the powerful influence of music in the civil rights era, but it is something else to hear our ebook enhancement of Rutha Harris leading a 1964 freedom workshop in “This Little Light of Mine.”


Continue Reading


The King Years by Taylor BranchI will teach a weekly history seminar this spring term at my home town University of Baltimore. The course will explore the modern civil rights era at its transformative peak, 1954-68.

University of Baltimore

This class will be experimental and exciting for me in several respects. Most important, the in-class seminar will be accessible without charge via Web connection to a selected group of registered auditors. They will pay no fees and receive no college credit. All we seek from auditors is candid feedback about the content and delivery of this special prototype course. […]

We hope to develop for the future an in-class seminar that can be shared via the Web by an expandable group of participants from diverse places and backgrounds, registered individually or through institutions for credit. Therefore, for this trial run, the University of Baltimore will accept interested auditors from a wide variety of groups: students and teachers (high school through college), non-degree candidates, general lay readers, and specialists in subject areas from race relations and social movements to government and nonviolence.

Several of the technical departments at the University of Baltimore have cooperated to make the in-class seminar available via the Web to registered auditors simultaneously, by live-stream connection, and also by delayed retrieval and review.

I have taught a similar course several times before, most recently last spring as a visiting Honors professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. Those courses carried intensive reading assignments from texts that included my 2,306-page King-era trilogy. This new course is designed to introduce the most salient events and issues through a more compact core curriculum. The weekly readings are built around the eighteen chapters of my newly released book, The King Years, which is a 190-page guided distillation of the longer work.

Information about the book is available from my website:

Information about the course, including registration for potential auditors, is available in the official announcement by the University of Baltimore. The seminar will meet on Wednesdays from 5:30-8:00pm, starting with an introductory session on January 23.


Continue Reading


Washington MonthlyThe current (January 2013) issue of The Washington Monthly Magazine contains a short article by Monthly editor Haley Sweetland Edwards and me, prepared as an interview during these past few hectic weeks.

I am especially pleased to have this article published to coincide with the release of my new book, The King Years. Long ago, when I was a graduate student who had not yet even thought of a writing career, the Monthly published excerpts from the diary I kept as an awed voter registration worker in southwest Georgia during the summer of 1969. […]

Those experiences in civil rights work and journalism opened new paths for me, and in the summer of 1970, on completing my graduate work, I took my first full-time job as an editor for The Washington Monthly. Its founder, Charlie Peters, became a lifetime mentor for me (and many others) in politics and journalism.

The current Monthly article tells one of many small stories buried in our forgetful history of the civil rights era: how Martin Luther King tried and failed to get President John F. Kennedy to abolish racial segregation by executive order in January of 1963, on the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation to end slavery.

Lincoln’s historic work to end slavery is very much remembered in contemporary culture through Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated film, Lincoln. The unsuccessful collaboration between MLK and JFK is only a minor echo of that history, but it is well worth remembering in this month of poignant anniversaries about racial politics in 1863, 1963, and 2013. They are sketched in last week’s publication blog for The King Years.

Continue Reading



Simon & Schuster has announced a publication date of January 8, 2013 for my new book, The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement. The timing honors a month of epic anniversaries in the unfinished history of freedom in the United States. Consider these three:

1. 150 years ago, in January of 1863, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation declared forever free nearly 4 million slaves then living under Confederate control. Two years later, as dramatized in the current Steven Spielberg film, Lincoln pushed through the 13th Amendment shortly before his assassination.

2. 50 years ago, in January of 1963, Democratic Governor George Wallace of Alabama delivered his defiant inaugural speech pledging, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” One century after the Civil War, Wallace tried and failed to preserve an old order of unequal rights in the midst of a citizens’ upheaval called the modern civil rights movement (1954-68).

3. Now, in January of 2013, a re-elected Barack Obama takes his oath as the first African-American President of the United States. Equal rights and opportunity have advanced broadly, perhaps miraculously in historical context, but racial issues still are muted as solved, unsolvable, or both. Group voting sharply divides the major political parties.


The King Years by Taylor BranchThis compact, 190-page book is a venture for our time of rapid change in communication. Professors and teachers long have complained that while story-telling history is accessible for their students, my multiple thick books are difficult to handle. From another angle, general readers who appreciate narrative have pressed for some distillation of key questions and lessons that have evolved over the thirty-plus years since I began research for Parting the Waters.

It was hard for me to revisit my work, in part because I believe personal detail is vital in cross-racial history. The goal here is to preserve detail from the original language of my civil rights trilogy, sometimes stitched together between volumes, achieving economy by painful selection among the stories told. There is literary blood on my office floor, but I take responsibility for the choices. Combined with new summary introductions for each chapter, which are necessarily more analytical, I aim to deliver accurate narratives that raise salient questions across the full sweep of the civil rights era.

For more information on the nature and content of The King Years, please consult Simon & Schuster’s full press release. Also, my introduction to the book is available for listening in a sample from the audio edition read by Leslie Odom, Jr. The current January 2013 issue of Atlanta Magazine contains an exchange on my personal background for the book since childhood in Atlanta. Finally, there is a January 5 pre-publication interview with Linda Wertheimer on NPR’s “Weekend Edition.”

Postings over the next few days will introduce other new projects related to the book. An enhanced digital edition, for instance, offers audio and video links to illustrate material in the text, including news footage, music, and excerpts from presidential recordings. On the educational front, I hope to build on experience as an adjunct teacher of civil rights history at Goucher College and the University of North Carolina. Starting in this spring semester of 2013, the University of Baltimore will offer to a potentially expandable group of on-line students my weekly seminar built around The King Years.

Thankfully, some things endure in the digital age. The civil rights era has kept me enthralled over a long career writing history. It remains an unsurpassed source of learning on our capacity for justice and free government.

Continue Reading


The past two weeks have been filled with heartache and joy related to our dear friend Dudley Clendinen, who died on May 30 only nineteen months after being diagnosed with the cruel affliction known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. My eulogy for him is posted in the previous blog. Several noteworthy events converged randomly and serendipitously, just as Dudley would have relished.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Photo from IMDB

Sadly, he did not quite make it to the show in Baltimore of the forthcoming film from Fox Searchlight, Beasts of the Southern Wild. Jed Dietz of the Maryland Film Festival worked diligently to arrange a closed screening while Dudley was still alive, because Dudley was so delighted for his young cousin Lucy Alibar, co-screenwriter of the film based on her stage play. Advance reviews are stunning, as Beasts has captured top prizes at both Sundance and Cannes. The theater release coming soon in July almost certainly will make new stars of the untrained lead actors, Dwight Henry and 6-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis, while opening bright career doors for Alibar and the visionary director, Benh Zeitlin.

To safeguard public impact, and prevent pirate videos, gremlins confiscated for later return all cameras and cell phones from the lucky patrons who entered the June 5 screening. After the film, which transported viewers through a world of grim and fantastic apocalypse into the healing mysteries of nature, Lucy Alibar answered questions on stage in an interview with WYPR radio host Tom Hall. Emotions from the audience ran deep over the film as well as Alibar’s remembrances of the senior cousin she knew as “Unca’ Dudley,” whose funeral had taken place only the day before.

Tom Hall conducted a remarkable series of 25 public radio interviews with Dudley about his swiftly approaching death at the hands of the intimate killer he called “Lou.” Those conversations served as raw material for a book Dudley was writing until his final day. The book project had grown from a stark essay he wrote last July for his beloved New York Times, where Dudley had been a reporter in the 1980s. With its courageous reflections on how to die, his essay “The Good Short Life” attracted worldwide attention from terminal patients as well as ordinarily reluctant mortals. Algonquin Books, a division of the Workman Press, plans to publish Dudley’s posthumous memoir within a year.

In one of our closing moments, I got to pass along from Julian Bond the inside story of the NAACP’s surprise endorsement for full equality rights in gay marriage. This news was especially important to Dudley because of his youthful travail as a closeted homosexual and his mature work with Adam Nagourney of the Times as historians of the gay rights movement (Out for Good, 1999). The news was equally important to Julian, a pioneer of the civil rights movement and long-time Board chair for the NAACP, because of his long quest to make gender rights an issue of human freedom and respect like racial justice. Julian and I have been friends for nearly 45 years. At our home for dinner, with his wife Pam Horowitz, he told Christy and me of the parliamentary breakthrough at the NAACP Board’s May meeting—of the inspiration to embrace gay marriage not only in discussion but in a formal vote, and how he drafted a simple statement of principle that evaded snares over wording and procedure. Struggles continue as always, but word of the victory cheered Dudley, which cheered Julian, and should cheer us all for the long run.



Continue Reading


Published on 05 June 2012 by in General



By Taylor Branch

Cathedral of the Incarnation

Baltimore, MD

JUNE 4, 2012

         This bow tie is a first for me, courtesy of Jed Dietz.  It makes me feel more like Dudley, albeit with a good deal less of that shiny white hair.  A bit more courtly and charismatic, debonair, and slightly odd.  I can’t believe you’re gone, but then again, we saw what you went through with such graceful courage, and we celebrate your steadfast love to the end for this world’s zany, ornery, ever-blessed people.

Dudley was the quintessential fizz in life, serving up constant, mysterious bubbles of delight.  He was in the middle of everything, but also, simultaneously, a detached observer who turned every hardship and frustration into a doorway for affectionate wit.  He was impish and eccentric, like my own late father.  Everybody knows he was fun.  Even now, we hope to draw on his irrepressible spirit to help us through this moment.

Let us never forget, though, that Dudley’s life was full of trauma long before he met the disease he called “Lou.”  It is tempting to telescope gay progress in retrospect, and to forget unspeakable hell less than half a lifetime ago, but Dudley never did.  Here’s what he and Adam Nagourney wrote of their youth: “No one homosexual was celebrated in the American culture in 1969.  When they looked for information in libraries that year, they found clinical references and glum descriptions in journals of medicine and psychiatry, with a scattering of news items filed under such headings as ‘variant,’ ‘lesbian,’ ‘pervert,’ ‘sodomist,’ and ‘deviate’….Even the Village Voice, the chronicler of the New Left, found humor rather than history in the gay riot at the Stonewall.  ‘Wrists were limp, hair was primped,’ it reported…The Voice…disparaged homosexuals as ‘queers,’ ‘swishes,’ and ‘fags’.”   Their contemporaries often considered it better to be dead than to be gay, and a decade later along came AIDS to accommodate them like a guillotine cutting through hard-won prayers of optimism.  And for Dudley, all this was on top of his personalized struggles with alcohol and family upheaval, let alone our common woes of racism and war.  No wonder he gobbled up psychiatrists like vitamins.

I repeat, let us never forget.  It is precisely because of his travails that Dudley is so special.  He confronted, captured, and subdued them for adventure, which he shared with us all.  He always wanted to drive, for instance, and that scared us.  We prayed he would not be able to remember where he had parked one of his old clunker convertibles—forty feet long, with the throaty engine, wobbly hood ornament, and glove box full of parking tickets—but then we were off to somewhere.  Dudley was happiest when we were lost.   Because we weren’t.  For him, chaos was merely the occasion to kick-start a story, and every crisis became a wonder.  For the same reason, dinner could never be too late.  Christy and I used to sneak pocket snacks into his suppers on Bolton Hill, knowing it would be hours of mirth before Dudley would produce a trademark stew simmered forever in his stove-top armada of deep skillets.

More than profundity, Dudley milked an earthy connectedness from our various foibles and fussiness and feuds.  Famously, his toasts lifted all those present with an elegant caress for each person around the table.  Just last week, with his body shriveled to a sliver, he provided comfort and amusement when Steve Wigler turned up shaken at midnight with his windshield shattered by a wild turkey on the highway.  Here was a random, quirky drama, perfect for Dudley.

The “Lou” disease took his precious conversation toward the end, but never the written word.  Above all, Dudley was a writer.  I never saw him happier than when reading passages from his Canterbury tales book in public.  Only a few months ago, he wrote, “All of you know me well, manifold warts, whimsies and all.”  He fired off an email for help, writing, “Somehow I have vaporized my address book.”  He leaves his spirit with and in us from the page.

Here, from only nineteen months ago, he confronted an unknown affliction in a note to his students:   “for a long time, my voice had been getting balky. cranky. unreliable. sometimes it sounded like a granite wheel,. sometimes like diane rehm on steroids. and sometimes like a rusty hinge.

“well, it’s asthma, i  thought. or allergies. or acid reflux, for which  i take boatloads of prilosec. or the bad air in baltimore.  but it’s annoying to a recovering alcoholic to sound more and more like a raspy drunk. so in late may, i started seeing doctors. lots of doctors.”

Later in October of 2010, he approached his diagnosis in an email: “i saw my my new neurologist and had lab work thursday. had a brain MRI wednesday, which is a little like being trapped inside a philip glass symphony. wonderfully strange radio signal sounds. brain is fine – meaning no strange lumps. just ruined sinuses.

“the neurologist thinks my whole complex of symptoms, – breathlessness, fatigue, fading voice, thick tongue, loss of throat control, choking, strangling, etc,, (but unfortunately not dirty apt., piled up dining room table, lateness or other annoying habits) –  are all attributable not to my inflamed, drippy sinuses, or anemia, or reflux ,or severe iron deficiency, but to either lou gehrig’s disease or something called myasthenia (or miasthenia?) gravis. a disorder of the auto immune system.

“gravis is about 90% treatable. gehrig’s is about 100%^ untreatable.

“i regard this as good news, or at least good odds. he suspects it is gravis. i am hoping he is a smart doctor. i should know by wednesday.

“root for the latin.”

When the Latin failed, and Lou Gehrig’s disease was confirmed, Dudley instantly and characteristically embraced the story of his own demise in a riveting series of radio interviews with Tom Hall.  Thank you, Tom.  Thank you, Joshua, for giving us the inspiration of your care and devotion.  Thank you, Whitney, family and friends, and above all Dudley for love to the end.

Two weeks ago, he wrote to thank my wife for a photo of her mother’s 100 birthday:  “ohhh, christy –  thank you. i feel privileged. i have wanted for years to see your remarkable mother in her element. god, she has weathered well. what a tough, beautiful, classically yankee lady.  thank you for my flowers. i love the fact that you always do that. and now i see where it comes from.”

Last week, he wrote to celebrate our son’s graduation from law school:  “and i appreciate your note,” he concluded.   “to be con’td.”  And he signed off

“Lovedudley” in one word run together.  “Lovedudley.”  Like it should be, and will be.

Continue Reading

Leonard diCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover

Leonard diCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover

I saw the Clint Eastwood film “J. Edgar” over Thanksgiving. Its portrait of Hoover is more personal than political, emphasizing his character through episodic moments in relation to Hoover’s mother, his self-molded Bureau, and the lifelong companion Clyde Tolson.

Eastwood handles the gay subtext with restraint, which is an admirable contrast to the widely embraced but fanciful rumors of a late-night Hoover in tutus and evening gowns. This private Hoover feels real on film, within the context of scanty historical evidence, which is quite an achievement.

“J. Edgar” is necessarily selective from a vast range of cases through which Hoover developed the FBI’s impact and influence across 50 years. The film skips the 1940s and 1950s entirely. It concentrates on the 1930s Lindbergh kidnapping, and it compresses the tumultuous 1960s into a glancing peek at Hoover’s war with Martin Luther King.

The Atlantic posted on its website a review that essentially took Hoover’s side in that war, criticizing the film and somehow invoking my King-era trilogy as evidence. This was quite a surprise. I found both the argument and the citation a bizarrely distorted claim, to the point that they invert fair interpretation. This was awkward for me, because The Atlantic had just published my historical essay, “The Shame of College Sports.” In another sense, the dispute illustrates the range of free expression. The Atlantic promptly posted my response, which is re-printed below.


Editors, The Atlantic

We received a response to this piece from Taylor Branch:

“John Meroney cites my work in his review of the Clint Eastwood film on J. Edgar Hoover, which is fine, but your readers should not be misled. I do not agree with Mr. Meroney’s interpretation of the relationship between Hoover and Martin Luther King.

That relationship was complex, especially when triangulated by each man’s simultaneous dealings with presidents through the tumultuous civil rights era. It is true that Hoover has been unfairly caricatured by gossip. It is also true that he was perhaps the most adroit bureaucrat in American history.

However, his fifty-year tenure in a position of secet authority did corrupt J. Edgar Hoover, which should come as no surprise to any student of U.S. constitutional theory. He became ever more an autocrat who resented and circumvented the accountable standards of free government.

Hoover’s lifelong domain was a homogeneous FBI hierarchy of white males with a handful of Negro chauffeurs and man-servants. He fought to keep it that way. His personal animus toward King was strong and steeped in racial prejudice.

In my view, Mr. Meroney’s commentary on The Atlantic website is even-handed only in appearance. He consistently excuses Hoover’s motives, overlooks his violation of democratic norms, and attributes his responsibility to others.

This portrait amounts to an apologia. Hoover deserves censure instead, balanced with chastening awareness that U.S. citizens as a whole left him in power too long.”

Continue Reading


Last Thursday in Washington, my wife Christy and I were pleased to be part of the annual awards ceremony held by Search For Common Ground (SFCG), a sterling NGO that works on tough reconciliation projects worldwide. The organization is led by two of our dearest friends, John and Susan Collin Marks.

One of this year’s honorees, rapper Emmanuel Jal of South Sudan, electrified the crowd with a surprise performance of dance and song. The evening brimmed with inspirational stories and music, ending with freedom songs led by Ysaye Barnwell of Sweet Honey in the Rock. For me, it was quite a contrast from the comic whirlwind of appearing on the Colbert Report the previous night.

2011 Search For Common Ground Awards

Here is a photograph of Diane and me with her award. We were both pretty happy.

A blog on the SFCG website describes the ceremony and the six honorees for 2011.

My part in the program was to present the final Common Ground award to Rep. John Lewis, Rep. Bob Filner, and Diane Nash for their pioneer roles in the 1961 Freedom Rides fifty years ago. I have known and admired John Lewis since 1968, and worked for him at the Voter Education Project out of Atlanta in the summer of 1969. Like John, Diane Nash was a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960. She deserves greater recognition as an influential force in the civil rights movement. For decades now, I have told her that whatever actress plays her in a film version of my trilogy, for which there is renewed hope now at HBO, will deservedly become a star.

Below is the text of my presentation at the ceremony.

Presentation Remarks by Taylor Branch
Honoring the 1961 Freedom Riders

Search for Common Ground Awards Ceremony

The Carnegie Institute for Science
Washington, DC

October 27, 2011

The word “movement” in social history holds many meanings. Movements begin with a stir of inspiration, sometimes when only one person feels moved. They adapt or not by leaps of analysis and faith. They can grow by contagious response of hidden but limitless potential.

On Mother’s Day Sunday of 1961, not for the first or last time in civil rights history, Diane Nash acted forcefully to expand the identity and purpose of young colleagues in the freedom movement. “What do we do now?” she asked suddenly at a picnic. They were celebrating the success of a harrowing forty-night desegregation campaign at Nashville’s movie theaters. Everyone said the news bulletins were terrible about the bus burned in Anniston and the Freedom Riders beaten in Birmingham, but her insistent question baffled them. Why us, they responded, when the tragedy was way off yonder in Alabama, and why now, when their own battered movement needed recuperation?

“Way off yonder is where we decide it is,” Nash declared. If publicized beatings could stop the Freedom Riders, she added, the nonviolent movement would shrivel everywhere and die. She made them miserable with her vision of responsibility until the Nashville students resolved to move not by plans or petitions but by swift and disciplined witness to the very spot in Birmingham where white mobs had bludgeoned the first wave of Freedom Riders. They renewed the stalemate over whether an integrated bus could move, literally, a foot beyond the Birmingham bus station. They persevered to create a movement that gripped the White House and eventually the whole world with a broader conception of freedom.

Some may object that these Freedom Riders were too fiercely militant for this award, but the nonviolent student movement was an ideal catalyst for common ground. They remained steadfastly prepared to die but not to kill or injure for their cause. They absorbed more beatings and went deliberately to jail, making eye contact with oppressors. They unified means and ends across barriers of conflict. Their movement pulled together distant heartstrings to build common ground on common citizenship and humanity, setting in motion not only new laws but daily justice and freedom still enjoyed by millions of people with every breath.

It is altogether fitting, and a privilege, that Search For Common Ground honor these three people on behalf of the 1961 Freedom Riders. Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta has been steadfast from the first inspiration, when few paid any attention to the original riders, through his sterling career in public service. Rep. Bob Filner of San Diego left Cornell to join more than four hundred contagious responders on Freedom Rides into prison in Mississippi, from which they emerged transformed and transforming. Last but not least, Diane Nash spurred a leap of commitment in the highest tradition of democratic self-government. She gave the Freedom Rides her fire of enlightened determination. We invite all Freedom Riders present to join her now on the stage.

Continue Reading