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.