Martin Luther King Jr. and the history of the civil rights era continue to inspire those fighting for equal rights today. But Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch argues that while King’s name is invoked frequently, few understand the principles he championed or the real history of race relations in America. We explore the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, and his relationship to the nation’s capital.
- Taylor Branch Historian; author, "The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement"
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. We wanted to conclude this hour with a look at the ways we remember and misremember the man who we celebrate today, Martin Luther King, Jr. It's been three decades since President Ronald Reagan signed the King holiday bill into law and it's been 14 years since South Carolina became the last state in the union to recognize it as a paid holiday.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIToday, pretty much everyone across the political spectrum celebrates Dr. King in one way or another, but some worry that the more often we hear his name, the more we mythologize him and invoke him in our present day arguments, the less we actually remember what the civil rights movement was about. Last year, we spoke with Pulitzer Prize winning author Taylor Branch.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe's the author of the book "The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement" and a trilogy of books chronicling the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., including the award winning book "Parting the Waters." Taylor Branch, good to see you again.
MR. TAYLOR BRANCHGood to see you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAs we said, the media invoked Martin Luther King insensately around the holiday that bears his name. What do you think, however, of the substance of what is said at that time?
BRANCHWell, actually from long experience I can tell you there's quite a bit of panic a couple of days before Martin Luther King Day because a lot of people in the media bang their foreheads and say, oh, oh, we've got this holiday that nobody pays that much attention to. Some of this is inevitable. Any iconic figure -- George Washington, you know, couldn't tell a lie and chopped down the cherry tree and all that sort of thing.
BRANCHSome of that's true of Martin Luther King too but he is a victim in our memory of a much larger phenomenon, which is that Americans aggressively misremember the history of race. To our own peril we become first aggressively fearful of it and then later unconsciously fearful of it, such that we can really change the whole landscape of politics in a way that is fundamentally out of step with where it ought to be. We did that with the Civil War for a hundred years. We misremembered it to the point that I was brought up being taught that it had nothing to do with slavery.
BRANCHWe turned the whole history upside down to become comfortable. And to some degree we're doing the same thing with Dr. King and the civil rights era. If you were saying that even people who are invoking his name in support of gun rights, that's how deep and pervasive the misperception is.
NNAMDIDr. King believed that the government could play and indeed must play a strong role to address the injustices of racism and poverty in this country, but you say that today, it's an uphill battle for people to see government as a force for good.
BRANCHOh, absolutely. I think part of the reaction to the civil rights era has been to make government the bad, resented and feared as an agency up to no good. That has been really the dominant attitude -- political idea ever since the civil rights era, which is one reason that liberals can scarcely mention their name and that conservatives are always calling themselves conservative without saying what it means.
BRANCHReally what it means is an attitude of hostility toward the promise of government that one day we will wake up and realize is totally out of phase and out of balance with what's actually occurred in the last 50 years.
NNAMDIYou're listening to an interview with Taylor Branch conducted last January when Barack Obama was about to take the oath of office for his second term. And during his second inaugural address, Obama linked the black struggle for civil rights with the struggle for gay rights and immigrant rights. I asked Taylor Branch whether he thought we have a tendency to forget the power of struggles past.
BRANCHWe forget it. Some of us are afraid to claim it. And others of us aggressively misremember it because we're fearful of it. To me the best way of thinking of that is that it's only 50 years ago this month -- 50 years ago before Barack Obama's second inauguration. Fifty years ago he wasn't two years old yet and George Wallace took the oath of office in Alabama, famously pledging segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.
BRANCHHe failed and at that time this country was segregated in ways that would astonish young people today. Black people -- it was against the law for them to go into libraries. But the segregation went far beyond race. It was all through the southern states. It was all through the north. But women couldn't go to Yale. Women were excluded from most professions.
BRANCHAnd in many respects, these last 50 years have remade the world in a whole panoply of ways that we truly value. Even conservatives today value. A conservative wants their daughter to be able to go to West Point, which was inconceivable back then. All these things were set in motion once America dealt with race. And yet George Wallace invented -- he couldn't defend segregation but he was an ingenious politician who invented a lot of the language that's shockingly modern about how pointy headed bureaucrats were telling people where to go to school and how to run their business in cahoots with a bias media's racial agenda to concentrate all power in the central government in Washington.
BRANCHAnd he denounced that and that is the language that we still live with today. And it keeps us out of phase and out of balance with the real reality of the promise of American freedom.
NNAMDIOur guest is Taylor Branch. He is the author of "The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement." He's also the author of a trilogy of books chronicling the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., including the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Parting the Waters." If you'd like to join the conversation you can call us at 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. What's fascinating to me about what you have been saying recently is that you're more successful when you talk to elementary school kids about Martin Luther King, Jr. than when you talk to college students or adults. Why is that?
BRANCHBecause elementary school kids find the real issues of the civil rights era in their simplest terms about what is fair. That is the world they live in. And if it's not fair that somebody gets put in the front of the line, they can understand the Montgomery bus boycott. They can understand segregation because it's about what's fair and what's not fair, what's just and what's not just. The rest of us, the older people are imprisoned in myths about private property and overbearing government and all kinds of abstractions about state's rights that protect us from the real child's question that Dr. King was struggling with. What is fair and how do we really see each other fully as people?
BRANCHAnd in that sense, the changes that were set in motion by the civil rights movement have enriched us all in ways that maybe you have to be a child to see.
NNAMDIYou know, one of the things that a lot of us Washingtonians don't know is how the authorities in Washington prepared for the March on Washington, at which that famous I Have A Dream speech was made. It was as if the city was preparing for war. Can you talk a little bit about that and about another part of the legacy of the civil rights movement that we don't pay enough attention to, and that is the fear that was around the nation? And especially around civil rights activists who had to overcome that fear in order to do what they did.
BRANCHAnd they had to march through it and they had to step out of their comfort zone and into the unknown all the time. And we suppress these memories in a way to make it more comfortable to us, the memory. We -- everybody remembers the March on Washington as a time when we were all nice to one another. But what we don't remember is that before the March on Washington the federal government and the District of Columbia cancelled liquor sales for the first time since prohibition.
BRANCHThey stockpiled plasma, they had paratroopers on alert all around the city, and the detail that gives the flavor of it the most to me is that major league baseball, a week before the march, canceled the scheduled Washington Senators game here at home, not only on the day of the march, but on the day after the march.
BRANCHThey did -- nowadays, you know, you play the Super Bowl in the middle of a hurricane. You don't cancel for anything. They played football after the Kennedy assassination. But here where racial fear was involved, the courts were ready to deal -- they made plans to deal with mass arrestees all night. So great was the assumption, so powerful, that you couldn't have large numbers of black people come into the nation's capital without some sort of conflagration.
BRANCHAnd in a way, the media, and the public media, overreacted to how idyllic the march on Washington was, in part to take the egg off their face for how wrong they had been about what it was going to be like. They said -- and my friend Bayard Rustin who's quoted in a lot of my books said that they even forgave all of his problems. He was the bastard son, a draft dodger, a homosexual, everything, but he was the organizer of the march on Washington and immediately after it happened, and it turned out well, the media said that he was great.
BRANCHThey put him on the cover of Life magazine, and he says, yes, don't worry that we got all the predictions wrong because this genius Bayard Rustin put port-a-potties all along the mall and made all those terrible negroes nice enough for tea. And so he was poking fun at how we deceive ourselves across racial fears.
NNAMDITalk a little bit about Dr. King's relationship with the Kennedys, both the administration of President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy.
BRANCHWell, I think his relationship with Robert Kennedy is a wonderful story. It has -- both characters changed a lot. Bobby Kennedy was the Kennedy brother who was more tactile, less cool and aloof. He did terrible things to Dr. King and to the movement. He tacitly agreed to allowed the Freedom Writers to be put in prison in Mississippi, made a bargain with the governor. But he felt so bad about it that he would then turn around and do something to make it up to the Freedom Writers.
BRANCHAnd he was -- he learned and grew in race by trial and error in a very hands-on way, until by the end of his career he is one of the few politicians -- I argue that he and Lyndon Johnson are unique amount politicians because out of their personal experience they used race as a way of growing and growing in their belief and commitment to be comfortable such that Bobby Kennedy, by the end of his career was, you know, breaking bread with Cesar Chavez and walking into sharecroppers' shacks with malnutritioned little black kids on his knee talking about hunger and food.
BRANCHAnd Lyndon Johnson, the president who said we shall overcome, before he said that, he welcomed the marchers at Selma saying that they were just like Appomattox and they were just like Concord in the sense that they were leaders on the frontier of American freedom. He was welcoming them not just into the heart of what American freedom is about, but into a leadership position, and this country still doesn't do that. We still unconsciously want to pat the movement on the head for addressing problems of where black people sat on the bus that are quaint and long forgotten.
NNAMDIWell, one of the fascinating, and I guess ironic, things about the King and civil rights movement relationship with Washington is that we know a great deal about what was said in phone calls and other communication between civil rights activists because of the FBI surveillance of them.
BRANCHWell, it's a paradoxical relationship for me as a historian that the FBI did a lot of terrible things in the name of freedom that it still hadn't been held accountable for fully that nobody knew when he was alive, and yet those same wiretaps and everything are a boon to historians. I have a rule of thumb that the lower in the FBI the document originated, the more likely it is to be accurate, but the higher it went up, the more likely it was to be used for political purpose and often so selectively used that you couldn't even recognize it. But yes, they're invaluable.
NNAMDIMartin Luther King gave one of his last sermons at the Washington National Cathedral in 1968. I'd like to take a little bit of a listen to that.
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.The one thing that we usually remembered about the story is that Rip Van Winkle slept 20 years, but there is another point in that little story that is almost always completely overlooked. It was the sign when Rip Van Winkle went up in the mountain, the sign had a picture of King George III of England. When he came down 20 years later, the sign had a picture of George Washington, the first president of the United States. And this reveals to us the most striking thing about the story of Rip Van Winkle is not merely that Rip slept 20 years, but that he slept through a revolution.
NNAMDIThe point he was making?
BRANCHThe point he was making was that he was challenging the people in that generation not to sleep through a revolution again, because he was saying there's a revolution going on in race relations. It's part of a worldwide revolution in freedom, and that we have in our literature, Rip Van Winkle instances where people would sleep through something as big as the American revolution, and Rip Van Winkle would be stunned that King George in England was different from George Washington.
BRANCHAnd I find that speech quite poignant. That was one of Dr. King's standard sermons, but what I'm trying to say in this little volume here to collect high salient moments from the civil rights era in less than 200 pages, is that we're in danger of sleeping through it too because if you look back 50 years to a time when we were totally segregated by sex, by race, and everything, what we've accomplished in those 50 years, if we weren't asleep to it, ought to make us very optimistic that if we have the same discipline, the same willingness to reach and stretch beyond our comfort zone that they had in the civil rights era, we can tackle severe problems today and that we ought not to be cynical about the promise of government, and we certainly ought not to be saying that what keeps us free is the shotgun in our closet, because that's not -- there's no evidence of that in history.
BRANCHIt's all paranoia and resentment. It's this attitude of hostility that is really out of place with reality and blinds us to the fact that democracy is about building ties across the lines that divide us and that's where our true strength lies. And in that sense the civil rights movement is inspirational.
NNAMDIThe book Taylor Branch is referring to is his latest, "The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement." That speech that we played a clip of at the National Cathedral was a speech by Martin Luther King about poverty. It was the cause that he was focused on when he was assassinated in 1968, but which we often overlook. I'd like to raise a couple of aspects about that. Can you talk a little bit about how he saw poverty in terms of the civil rights struggle?
BRANCHHe saw poverty in terms of the civil rights struggle, and also in terms of nonviolence, which is -- and he expressed it very well in his overlooked speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in which he said that nonviolence was emerging as a tool that deserved serious thought at institutions of higher learning as it applied to all the problems in what he called the triple scourge of mankind, racism, war, and poverty, which he defined as violence of the flesh and violence of the spirit.
BRANCHAnd he said that nonviolence had proved its efficacy against a lot of people's fears in a wide range of problems by no means excluding the relations between nations. And he said this is a novel idea, and that it ought to be studied, and, therefore, he did wind up in Memphis and preparing for a poor people's campaign at the end of his career.
NNAMDIWell, he was preparing for that national poor people's campaign, but one of the things I found from reading this latest book is that when he was in Memphis representing or standing up for those sanitation workers, it was in a way a low point in his civil rights career. He was isolated at the time. He felt alone, and here he was this international and national figure representing a group of sanitation workers in a small southern city.
BRANCHAbsolutely right, Kojo. And people, again, it's part of sanitizing his memory that we don't really want to recall how he was marginalized toward the end of his career, partly from the left, from his own supporters who were tired of nonviolence...
NNAMDIThe black power movement was...
BRANCH...and thought it was hipper and that if we go this far by nonviolence, think what we could do if we picked up a rifle and, you know, knocked over a few banks and that sort of thing, which was a short-lived idea, but it was very, very popular. Nobody was paying any attention to him, and, of course, J. Edgar Hoover was doing everything he could to demonize Dr. King from the other side. So he was pretty lonely there when he was down in Memphis, but that was part of his -- he was -- that was part of his career.
BRANCHIt was prophetic. He was not a politician. He was not about what was always popular. He was about what was right, even when it isolated him in the end. And he said he went to Memphis because he could not refuse the example that his friend Jim Lawson, who was a teacher of nonviolence, called him up and said two sanitation workers in Memphis were crushed to death in the back of a garbage truck because the rules in the city of Memphis would not allow black sanitation workers to seek shelter in rain storms in white neighborhoods, and the only place they could get out of a gully washer was in the back of a garbage truck which accidentally malfunctioned and crushed them.
BRANCHIf you see the symbols from that protest that say I am a man, that's because the garbage workers went on strike saying, I'm a man, not a piece of garbage. And Dr. King said I have to support these people. So in some senses, it's prophetic, and in a way, sad but if we make something good out of it, that he followed his example right to the end true to his beliefs there in Memphis.
NNAMDITaylor Branch is the author of "The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement," the author of a trilogy of books chronicling the life of Martin Luther King, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Parting the Waters." Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.