A Conversation with Taylor Branch

A Conversation with Taylor Branch

MLK’s biographer on presidents, politics, racial injustice, poverty and war.


Historian Taylor Branch spent twenty-four years writing the trilogy, America in the King Years: Parting the Waters (1988), Pillar of Fire (1998) and At Canaan’s Edge (2006). Lately, he’s been culling and editing transcripts of his extensive conversations with Bill Clinton during his time in office. He plans to release a book of these conversations at the end of 2008. He took time last week to answer some questions about Presidents, politics and Martin Luther King Jr.

You relied on tapes of presidential conversations for the America in the King Years trilogy. After Nixon, Presidents stopped taping their conversations. What effect do you think this will have on the writing of presidential histories and American history in general?

It’s a very interesting and important issue that I hope people outside the historical profession will take an interest in. Every President from Roosevelt to Nixon taped, and Nixon taped more than all the other Presidents put together, and very few of those have been transcribed. That’s the reason it takes such a long time for them to be absorbed first by historians. The process of using them and incorporating them is only just starting.

History’s always struggling a little bit with where do you get your material and how does the nature of your material affect the range of interpretation that’s available. Historians for centuries relied on correspondence and letters and that sort of thing, and then we had a century that went from telephone to e-mail in one century and kind of wiped out letters. So it kind of raises the question where are you going to get your materials, and how are you going to make it real.

If I could be a pope, a legal pope, or a Supreme Court justice, I would tape-record all the Presidents’ conversations to this day with some sort of iron-clad rule that they be secret for ten or fifteen years. But nobody trusts that we’d be able to keep ourselves away from them. We’d figure out some way that we needed to know what George Bush said, or whoever the next President is. So nobody’s been able to do it. But that’s a tragedy for history.

What are some of the lessons of the civil rights movement that you think have gone unheeded or unlearned?

Have you got a second? [laughs] Well, I would say at the most basic level that the civil rights era was a great victory for democratization in the United States, in race relations but also far beyond race relations. It also liberated the economy of the white South and de-stigmatized white Southerners and politicians and set in motion the modern women’s movement. I think that the civil rights movement was a democratizing force that’s still being felt around the world. They sang “We Shall Overcome” at the Berlin Wall when it came down; Tiananmen Square was modeled on a ’60s sit-in. So it went all the way around the world.

This movement set all those things in motion, but how it happened and why it happened and what the balance was between a people’s movement and political process is not studied and debated. It would affect how we should approach similar issues today. I mean, we were trying to create democracy in Iraq, but nobody asked whether there were any lessons in the civil rights movement about how you create democracy. The model we used in Iraq was Vietnam.

Nonviolence, I would argue, was the most powerful and consequential doctrine to come out of the movement, but it was also the first to become passé. It hasn’t really been discussed or pursued in movement circles or intellectual circles or liberal circles ever since. These are rich dilemmas and there’s a lot to argue about, about what’s consequential and what’s not. But I don’t really think we’ve taken much interest in it. People don’t see this as an era rich in lessons, and consequently I think we’re still fighting the issues of the civil rights movement and of the 1960s in our politics, but we’re doing it in a very superficial way.

Just like this debate over the silly little thing that happened between Obama and Hillary over King and Johnson and their contributions to the Civil Rights Act. I mean, that’s the beginning of a very rich conversation about how you refine democracy. What are the relative roles of a citizen’s movement and a responsive government in refining and really even working miracles to get the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act? And rather than begin that conversation, people were only interested in who might have insulted whom by not giving proper credit on a larger issue that nobody expressed any interest in.

How could the public debate over Hillary Clinton’s comments have played out in a way that was constructive and did heed the lessons of the civil rights movement?

Well, first of all, what role a President envisions for public opinion tells you a lot about the President. Will they be responsive to public opinion? Classically Roosevelt told the labor unions: “Make me do it, I wanna do this but there’s not enough public support right now, it would be suicidal.” In general, how a President expects to lead in response to or defiance of public opinion, those issues it seems to me are really important in terms of how they see the relationship between government and public opinion.

One of the great weaknesses of Bush in my view is that he never cultivates public opinion to the degree that the Administration has been very secretive and relied on kind of an executive model. His second inaugural had a democratizing message, which was quite progressive in language; it had echoes of Martin Luther King. But he governs like Julius Caesar: in secret.

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.

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