Branch: Race Relations Learned Through Stories

Author: Margaret Fosmoe

Posted: Wednesday, October 2, 2013 9:30 am

MARGARET FOSMOE South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - If you don’t know about the history of race relations in this nation, you don’t know about freedom, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch.

“The greatest danger in America is taking democracy for granted,” said Branch, 66, at a luncheon talk Tuesday at the Charles Martin Youth Center. Each American is as responsible as the president of the United States for what happens in this country, he said.

Branch is the author of a trilogy of books chronicling the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the history of the American civil rights movement. His trilogy is collectively called “America in the King Years.” He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1988. His most recent book is “The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement,” focusing on 18 turning points in the civil rights movement.

Branch told of his own experiences in order to demonstrate his point that storytelling is at the heart of the shared experience that makes democracy.

He grew up in segregated Atlanta, Ga., where his father owned a dry-cleaning store. As a youth, he worked in his father’s shop and got to know the employees.

Peter Mitchell, one of his father’s employees, was a black man. The two men had a friendly, bantering relationship, Branch said.

They both were baseball fans and would attend games played by the Atlanta Crackers, a professional baseball team, but had to sit in different sections because of segregation.

Branch recalls his father saying, “I don’t like this,” referring to the forced segregation. But the young Branch knew it was a taboo subject.

“I knew even as a 7- or 8-year-old kid that this was a radioactive subject and that I was not to ask one question,” he said. “That’s the way race was. You felt it under the surface.”

Mitchell died a few years later of bone cancer, and Branch attended the funeral with his father. They were the only white people at the black church. His father was asked to get up and say a few words, and after he told some stories about his friendship with Mitchell, his father was in tears, Branch said.

Branch said he tried to avoid the issue of segregation and race relations, and focus on pursuing an education to become a surgeon. “But the (civil rights) movement was relentless. It occupied all my formative years,” he said.

It was in 1963, when Martin Luther King allowed children and teens to march in peaceful civil rights events in Birmingham, Ala., and they were attacked by police dogs and sprayed with fire hoses, that Branch knew he couldn’t ignore it.

“Photographs of that changed the world, and it certainly changed me,” he said. “It melted the emotional distance I had with this issue.”

Branch dropped his college pre-med major and got a summer job with a voter education program in rural Georgia. He sought out blacks in an effort to convince them to register to vote, but most turned him down out of fear.

When he returned to college, Branch handed his professor a 400-page diary of his summer experiences. His professor mailed it to a magazine, which agreed to publish it. That’s how he became a professional writer.

“It was the beginning of my conviction that race relations are learned through stories, not through abstract analysis,” he said.

Every abstract idea about the history of race relations will, in time, be turned on its head, he said.

As a teacher, Branch said he assigns his students to undertake experiences that stretch them outside their comfort zones, such as assigning a black student athlete to attend a religious service at a synagogue or asking a pro-choice activist to meet with Catholic religious leaders.

Just being involved in a movement doesn’t change things, Branch said. It’s talking about the experience and sharing it with one’s peers that creates a bond.

“You have to get outside yourself in order to discover anything larger. And every movement that becomes large starts in literally being moved when you feel that you have something in common with a larger group than you thought,” he said.

Branch is giving two more public lectures later today on the University of Notre Dame campus. He’ll lead a discussion on the state of journalism today at 4 p.m. today in the auditorium of the Hesburgh Center. And he’ll present another public lecture, titled “Myths & Miracle From the King Years” at 7 p.m. today in Room 1130 of Eck Hall of Law at Notre Dame. A book signing will follow.

Contact Margaret Fosmoe: 574-235-6329