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


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.

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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: …

[2] An NBC Press Pass clip with @davidgregory on why MLK & the civil rights movement are “modern Founders” in US freedom: …

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

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

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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”.

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[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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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On May 4, 2010, news broke that Oprah Winfrey’s company is producing for HBO a 7-hour dramatic miniseries about the civil rights era based on my trilogy.  The stories announced that HBO recently brought prize-winning screenwriter Robert Schenkkan onto the project. I am very relieved that news of this miniseries is now public, even though I can’t say much about it.

Under HBO executive Kary Antholis, we have been developing outlines and script drafts for several years since my first meeting with HBO President Richard Plepler in 2006.  Our model is the 2008 miniseries on John and Abigail Adams, starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney.  Read full announcement >

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On September 28, the American Constitution Society in Washington presented a dialogue about voting rights between me and my old hometown friend, Rep. John Lewis (D. Ga.).  We reminisced about private moments from his famous march across Selma’s Pettus Bridge and its historic consequences in the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Lawyers from the audience asked sharp questions about present-day threats to overturn sections of that landmark law.

The second half of our program took a surprising turn.  John Lewis and I discussed whether modern celebrants of the Voting Rights Act have become too defensive.   Are we focused dangerously on the past, without a forward vision?  Ten years after a Constitutional crisis in the election of 2000, we still have a hodge-podge system of paper ballots, registration barriers, and partisan election-day officials.  Also, we still have an outdated Electoral College, incumbent-driven scrimmages for re-apportionment in most states, and a national capital without voting representation in Congress.

Should we be looking ahead toward a refined election process that counts every vote fairly and equally?

If so, John and I agreed that the problems are very complex.  Ideal solutions are by no means obvious.  Election reform, like all significant changes, faces a variety of political and Constitutional hurdles.   It might take years just to design the best approach to each of the problems.  To start somewhere, we toyed with the idea of a “We the People” task force to work on the many components of an omnibus reform package.

Some specialists among the ACS lawyers responded positively, but no organization has stepped forward as a catalyst.  What do you think?  Is this a worthy task?  Who should lead?  Would it unwisely divert effort from defending the VRA of 1965?

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SNCC Conference – Patrick Jones

On April 15-18, I spent four glorious days at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina with members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. There were nonstop songs, memories, speeches, workshops, arguments, and panel discussions amid copious hugs and laughter. More than a thousand grizzled veterans of the civil rights movement attended. Many introduced their children and grandchildren. The conference received a good bit of news coverage but deserved far more. In their youth, SNCC workers spearheaded lasting historical change from the sit-ins and Freedom Rides through the black power movement.

Here are some links, beginning with lush photographs by Patrick Jones:

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