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Taylor Branch: 'We Are Out of Phase With Our Own History'

Author of MLK, Civil Rights Trilogy Talks About the Movement's Results

November 19, 2013 – Award-winning author Taylor Branch said the United States is still reaping benefits from the results of the civil rights movement, but the spirit of public discourse has faltered somewhere along the way during his Nov. 18 visit to Georgetown.

Branch has authored a trilogy of books focusing on the life of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63.

Deriving Benefit

He joined in conversation with Georgetown scholar Paul Elie, author of Reinventing Bach (Union Books, 2013) and The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), as part of the Faith and Culture Lecture Series.

The Office of the President and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown sponsored the evening event.

“We are still deriving benefit from the freedoms that were set in motion by the sacrifices [during the civil rights movement], but … our public discourse is sadly atrophied in the sense that it doesn't really appreciate or see [that] era with any sense of balance whatsoever,” Branch told an intimate audience of about 100 in Riggs Library.  

The women’s rights, gay rights, senior citizens rights and disability rights movements grew out of the struggles during the fight for racial equality in the United States, he said, but there’s a lack of acknowledgement of that in current American politics.

“And in that sense, I think we are out of phase with our own history,” Branch adds. “I think most of it is because we are still very nervous to talk about race, to talk about race openly, with any sense of balance.”

The King Years

Branch and Elie also talked about Branch’s most recent work The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement, which was released earlier this year. 

The King Years provides a view of America during the turbulent, transformative 1960s through 18 historical moments selected by Branch.

“Dr. King was so incredibly balanced between the civic and the spiritual foundation for everything he did,” the author said. “He always had one foot in the scriptures and the other in the constitutional doctrine. I call it equal souls and equal votes. … He did it in such a way that he wasn't trying to suppress one or the other.”

'Effortless' Narratives

Elie, who is a senior fellow with the Berkley Center and director of the center’s American Pilgrimage Project, praised Branch’s ability to provide the world with a historical narrative of key moments in the civil rights movement.

“There are some books that are so effortless, so solid that we don't realize the effort that went into their making,” said Elie, who also writes a blog, Everything That Rises, that brings ideas, stories, images and beliefs from Georgetown’s Jesuit tradition together.

Lens of History

During opening remarks, Georgetown President John J. DeGioia noted that the evening’s discussion comes during a year that marks the 50th anniversary of many poignant events during America’s civil rights history – the Children’s March in Birmingham, Ala., March on Washington and bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham to name a few.

 

He also introduced Georgetown’s 2014 John Thompson Jr. Legacy of a Dream Award winner, Academy of Hope’s Lecester Johnson during the event. Johnson will receive her award during Georgetown’s Martin Luther King Day celebration at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts Jan. 20.

“In today's event, we think about culture through the lens of history,” DeGioia said, “what are the stories that we retell about our past, who are the people, what are the moments that resonate with us, that we carry with us in our engagement today.”

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