Taylor Branch considers civil rights movement in modern democracy

Author claims Americans have begun to misremember the civil rights movement

John Tompkins

Taylor Branch wasn’t born to write about race, but the civil rights movement changed that. Last Tuesday, Nov. 3, Branch came to Washington and Lee to speak about how events that occurred 50 years ago have impacted him and the American political system.

“I never planned to be a writer or be interested in race relations at all,” Branch said. “[The civil rights movement] was scary but it had such power that it changed the direction of my life’s interests against my will.”

He was born in Atlanta and grew up in the midst of the racial tensions that categorized the 1950s and 1960s. Since then, Branch has authored 11 books. “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63” won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989.

The central topic of Branch’s Lee Chapel speech was that America has begun to misremember the civil rights movement, specifically the significance of nonviolence in advancing democracy.

He said we have begun to think that guns are what keep us safe when we are out in public, not the common ties that cross racial divides and unite us as a people.

Diane Nash, a retired civil rights leader who helped organize the 1961 Freedom Rides across the South and 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches in Alabama, was a key figure in Branch’s talk.

According to Branch, Nash’s efforts to counter segregationist policies were crucial to the advancement and success of the civil rights movement.

“We are unconscious of the many, many blessings that have flowed from the risks that those nonviolent activists like Diane Nash took to rescue the promise of American citizenship even when they were denied the benefits of it,” Branch said.

He also made the point that the benefits of the movement were not limited to people of color. They extended to numerous other groups, including women and LGBT Americans.

“The civil rights movement let loose the greatest collateral waves of freedom in our history,” Branch said.

But Branch also said that when people refer to the dramatic period of social
change that occurred 50 years ago as one of “carpetbaggers and scalawags,” the importance of the movement as a whole is forgotten.

According to the author, Americans cannot just float along in this period of unprecedented Washington gridlock. In order for us to recapture our own patriotism, we must remember the true power of nonviolence and democracy. With it, civil rights leaders accomplished so much under nearly insurmountable circumstances only a few decades ago.

He said that in order to move forward as a country, current leaders such as presidential candidate Hillary Clinton should take the Constitution’s preamble to heart and ignite the optimism of the civil rights movement.

Students’ responses to Branch’s talk were generally positive.

“Taylor Branch provided meaningful insight into the unrecognized importance of race in American social movements,” Austin Benacquisto, ‘17, said.

At the conclusion of his speech, Branch had one primary message for listeners to take with them.

“I think we would all do well to take a black-led movement as the model for how to advance a democracy that was initiated by slaveholders.”