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Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author Taylor Branch: ‘The Civil-Rights Movement Is About Our Future’

Self-government and the public trust are the pillars of democracy and were at the core of the civil-rights movement, said Taylor Branch, author of the civil-rights trilogy “America in the King Years” as well as “The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President.” He addressed DiversityInc’s audience of chief diversity officers and executives at our two-day diversity event in Washington, D.C.

“Diversity is the very essence of our humanity,” Branch said. “The civil-rights movement showed that as the world shrinks … our literacy across the lines that divide us isn’t just nice, it’s the key to our strength.”

Branch, who grew up in segregated Atlanta, wanted to be a surgeon and a football player; politics and race relations did not interest him at first. “The civil-rights movement grew up all around me,” he said. “Because it was so persistent, it changed the course of my life.”

The seeds of that change were planted by his father’s relationship with his best friend, a Black man who worked in his dry-cleaning business. Peter Mitchell, his father’s employee, came to work each day dressed in a suit as though “he was going to meet the Queen of England,” Branch said. “That was the safest way for a Black man to get across the city of Atlanta before dawn.”

Mitchell and Branch’s father were avid baseball fans and attended games for the Atlanta Crackers and the Black Crackers, Atlanta’s Black baseball team. While they enjoyed friendly banter on the way to the ballpark, they had to separate upon arrival. Mitchell sat in the “colored” section.

“My dad said, ‘I don’t like this.’ That was a radioactive statement, and I could feel it even as a child,” Branch explained.

Branch was 11 years old when Mitchell died. When he and his father attended Mitchell’s funeral, they were the only white people in the church. When the minister asked Branch’s father to speak, he broke down and cried in the pulpit. “Clearly, there had been a great love and respect between these two men and yet I’d never been to Peter’s home and didn’t know much about his family,” Branch said. “It began to eat away at me.”

Before the American Revolution, the ideas of self-government and the public trust were preposterous, Branch said, because the world was built around families and clans. But democracies that embrace that ideal emerged triumphant over time and still create the most sustainable governments and societies. Those ideals were dangerously dormant until the civil-rights movement. “No one had more self-government than a witness, a freedom rider, a sit-in person,” Branch explained. He spoke about Michael “Mickey” Schwerner, a Congress of Racial Equality field worker murdered in Mississippi in 1964, and of grade-school-aged Black girls marching in Alabama as the epitome of that witness. Their witness, he said, is what ended the terrorism of Black Americans, created a prosperous Sunbelt, allowed women to attend the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities—including his alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—and brought ramps into buildings for those who used wheelchairs. It was a global phenomenon.

“When they tore down the Berlin Wall, the people sang ‘We Shall Overcome,’” he said.

The ultimate lesson in the movement, Branch said, was that self-government and the public trust were not for one people or type of person and that those values provided guidance for companies as well as governments. “Self-government and the public trust demand the most from all of us, conservative and liberal alike,” he said.

5 Comments

  • Anonymous

    The Unitted States and the world would be much better places if there were more people like Mr. Branch, particularly if more White Americans could view Blacks from his perspective instead of the perspective of Hanity, Beck and Limbaugh.

  • Anonymous

    Great article. My brother had copies of those books. I’ve quite a bit of them – I think it’s time I bought new copies!

  • Anonymous

    I grew up in North Carolina where there were particularly close relations between Blacks and Whites during the growing seasons. Other times, I learned after turning 6 years old, and having to wait at a school bus pickup area, that my best friend and I had to get on separate buses. I didn’t get it until I got home after school and had it explained to me by my parents. I also lived to see my father, who was well respected by everyone, exert his rights when either White or Black crossed the line with him. I experienced the segregated rest rooms, schools, sit down lunch counters, and restaurants. However, I will always appreciate my Black elementary and secondary teachers who invested themselves into us. They were like another set of parents. Our parents worked in harmony with them to our benefit. They understood the inequality of our situation; they experienced it themselves. They taught us the we had to work at least twice as hard as the white students in order to be successful. We were not allowed to go to school in shorts and barefoot like the white students. We had to dress in more appropriate dress and had to wear shoes – even though at the time it seemed like it would be fun. Now we are at a new cross road where we must be concerned with each other. Whatever affect one will affect the other; we cannot isolate or insulate ourselves. In short, I agree with Taylor.

  • I was a child during Jim Crow. Even then it was hard to understand the “why”? My grandfather, a very large and powerful man, worked in the coal mines of West Virgina. There he provided guidance and support to the other miners. Yet, when he went to “town” he had to avert his eyes! Things have definitely changed, but the destination has not yet been reached. I knew people like Mr. Branch and wish there were more like him today.

    • I too grew up during Jim Crow and my grandfather was also a West Virgina coal miner. The dichotomy between the man he was in the mines and the man he became when we went to “town” [Welch] impacted me to this day.

      Condtions have changed for the better, yet more change is needed before we achieve the true diversity envisioned by Dr. King.

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