By MEG SMITH
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch discussed his inspiration for his latest book, Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-1965, as part of the Center for the Book's "Books and Beyond" public lecture series.
Pillar of Fire, the second volume in a planned trilogy on the civil rights movement, is based on 2,000 interviews, FBI wiretap recordings and White House transcripts. His first volume, Parting the Waters, America in the King Years, 1954-1963, won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for history.
"The books written about the civil rights movement were so analytical that I couldn't feel the power of the little children marching in Birmingham," he said.
Both Parting the Waters and Pillar of Fire have won critical acclaim for retelling the history of the civil rights movement as a vivid, interwoven story with many actors, some of whom were unknown to most readers.
"What I wanted to do was put on the same page people and dramas you don't normally see together," Mr. Branch told the Boston Globe in March. "You read a book about [Lyndon] Johnson, and there's nothing about Malcolm X. You read a book about Malcolm, there's nothing about Bob Moses of Mississippi."
Bob Moses, a relatively unknown member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), had a Harvard degree and a string of arrests and police beatings for recruiting black voters in the South. He surprised black and white Mississippians alike by walking to court, still bleeding, to file assault charges against the cousin of a local sheriff. The prosecutor told him to flee for his life before the jury brought in the "customary" verdict of acquittal.
Mr. Branch told the June 18 Mumford Room audience that to find unsung figures such as Moses he had to "find people [from that era] and pick up signs from them about who they thought was an inspiration."
The part-time Clinton speech-writer said he set out to chronicle historical events in a way that keeps them alive to people today.
"To look at the details of history, you need two things," he said. "You need to find the voices of prophetic justice," by overlooking politicized and analytical rhetoric to find people who speak from the heart. "And you need the sensibilities of women," to understand the subtleties of people's memories and feelings.
While researching the critically praised volumes in the mid-1980s, Mr. Branch, who lives in Baltimore and teaches a civil rights course at Goucher College, was a frequent visitor to the Library's Manuscript Reading Room for access to the Reinhold Niebuhr papers, which document the educator's efforts to apply religious and ethical standards to race relations.
It is the emotional quality of the movement that faces the danger of being written out of the history of the era, Mr. Branch said.
"What I miss most is the language of universal hope and universal purpose building something larger" than the individuals who participated in the movement, he told the audience of staffers and members of the public.
Mr. Branch labeled the period of the civil rights movement "the King years" because the Rev. Martin Luther King's speeches were the most recognized source of hope and understanding for the nation then and now.
"Dr. King's language was distinctive because he had one foot in the Declaration of Independence and another foot in the Scriptures," Mr. Branch said. "We need that kind of two-footed resurrection of the language now."
Mr. Branch belatedly entered the civil rights movement in 1969, after many milestones had already taken place. Hired by freedom fighter and future Washington insider Vernon Jordan to register black voters in Georgia, Mr. Branch began keeping a diary that would eventually become an ambitious chronicle of King and the civil rights movement.
His diary, which provided the foundation for his books, attempted "to capture the spirit of the movement before it died," he said. "The civil rights movement is such a great inspiration to people all around the world, and yet Americans are growing numb to [its] power."
Stephen E. James, chief of the Humanities and Social Sciences Division, which co-sponsored the event, praised Mr. Branch for preserving the passion and moving details of the era. "When I read these books I thought I would read something that would validate my memories, but they did more than that: They placed my memories in a proper context," he said.
The division chief told the capacity crowd that he attended King's alma mater, Morehouse College, in Atlanta, and grew up in Montgomery, Ala., where he was baptized by King in the historic Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. By capturing so many details, Mr. Branch "got down into the reality of Montgomery," Mr. James said.
According to Mr. Branch, the myth that racism has a simple origin has tainted the history of the movement. Education, which is often used to combat racism, can also be used to reinforce racist ideas. For example, the Atlanta native said he was taught in school that the Ku Klux Klan "redeemed" the South.
"It is a common notion that hatred derives from ignorance," he said. "Dr. King said this is not so. Education is a powerful tool, but education often increases pride. Pride is more the enemy here, and pride is what creates this tribal warfare.
"I was always skeptical of the Southern way of thinking," Mr. Branch said of growing up in Georgia, "I think the experience of seeing the civil rights movement threw everything into question. It was a very powerful antidote" to the racist messages in school books and college texts of the 1950s and '60s.
The final volume in Mr. Branch's civil rights trilogy, At Canaan's Edge, is expected after 2000.
Ms. Smith is an intern in the Public Affairs Office.