A Conversation with Taylor Branch
In At Canaan's Edge you described a moment during the Selma demonstrations in March of 1965, when Johnson goes before Congress to push for the Voting Rights Act and he uses the phrase "We shall overcome." How did that come about?
Well, they talked about it themselves on the phone. What Johnson said was, "I could never have gone before Congress if you hadn't changed public opinion. Even though I didn't want you to at the time, I thought it was premature; you were right and I could have never done that I you hadn't gone down there [to Selma] and gotten the whole country aroused, and gotten reporters from all around the world down there."
This productive dynamic between a citizen's movement and political action seems to have broken down in recent years. What happened?
Well, we're still in a large historical cycle where, depending on how charitable you are, we're either digesting the changes put forward by the civil rights movement or reacting against them. The dominant idea in national politics ever since then has been that government is bad. Everyone has run in one way or another against Washington, cussing it. Bush even pronounces it like a curse word, "Warshington." It's kind of atrophied the public sphere. And in that sense it's not surprising that citizen's movements are kind of debased, there's not that kind of optimism.
The watchword of citizen politics was "movement." What is a movement? It's people taking risks and taking responsibility and being stunned to find that other people respond to their leaps in the dark and have the same concerns and that things grow and they get bigger until, when the Selma march finally got into Montgomery, people could literally feel history changing. And that's what a movement is, it connects small inspiration with great historical change. And it's a very complex process.
Nowadays I think the watchword in politics is "spin," which has no movement at all. Basically we think of our politics, it has no inherent value or impact on people's lives at all, it's just an entertainment game for people who play it, and spin is just something that you put on something's that going 'round and 'round and signifying nothing. So we've gone from movement to spin.
King talked in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech about the scourges of racial injustice, poverty and war. Could you talk a bit about how King saw these things as related?
All three are violence in the flesh and violence of spirit. And nonviolence by contrast is about common humanity, and implicit in that is the idea of equal citizenship. For King, nonviolence was at the heart of the democratic process in a very elemental sense: democracy is built on votes, it's a system of votes, and a vote is nothing but a piece of nonviolence. That's all it is. And if we really believe that nonviolence is the basis of our power, and that votes are more powerful than armies, and that that idea is not just window-dressing, then we should be studying and devoted to and applying the notion of nonviolence in all of these different spheres.
The sad thing is that that speech is pretty much ignored, just like nonviolence is ignored, and just like the antiwar side of King is de-emphasized. Because I think we're still in era that wants to pigeonhole Dr. King as somebody who's about "I have a dream" and the end of segregation. Because people are more comfortable with that, they want to see another race leader, not a democratic force.
I call him a modern founder, I think he was basically about the same work and the same purpose and the same historical function that Jefferson, Madison and later Lincoln and the suffragettes and other people who have defined American democracy were about. And that Nobel Prize speech is on that theme. And I think it's not just sad--I think it's dangerous and a waste not to pay more attention to it. But the reason that we don't, I'm afraid, is that we're still trapped in thinking of him only as a leader on the race issue, which makes him less challenging. You don't have to take him seriously; you just pat him on the head every Martin Luther King Day.