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 universitiesincluding his alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hilland 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.

Latest News

multi race business woman

New Report Shows Significant Increase in Female and Black Representation in the Executive Boardroom

Diversity and inclusion appear to be successfully increasing among America’s largest and most successful companies. The finding comes from a new report conducted by executive recruiting firm Crist Kolder Associates as part of its review of DEI representation in executive offices. Ariel Zilber of the New York Post reported that…

Taco Bell

Taco Bell Creates Business School To Help Underrepresented Groups Become Franchise Owners

Taco Bell and the popular fast-food chain’s owner Yum! Brands have entered the DEI arena with a new business school designed to help people of all backgrounds — and people of color in particular — advance into restaurant ownership. Jonathan Maze of Restaurant Business reported that “a select group of…

LGBTQ dog tags

US Government Will Now Allow Veterans To Identify As Trans on Veteran Affairs Medical Records

In another giant leap forward for LGBTQ+ rights and equality in the military, the federal government has announced that military veterans can now officially identify as trans in their official medical records. Brody Levesque of the Los Angeles Blade reported that Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough has confirmed that veterans…

Comcast NBCUniversal’s NBCU Academy Partners With 13 New Academic Institutions

Originally published at corporate.comcast.com. Comcast NBCUniversal ranked No. 6 on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2021.   NBCU Academy, NBCU News Group’s multi-platform journalism training and development program, significantly expanded its reach to 30 institutions by adding 13 new partners, NBCU News Group Chairman Cesar Conde announced. The new…