|The Sunday Gazette|
Arts & Entertainment
03/26/06 Page G?
An Interview with Taylor Branch
When I spoke to author Taylor Branch he was in the middle of a West Coast book tour. “I’m in San Francisco,” he said in the phone interview. “I’ve just come from Seattle, and I forget where I’m going tomorrow, but I’m enjoying it. I’ve spent the last eight years living like a hermit so a book tour is fun.”
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author has recently completed his three-book epic chronicling the history of the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King’s heroic role at the center of it.
“I didn’t have a clue that this project would take over twenty-four years,” said Branch. “In December of 1981 I signed on for a three year project to write a book about America in the King years. I wanted it to be a narrative history of the United States from the 1950’s through the late 1960’s.”
Two years into the project he realized it had become a major undertaking. “My original manuscript for the first book ‘Parting the Waters’ was over 1900 pages, and I had only gotten up to 1963.”
His publisher decided to extend the advance, and Branch realized his book would actually be a trilogy. “The publisher said that books about race relations didn’t sell, but they gave me the go ahead anyway,” he said.
That first book not only became a best seller, but it also won the author a Pulitzer Prize. Nine years later he published the second volume “Pillar of Fire,’ which covered the years 1963 through 1965.
His latest book “At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965-1968 (771 pages, $35, Simon and Schuster) has just been published. On Tuesday he will read from the book at 8 pm in the Clark Auditorium of the New York State Museum located in the Cultural Education Center in Albany. Earlier that day, he will present an informal seminar at 4:15 at the Assembly Hall in the uptown university’s Campus Center.
“I have to admit that I’ve never gotten tired of this subject,” said Branch. “When I started this project I thought I knew quite a bit about American history, especially this time period, but I kept discovering new things.”
As a white boy growing up in Atlanta in the 1950’s, Branch was aware of the civil rights movement, but it seemed to be something happening far away from him.
“I didn’t grow up in a political family,” he said. “My dad ran a dry cleaning plant, a small business, and he rarely talked about politics. He was from south Georgia, and his attitude about racism was that you couldn’t change it, and it was dangerous to get involved in the civil rights movement. All his employees were blacks, and he treated them fairly, but we were one of those families that just seemed to go along with segregation as a way of life.”
In the 1960’s Branch became fascinated with the movement and especially with Martin Luther King. “He died when I was a senior at the University of North Carolina, and his death had a great impact on me, but I didn’t really get involved with the movement till I began writing these books.”
Initially he had a hard time getting past just the standard interview with many of the civil rights pioneers. “I don’t think they trusted me,” said Branch. “They didn’t realize how serious I was about wanting to get the story right. I didn’t want my books to only show the drama. Excellent film documentaries like ‘Eyes on the Prize’ do that well. I wanted my books to show what was going on behind the scenes, to explore who these people really were.”
Even Coretta Scott King was worried about the books. “In my first meeting with her she wanted to know what we were doing,” said Branch. “She told me how difficult it was for her when people wrote about her, and she was always worried about books that would dismiss the movement and her husband’s legacy, but still she was always gracious, and she always encouraged me to continue my work.”
His new book, which goes almost day-by-day through the last three years of King’s life, also chronicles much of Lyndon Johnson’s demise as the president.
“It’s amazing how connected the two were,” said Branch. “The first Marine combat units landed in Vietnam within hours of the first march over the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma. Johnson’s presidency was destroyed over Vietnam and he announced that he wouldn’t run for re-election the same week King was assassinated.”
Branch’s book shows how Johnson and King both struggled to stay in power. “Kennedy charmed King,” said Branch, “but Johnson was more of a collaborator with King. There was some real mutual respect between the two of them. King often criticized the war, but he never criticized Johnson’s handling of the war. He sensed that Johnson was agonizing over the war.”
As part of his research Branch listened to many of the audiotapes from the Johnson presidency and many of the wiretaps of King conducted by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI.
“Hoover had an intense racial hatred of King,” said Branch. “It’s hard to find anything admirable about him. He had the ability to play people against each other, and for fifty years he was in a position of secret authority with no accountability, so he figured he could do anything. I found it interesting that LBJ was steadfast in trying to shut down the FBI’s secret surveillance of King.”
This book documents the failure of the Johnson presidency, and the struggles that King faced to keep the movement going. “After the march from Selma to Montgomery, King struggled a bit about where to go,” said Branch. “The movement began to unravel a bit. It wasn’t as unified. Some were growing tired of the theme of non-violence. The Black Power movement was attracting many younger people.”
If Branch could ask King one question it would be why he chose the Poor People’s campaign in 1967 against the advice of many of his friends who wanted him to continue his civil rights work in the South. “He also could have devoted much of his time to protesting the war,” said Branch, “but instead he made a deliberate choice to follow the poor people’s campaign.”
The book does an excellent job of portraying King as a human being with flaws who also worked hard to achieve remarkable things. “I don’t want to mythologize King,” said Branch. “Like most of us he was a complicated man.”
Branch feels King should be recognized not only for his civil rights work, but also for bringing the South out of its obscurity. “By creating better equality in the South King helped usher in the two party political system which totally changed the region’s structure. It’s now the sunbelt South with many professional sports teams and a booming economy.”
Branch also feels the civil rights movement is one of the best examples of what a democracy is all about. “It took citizenship seriously,” said Branch.
He hopes to work with Hollywood to make some films from these books. “A film will reach so many more people,” said Branch. “I’m also thinking about writing a shorter book, maybe a memoir, about my eight years when I kept a secret diary for Bill Clinton when he was in office.”