12:00 P.M. EDT
THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MODERATOR: It’s hard to be a speaker immediately after Martin Luther King, but it’s my pleasure to introduce Taylor Branch, historian, author, Pulitzer Prize winner for the “America in the King Years” trilogy. Taylor?
MR. BRANCH: Thank you very much. Thank you. You’ve watched the film. I’m coming down here every day since last Thursday through Wednesday for various events marking the 50th anniversary of this event. I’ve spent most of my professional career studying it. I’m just going to say a few things about how I got here and then take your questions, because a global event like this, and you coming from all over the globe, I have no idea what about this vast subject might interest you.
I should say first of all I was not there, I was in high school at summer football camp in south Georgia, a very, very segregated part of the United States and the old South. My high school football program went to Rutledge, Georgia when it was about 120 degrees for the last two weeks of every August. That’s where I was at two-a-day practices; I was miserable. I was 16 years old.
I do count it as a milestone in my life, though, what happened earlier that year in May when the – Dr. King’s supreme risk, the greatest, stupefying risk of his career, was to – when his Birmingham movement was on the verge of failure, he authorized his movement – because they had no more jail volunteers. They were too frightened to go to jail. He had been there and he’d written his famous letter from Birmingham jail, which was not famous, it got no news, it was dismissed as another long-winded King sermon. But he took the stupefying risk to allow not only high school students but elementary school students to march in the place of depleted adults. And instead of getting 16 adults, they had a thousand kids, as young as six years old, march to jail on May 2nd, 1963. And on May 3rd, the authorities came back fearing that there might be even more children, and there were, and to intimidate them they brought out dogs and afire hoses and put them on these kids who kept marching.
That was the moment that broke people’s emotional resistance to the Civil Rights Movement around the United States. In many respects it is the critically unexamined moment that changed the partisan structure of American politics and the power base of the Civil Rights Movement, and everything else all followed from what happened to those little kids – mostly girls – who were marching.
It’s unexamined to this day for reasons that you can ask anybody. My best guess is because it’s too embarrassing to most adult Americans that the balance of power turned on the witness of small school children. So nothing happened. I mention this not just for the point of historical accuracy but from the standpoint of personal witness. That is what finally broke down my resistance to this. I had grown up in Atlanta, my dad was a dry cleaner in segregated Atlanta. Our family had no interest in politics. I was interested in football – that’s why I was at football camp – chasing girls, and becoming a surgeon. But over the course of my – all my formative years, this movement started – it was an accident, really, of history that I was in first grade the year of the Brown decision. Here I am my junior year in high school when those dogs and fire hoses are loosed, and before the march on Washington I was about to start my senior year in high school. And I was a senior in college in 1968 when Dr. King was killed.
So for my whole formative years from the first grade through my senior year in college, this movement was relentless. It frightened everybody, including me, and most black people. Most black people who say they were at the center of the Civil Rights Movement today are lying. They weren’t. It was a frightening movement to everybody. There were a lot of people there at that march, but that’s a tiny fraction of the United States.
But it was relentless in addressing the most fundamental principles of American civic and spiritual life, which is one of the things that makes Dr. King most distinctive. He had a remarkable balance putting one foot in the scriptures and the other foot in the constitutional promise of equal votes and equal souls, and the movement kept going not only on speeches – speeches would have never done it – it was amplified by sacrifice. He was the only adult leader who recognized that the sit-ins by the college students were not a prank and they weren’t silly, that they were a breakthrough because you can’t boycott places that exclude you, and that there’s some divisions in human nature that are so entrenched that oratory alone, even from a great orator, is not enough. You need to amplify it with sacrifice. So that’s what the movement did.
And it wore me down to the point that by the time I got to college a little over a year after this march, I was losing interest in my pre-med courses and shortly after that, in fact during the Selma march in 1965 when I was a sophomore, I took my baby shark that I was dissecting in pre-med class up onto the roof of my dormitory and surrounded it in a big necklace of cherry bombs and dropped all my pre-med courses and started taking history courses, because this movement had changed the direction of my interest against my will. I hadn’t been looking for it to happen.
And I got into journalism and then later into books, and what I always wanted to know, for personal reasons, is where this movement came from, that had such an effect on me, that I wasn’t looking for. And ultimately decided that I would – the best way to find out was to write it – myself a narrative history with one rule: No labels of analysis that, in many respects in my view, are fool’s gold in this. My view is that in cross-racial and cross-ethnic studies, where we’re trying to figure out and go across the lines that divide us, we don’t learn by abstract analysis, we learn by something that’s very personal that scrambles our labels of analysis and then we can put them back together.
So I embarked in 1982 on a project to write a storytelling narrative history of the Civil Rights Era that I had not been part of – I came along just a little bit late. I got involved a little bit right at the end around the time of Martin Luther King’s death, but not enough to be in it. So I set out to write a storytelling history of the Civil Rights Movement. It was supposed to take three years, and it took me the next 24 years until I finished in 2006. And I was enthralled for every extra year thanks to a very wonderful wife who had health insurance and kept us going.
Now I have a new little book out and I won’t hold it up or anything. If you’re interested, you could ask me afterwards. It’s a compact – because those books are 2,400 pages. They’re very detailed, and I think the detail is the essence of their value. But I have a little compact version out now for teachers that’s only 190 pages, because teachers have complained to me for so many years that storytelling is how you reach students, and this is a wonderful story for students in part because people the same age as the students are the main actors in the story. How often does that happen that you get to teach teenagers about an era in which teenagers were making history? That’s good. And that you’re not only teaching history, you’re teaching citizenship, because as they’re making history, they are exercising the highest standards of citizenship. They’re really elevating citizenship in the same way the founding fathers did in the United States; that is, confronting systems of subjugation and hierarchy in making equal citizenship.
So in that sense, it’s a wonderful story. I’ve been involved in it for a long time, and this March is part of it. It’s a great seminal moment. You’ve just watched the film. I’ve written an essay about it lately. I don’t know whether any of you have seen any of that, but let’s just take your questions and go where we go. The points will come up or not.
MODERATOR: Great. So please wait for the microphone and identify yourself and your media outlet when you ask your question. Thank you.
QUESTION: Hello. Irina Gelevska, Macedonian TV from Europe. So what do you think about the Black Panther Party and riots in Washington and other cities after the murder of Dr. King? Do you think that they were against everything that the March stands for?
MR. BRANCH: What do I think of the riots?
PARTICIPANT: The Black Panther Party.
MR. BRANCH: Oh, well, most people don’t know very much about the Black Panther Party. The Black Panther Party started in Alabama, and it was mostly sharecropper women in Lowndes County, Alabama. It was taken over – its name was taken over by people in California in 1967 who marched into the California Legislature with guns, and that was a tribal and big moment.
Dr. King became more and more committed to nonviolence as his career went on. There were splits within the movement, and the Black Panther Party represented one. It got an enormous amount of publicity precisely because it was in conflict with Dr. King, and publicity is drawn to controversy. But I would say on the whole the Civil Rights Movement made history that we are still feeling today as long as it was nonviolent, and then it got weary of nonviolence, and it ended and got a lot of attention and made no more history, but made a lot of noise.
So Dr. King – there was tremendous – as you might understand, there was tremendous controversy within the movement about why the Civil Rights Movement needed to maintain nonviolence in order to achieve its rights. People said to Dr. King, “Why do we have to be nonviolent? Americans only like nonviolence in black folks; otherwise they like John Wayne and James Bond. Why do we have to be – why should it be that the people who are being oppressed should invite more suffering on themselves to get other people who are oppressing them to do what they should do in the first place? That’s not fair.”
And Dr. King said, “You’re absolutely right it’s not fair. Nonviolence is not about fairness. Nonviolence is a leadership doctrine. It is leadership in the sense that it is showing people – if we move from nonviolence to violence, we won’t be stepping up to take our place alongside white people who admire violence; we’ll be stepping back from leadership,” because in his view, in the long run, power accrues against the grain of violence, not with it. That’s why dogs and fire hoses came out in Birmingham to defend segregation.
And what lasted? It caused the country to rise up against segregation on behalf of the people against whom the violence occurred, and power wiped it out. So this is a very, very profound debate that is largely ignored in the world about the relevant power and relative strength of violence and nonviolence. But it occurred at the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement. It’s one of the things that was a plague on Dr. King toward the end of his life. He was in Memphis desperate to try to make – because violence broke out for the first time in Memphis in one of his marches, and he was trying to reestablish nonviolence and its hold in the movement when he was shot and killed. So this is a very, very big deal. You asked a question about an important issue for the – that’s still part of American politics.
We’re all upset today because they used a particularly lethal form of violence in Syria, right? Is regular violence okay? No. But is really lethal, horrible gas violence even worse? Yes. What is our response to do that? An impulse for violence.
So the Civil Rights Movement was engaging on this very significant conflict about where is the long-term strength in politics. Is it in engagement across the lines that divide us, or is it in the use of force? We’re all hoping and praying and agitating that in Egypt and in Syria they will figure out a way to stop slaughtering each other and engage across the lines that divide them instead. The Civil Rights Movement was about how to do that across the lines that had most plagued the history of the United States when it comes to democracy, which was the line between black and white that had gone all the way back into slavery.
QUESTION: My name is Kristian Mouritzen. I’m representing a Danish newspaper, a newspaper from Denmark. If we go back to ’63, the 250,000 people standing there, Dr. Martin Luther King said that he had a dream. How distant was that dream for the people standing there in front of Lincoln Memorial? Was it a very – dream that could true, or was it a very distant dream do you think? What was the mood at that time?
MR. BRANCH: The mood at the time even before Dr. King’s speech was generally one of euphoria because a lot of people had come to the March with misgivings. It is not commonly recognized how frightened America was of this March before it occurred. I put a few facts in my little essay about that. The District of Columbia canceled liquor sales in Washington, D.C. for the first time since Prohibition the day before the march. The Kennedy Administration had 4,000 riot troops in the suburbs and 15,000 paratroopers on alert. Hospitals in Washington, D.C., canceled all elective surgery and stockpiled plasma because they were convinced that they were going to be dealing with casualties. The District Court judge ordered all of his fellow judges to be prepared to sit all night for bail hearings on arrests.
So this was a scary thing. Life Magazine said that Washington had not had pre-invasion jitters as powerful as those before this March since the first Battle of Bull Run in the Civil War. So this was a scary thing. This was what was in the public domain. Meet the Press said it was impossible – the Sunday before they said it would be impossible to bring large numbers of black people into Washington without large-scale civic disorder. And my favorite one, for any of you who might be sports fans – America is a sports-obsessed country, as you might know, and the NFL, the football played its full schedule of sports games right through the Kennedy assassination only a few months after the march on Washington in 1963, but Major League Baseball, a week before the March on Washington, canceled the Washington Senators’ home game on the day of the March and also the one the next day, canceled two games a week in advance because they thought we would still be cleaning it up.
So that point is part of the reason that this March has such a sunny reputation, a glowing, patriotic event – yes, a lot of it is the “I Have a Dream” speech, but also it was immense relief that came. People were embarrassed that they had been so frightened. It measured the distance between the races that white people commonly thought that this kind of event couldn’t happen without large-scale violence. And that seeped down into the participants, too. Plenty of people, black people and white people who supported Martin Luther King, wanted to come to the March but were frightened to do it because they’re seeing all this publicity, and how do they know whether it’s right? People came with apprehension, and when they get there and they see a march that is peaceful and mixed – it’s hard for people today looking back on 50 years, which is part of the milestone, in those days a mixed group was rare. It was a rare deal to have a mixed group of black and white people. So to have them there and to have it be peaceful against the backdrop of all the apprehensions that people had was euphoric.
So even before Martin Luther King’s speech, people were exhilarated that they had pulled off this March in such a peaceful way against all the apprehensions and expectations of the time. I lived through some of those – not here at the March. As I told you, I wasn’t there, but growing up in Georgia, in churches and in the rare occasions when I was in a room where a black person would come in, a minister, let’s say we were having a meeting to talk about what was going on, people’s palms would get sweaty because you didn’t know whether the police might come, the Klan might come, or much more commonly whether somebody in the room would get all upset because they would be worried that their father – people might get wind that they were there and stop going to their father’s business. It was always indirect. The repercussions of any sort of mixed group like the one here were frightening.
So when you have the March on Washington and everybody is frightened and you come together and you have no widespread civil disorder, you have a lot of common patriotic euphoria, the mood of the March was generally euphoric. Only four people were arrested that day, only four. All four of them were white, including one guy who came to work for the Federal Government with a shotgun in his trunk. So those were the only four arrests. He was – to give you another indicator of the time, his job in the federal government, he was a computer, because this is before the computer age when – this is from a time when computers were people. A computer was a person who made computations for the Federal Government. He was in the Labor Department. He was known as a computer. That was his job description. But he wasn’t supposed to bring a shotgun in his trunk.
MODERATOR: The front person, then behind.
QUESTION: Chen Weihua, China Daily. Yeah, I have a question. I mean, there is great progress, obviously. I mean, African American can become U.S. President now. But obviously, we saw Martin Luther King III said the other day the cause is not complete and we can tell, I mean, from even segregation is not in the law but we saw kind of segregated school communities and we can – we see the tension from this Trayvon Martin trial. And so in your mind, what has not been done by whom? It’s government, I mean, that causes the situation like it is today? Obviously, it’s almost half a century past and this issue is still quite tense. And do you see other sort of a movement coming in this country, like I don’t know, two years ago there was this Occupied Wall Street Movement. Obviously, it’s also calling for more sort of maybe economic equality, other things. Thank you.
MR. BRANCH: Well, I think that’s a good question. I mean, you guys saw the speech. I can’t remember this film very much. Did it have much of what Dr. King said early in his speech about the blank check?
QUESTION: No, (inaudible).
MR. BRANCH: Okay. Well, I think the best way to get at your question is to talk about the speech he brought to deliver and the speech that he delivered. The speech that he brought was very carefully written and it was an indictment. It was an indictment of the United States for giving black people what he called a bum check, a promissory note for freedom in the Declaration of Independence that had been marked insufficient funds. That was his metaphor, a bounced check for freedom. And he said it was embarrassing: “We are here to claim our promissory note.” And it was an indictment of the United States for failing on the most – the central promise of what makes America a unique country that was founded on that idea of equal citizenship.
Now, he gave that speech – he wrote it very formally. It was written pretty stilted. And he got up to its conclusion, which was at the end of his nine allotted minutes, and he could not bring himself to start the conclusion, beginning with the line, “And so today, let us go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction.” That was the beginning of his peroration at the end. He never said that sentence, or any of the sentences that followed, which were pretty similar; that is, it was part of the indictment for the blank – for the bounced check in the banking metaphor. Instead, he said, “And so I say to you today, let us not give in to disunity,” and he stumbled a little bit, and he said, “And so today, I still have a dream.” And he launched the “I Have A Dream” speech extemporaneously, off his script. Not a word of what we remember or that you saw on that film was part of his prepared script.
It connects to your question because the indictment is – has the United States fulfilled all the elements of the dream in the sense of perfect equality between the races? No, that is the indictment. The dream, which is brilliant because it exists out in an emotional area that appeals to everybody – it’s a way to make the appeal general and not just to indict white people or to invite black people to cheer an indictment against white people. It’s inviting everyone into the same dream, but it’s also starkly different than the prepared remarks that I gave you an example of. It is musical. That’s part – it’s emotional. It’s refrained. That’s what a black preacher does. It’s repetitive. “I have a dream” – he said that nine times. “Let freedom ring” – he said that 11 times, every time with an illustration, every time with a sense of rhythm, every time inviting people into this dream.
Well, that dream is universal, and it’s not only universal in the sense that it crosses the lines between black and white aspirations and it crosses the lines that I mentioned earlier between civic and spiritual inspiration, what Dr. King called “equal souls and equal votes,” but it opens up the race issue to issues of equality beyond that, which is why when, in that brief incandescent period, the United States dealt forthrightly with race issues to the point that within a year of this “I Have A Dream” speech, even the food critics and the bridge columnists in the United States were writing about race – why I never noticed black recipes, or where vegetables and spices came from, all kinds of things like that. For a brief time, everybody was discovering things across these boundaries, and it opened doors far beyond race. Out of that came the Women’s Movement. Out of that came the environmental movement, which, as you can tell from the litter all over the mall, hadn’t really gotten started then.
I was at the University of North Carolina. By state law, females could not be at the University of North Carolina when I was there unless they were nursing students. And the student body was 5 percent female. Now, it’s over 60 percent female. So many of these things changed. And the word “gay” was not even in popular usage. So the idea that we would go in 50 years from a segregated society to a black president, from a world in which women could not serve on juries in many states, could not go to many state universities, let alone West Point and serve in the military and things that women take for granted now, and that gays would go from closeted criminal terror to the brink of full civil and legal protection, is an astonishing thing.
So enormous progress let loose – race is the gateway in American history. When America deals with race problems, it bears fruit for new freedoms far beyond it. Why are we – why have we not made more progress? Because the time at which we talked about things that began to yield empirical progress was so brief and our politics had been dominated for the last 40 years by one idea, which is that government and national politics is bad, and that has atrophied the sense of promise. In other words, the promises from the 1960s that have rolled in for black people, for the black middle class, for President Obama, for women, for the disabled, for immigrants – the Immigration Reform Act of 1965 is the third great pillar of the Civil Rights Movement because it repealed nation and essentially race-based quotas. President Johnson signed it at the Statue of Liberty in 1965, saying, “Never again will the twin barriers of prejudice and privilege shadow the gate to freedom.” And since then, in the 40 years since, America has become a multiracial, international democracy in a way that it hadn’t been before.
Those are slow changes that have occurred, complementing all the other ones that were set in motion from that period, but our language has atrophied so that today, it is very difficult for people to take credit for and say America is a better nation. And our confidence that we can tackle tough problems – globalism, the environment, economic problems – should be higher than it was in the 1960s because of the record of what we’ve done. And the reason for that is because a lot of our political discourse in the United States has been hiding from this, the people saying that government is bad and this was a bad time. A lot of it, quite frankly, I would say is political leaders transmuting racial and ethnic fear and dislike into fear and dislike for the promise of government, that government is bad. That’s been our dominant idea.
So our biggest problem today, in my view, is not the conditions on the street, the conditions of our economy, because yes, they are bad, but they are nowhere near as bad as they were in the early 1960s when black people faced them, faced – Dr. King preached at the funeral of somebody that got executed for stealing less than $3. People didn’t care about – it was an invisible culture with no political strength whatsoever. And yet, it figured out a way to bring about all this progress.
What’s atrophied is our political discourse. We’re not talking about race the way we did. It’s super-sensitive if Obama even mentions it. I don’t know if you guys saw it; in The New York Times, they quoted – right after Obama mentioned Trayvon Martin the other day, they quoted somebody as saying, “This betrays the great promise of America, which is not to talk about race.” A more nonsensical statement is hard to imagine, because all of American history has been about race as the central barrier, but also the central breakthrough, for the promise of freedom. From the Constitution, where the great compromises of democracy were over race and slavery and the slave states and the small states, that’s where it was, and yet even there, they’re nervous about it – they don’t even say the word “slaves” in the Constitution. They’re nervous about mentioning it.
Well, today we’re the same way. We’re nervous about mentioning race, but it’s still a big issue that divides us, and there are a lot of people who don’t want to talk about it for – because they’re still nervous about it and they get upset. They want President Obama to be a black President on their terms, meaning not to talk about being black too much. And he doesn’t, because he’s got a lot of advisors who says he gets in trouble whenever he does.
MODERATOR: Question in the back.
QUESTION: Hi. Kathleen Gomes, Publico, Portugal. Thanks for doing this. My question is actually a follow-up to what you were just saying. Do you think that fact that there’s a black President in the White House makes it more difficult for people to reflect upon the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, and particularly the March, and to discuss race today?
And President Obama’s going to talk – is one of the speakers at the commemoration this Wednesday. What do you think that his role is, exactly? I mean, do you think that he should be speaking at the event, and do you see him as more of a – taking the place of Martin Luther King or President Kennedy?
MR. BRANCH: He’s definitely taking the place of President Kennedy. He’s a statesman. He’s the President of all Americans. Martin Luther King was a prophet. Remember, he never even sought public office. A prophet’s role is to stand aside and cast up a vision, and prophets commonly were persecuted for that. That’s the thing that makes them so remarkable in history is that the prophets of ancient Israel could say to the – to Israel itself, “You are betraying God’s promise because of the way you treat your neighbors,” and they would be attacked and killed, and yet then put in the Bible because they were speaking the truth, that they could be recognized. So that was King’s role. That’s not Obama’s role.
I hope – I wish Obama could talk more about how – and I’m not talking about making pronouncements or saying what we could – should do, but in an educational role that every president has, just about to what degree being a black person informs his view on some of the great issues of today.
The great pressing issue in the United States – everybody says it – is partisan gridlock, right? Everybody hates it. Every poll says they hate it. The unaddressed question in American politics is: To what degree is partisan gridlock driven, underneath, by racial and ethnic division? Nobody asks that question. I’d give anything to sit for a while and ask President Obama what he thinks, on issue after issue where there is partisan gridlock, how much of that is racially driven.
I said that in a way, American reporters are blind not to notice that, to some degree, partisan gridlock is right there in the numbers right in front of us. The average – the House of Representatives has packed itself into safe districts. The average Republican district has 50 percent more white people than the average Democratic district. The average Democratic district has twice as many non-white constituents. That didn’t happen by accident. And the fact that people don’t stand up there and say, “Please, all white people vote for me,” “Please all black people and Latino people vote for me,” doesn’t alter the fact that a skillful politician figures out who they want to vote for them. So to some degree, we are imprisoned in our partisan gridlock is because we don’t deal more honestly with these racial divisions in our politics.
Now, I wrote in this essay that in some respects the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, that nonviolence and that dealing with differences across lines that seemed impossible, that that spirit has really, in some respects, lived since the ’60s more outside the United States than inside the United States. I mean, if you look at what was happening in Gdansk on the sit-down strikes against the Soviet Union, or in the Berlin Wall, or in Prague when they were singing “We Shall Overcome” after 50 years in which people thought that there’d be some sort of nuclear Armageddon and that that’s the only way you could end the Cold War, or in South Africa, or even in China, where – I know this is controversial, but Tiananmen Square was modeled on a sit-in. China has had 5,000 years of rebellions of many different kinds, but that’s the first one that was modeled on a sit-in. It didn’t succeed, but neither is it forgotten.
So the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement in many respects went outside the United States because it was so intense here that we’ve had a hard time kind of figuring out some sort of balance where we can say it lead to a lot of really good things. A lot of people who like the Civil Rights Movement today are reluctant to claim all of the collateral benefits that it brought for women, to – say to parents, if you have a daughter and she wants to be an engineer, or you have a daughter and she wants to go to Yale, which didn’t admit women, or the University of Virginia, which didn’t admit women either, you are indebted to the Civil Rights Movement, because by dealing with race, it opened up all these doors.
People are reluctant to lay claim to all the benefits of this movement that ought to make our politics more optimistic, for two reasons. Number one, they’re nervous about dealing with black people who may feel that claiming other benefits will diminish the role of race, because there are still a lot of racial grievances. And the other is because they already think, “Well, gosh, I got twice as many nonwhite people in my district already. If I talk more about race, I’m going to lose my white vote.” So Democrats and people who support the Civil Rights Era are nervous about talking about it, and they don’t do it.
QUESTION: Jinsook Lee from MBC TV South Korea. You said that Dr. King’s Civil Rights Movement opened the door for Women’s Rights Movement, Environmental Movement, et cetera. What do you think the – his legacy on Civil Rights Movement in other parts of the world?
MR. BRANCH: Well, it’s very interesting. I’ve been trying to get a mini-series made at HBO on the – for – about the Civil Rights Era for a long time. In Hollywood, I deal with the fact that people think that movies about race do not sell well overseas, which is a very important part of the film business in the United States. That’s a – that’s like a rule that you deal with, because the anticipated revenue from overseas sales is a bigger and bigger portion of the calculations in what movies get made and what don’t get made.
I think they’re wrong. I think there would be a tremendous market overseas for – and you guys would know more than me. But just on the basis of some of the things I said, I think that it’s such a human story that it would have a wide – worldwide market, because it’s about freedom and it’s about unusual underdog people becoming leaders in freedom.
And the broadening things that do affect women – I mean, one small thing – I know there’s nobody here from Israel, but there have been 2,000 years of Rabbinic Judaism, and the idea of a female rabbi was preposterous. It had never been seriously proposed until the Civil Rights Movement started struggling over what equal souls and equal votes meant. And within three years of Dr. King’s death, the first female rabbi was ordained here in the United States. She was a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement. And now we don’t think anything of it.
So I think that reputation in the long run – in the long run, when history gets a balance, people will understand that by confronting your most difficult divisions you set yourself up to – you open doors beyond what you think. Dr. King himself said that when the Civil Rights Movement frees black people from segregation in the South one of the biggest beneficiaries will be the white South. Why? Because the white South was all gnarled up in enforcing segregation and building four bathrooms at every filling station, one for black women, one for white women, one for black men, one for white – they did all of these things, and they invested an enormous psychological effort in that.
And businesses wouldn’t even go to the South. Sports – again, we’re a sports-obsessed society. There were no professional sports teams in the South, in the major leagues. Why? Because people didn’t want to have to deal with audiences from around the world getting turned away because of the segregation rules and confusion about who was white and who was not. My mayor in Atlanta said that within a month of passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – this is Ivan Allen, the mayor of Atlanta, told me that within a month we in Atlanta built a stadium on land we didn’t own with money we didn’t have for a team we hadn’t located. And – but within a year they went to Milwaukee and got the Milwaukee Braves to move to Atlanta and become the Atlanta Braves, the first professional major league sports team in the South. And that’s because – so what I’m trying to get you to say people – people don’t see is that because America faced its racial divisions Atlanta opened the door for professional sports in the South. The next year, Danny Thomas, who was a TV guy from Lebanon, organized the Miami Dolphins in professional football. And so professional sports came to the South.
More generally, it’s fair to say the Sun Belt came to the South. You never heard of the Sun Belt when it was segregated. It was the poorest region of the country. But when the Civil Rights Movement forced the United States to confront the issue of racial segregation, it benefitted white people in the South, among all others.
I did a diary with President Clinton in the White House for eight years, and several times he told me off the record – he would say, “Taylor, you and I are two white Southerners who are rare, because we think the Civil Rights Movement was one of the best things in our lifetime that happened for us, for white people in the South.” So those are the kind of collateral benefits of the Civil Rights Movement that aren’t acknowledged because our political dialogue is so imprisoned in this notion that anything the government tries to do is bad.
MODERATOR: I think we only have time for one more question. (Inaudible) to go first, unless it’s – unless the answers are very short.
QUESTION: Hello. Jenni Hakala from Finland. I’m a freelancer. I would – back – going back to President Obama, as political historian, what would be your estimate as to his legacy? Would you say that his legacy, race-wise, was to be elected twice and not any more than that? Because I heard this argument a couple of times, and I would like to hear your opinion. Thank you.
MR. BRANCH: I – to be brief, I think that is fair to say that being elected itself and serving has a role – has a beneficial role that is not obvious and is not going to make a lot of news, which is that plenty of people who didn’t vote for him or had a lot of misgivings about him are every day becoming more comfortable. They see him talk, he sounds like me, they get involved in whether Michelle’s hair looks good and all that sort. Those things matter. Those are matters of everyday comfort.
So no, he’s not coming out there talking about things that I would like to see him talk about, not pounding proposals on race, but saying if partisan gridlock is our chief problem, let’s analyze how much of it is racial and see if we can get past it. I wish he was doing more of that. But the fact of the matter is that his very existence in being a normal president and getting elected twice and inspiring people with patriotic oratory, in the long run of history, is a service in itself.
MODERATOR: That was a short one, so we do have time for one more, I think.
QUESTION: Hi. Flavia Barbosa, O Globo, Brazilian newspaper. I was just wondering – I went to the march on Saturday, and I heard one of the speakers saying that they are presenting the check again, and if it bounces back, they are going to shut down the bank. So it seems that the movement is really willing to speak about race. As you said, there’s a lack of conversation about it. So do you think there’s something different going on with the black movement today, the Civil Rights Movement? And how or what is the role that the Trayvon Martin case and the Supreme Court’s decision of voting rights have – has in the discussion today, I mean, in pushing the movement to make more demands and be more active?
MR. BRANCH: I would say that it would be an exaggeration to say that there is a black movement today. Movement is one of the – a word that is used a lot, but seldom analyzed. What is a movement? It starts when somebody is moved, and it grows into something that moves history. There’s nothing right now that I would call a black movement that’s moving history in any direction.
Trayvon Martin is a grievance. It’s a symbol of things gone wrong, but so are lots of other things – our prison system. There are lots of other things that are wrong, and none of it has crystallized in any set of issues that you could call a movement.
If the Civil Rights Movement is any guide, and you can always go wrong trying to copy history, it never works that way – but in – generally speaking, the Civil Rights Movement when its expressed agenda was about justice broader than race. It went through race, but it made it broader. The “I Have A Dream” speech – that was it. He came with a speech of racial grievance, and delivered a historical speech of broad democratic dreams that invited in everyone, including representatives that later launched other collateral movements.
That moment has not happened yet. That doesn’t mean that it’s not going to happen. Everybody says the 1950s was a dead period in American history. Any accurate view now today says there were a lot of things percolating around that crystallized in the sit-ins and the freedom rides up through this period in a broad movement for justice. I think the Supreme Court decision and Trayvon Martin are wake-up calls that haven’t crystallized yet into anything that you can call a movement.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much, Taylor.
MR. BRANCH: Thank you.
MODERATOR: And folks – (applause) – for those of you who are joining us for the bus tour about urban revitalization, that’s going to start at 2 o’clock, and we’re going to assemble downstairs in front of the National Press Building on 14th street. We’re not quite sure where the bus is going to stop, but we’ll figure it out because it’ll look like a bus. And look for me. And Taylor’s agreed to stick around for a few more minutes if you have any other questions that you’d like to come up and ask him about directly.
So thank you very much for coming today.