Q&A with Taylor Branch

The author discusses his latest book on civil rights

Taylor Branch published Parting the Waters, the first volume in his definitive three-part history of the civil rights movement, in 1988. In the quarter-century since, virtually everything has changed about the way books are published and how history is consumed. Branch said for years he had fielded complaints from college professors and high school teachers that, although they loved the storytelling approach of his MLK trilogy, they simply could not compel students to plow through all 3,000 pages.

Branch responds now with The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement (Simon & Schuster), considerably less daunting at 200 pages. Branch chose eighteen pivotal moments from his original three-volume series and wrote new introductions for each, adding concise historical context. The result is a surprisingly effective primer.

Branch, a product of the Westminster Schools in Atlanta, has lived for years in Baltimore. He dedicated this slim volume to “students of freedom and teachers of history.” Even in the digital age, Branch believes in the power of narrative history. “The further away we get from something, the harder it is to put it in context,” he said. “Stories and details and characters are vital.”

Branch, who turns sixty-six this month, taught a course in civil rights history at his alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, last year and he’s developing a similar online course through the University of Baltimore. And he continues to ply his trade as a journalist, sparking the most controversy of his career with a 2011 piece he wrote for The Atlantic called “The Shame of College Sports.” “My son teases me all the time that a toss-off history of college sports generated more heat than my life’s work in civil rights,” Branch said.

From his home in Baltimore, Branch talked recently about history, publishing, and staying relevant.

An interview with the author

How did you choose the eighteen moments to focus on in this book? I slaved over the introductions as much as I did the choices. For example, the chapter on the political conventions of 1964 is a very short [one], but it makes it clearer than ever that the conventions together were really a pivotal moment in American history, when the Democrats and the Republicans essentially switched places. The race issue was powerful enough to reverse the whole partisan structure of American politics in a way that lasts to this day.

Why dedicate this book to history teachers? High school history teachers kept telling me that they are beleaguered. Schools aren’t evaluated on what their students learn about history; they’re evaluated on reading and math. So history is an orphan. You’re at the low end of the totem pole for textbooks, and the textbooks aren’t very good anyway. And a lot of American history teachers told me that when they get to the civil rights movement, they’re Googling for something they can use that’s not boiled oatmeal.

You’ve spent more than a third of your life researching and writing about civil rights? Was it time well spent? It absolutely was, and still is, my life’s mission. It’s what goes deepest in me. I wasn’t born or raised to be a writer, let alone a writer about race relations. But I grew up in this period. I was in the first grade when the Brown decision happened, and I was a senior in college when Dr. King was murdered. In all the formative years in between, the civil rights movement was pounding away. Finally, it changed the direction of my life’s interest against my will.

Do you think that where you came from drove your interest? Absolutely. The elders in Atlanta at that period insisted that they had everything under control, when they clearly didn’t and were rattled and unnerved. Nobody—no elected official that I knew of—was calling for the end of segregation. It was a pretty big adjustment emotionally to see that these black kids—my age and younger—were really more in command of the agenda and of the moral high ground than the people who ran the world. It was a pretty unsettling time.

What do you read for pleasure? Mostly history? I’m afraid so. Right now I’m reading a history of the early Indochina war —the French period, from World War II until the American war started, the forties and the fifties. Only when I’m going on vacation do I get to read a novel, and usually it’s a Laura Lippman or an Elmore Leonard.

Besides your own, what are a few American history books that everybody should read? The one that inspired me to write narrative history was Shelby Foote’s The Civil War. For a one-volume book, I think Garry Wills’s book on the Gettysburg Address is a treasure. For a broader history outside the United States, one of my favorites is Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, about the Belgian colony in the Congo. And Hochschild’s To End All Wars, about World War I, is a fascinating work.

In 2009, you published The Clinton Tapes, a very unguarded glimpse into the presidency of your old friend Bill Clinton. What kind of reaction did you get to that book? Not nearly what I had hoped for. I think it’s fair to say that’s a disappointment in my career, because it was intended to make people feel what it’s like to be president—not to be Bill Clinton, but to be president. I guess I naively thought the uniqueness of it—a bird’s-eye view of a president struggling to be candid about things as they were happening—wouldn’t be overwhelmingly politicized. But some people said it was a whitewash of Clinton, and surprisingly, a lot of Clinton supporters said it was a betrayal of him because it showed too many warts. It was an amazing experience for me, and I’m glad I did it. I hope maybe as people gain more perspective on Clinton, that book will hang around.

What are you working on next? I’ve been working for more than a year now to prepare at least one book—maybe two—on James and Dolley Madison. I’ve jumped back a couple of centuries! The civil rights movement puts you in the crucible of the politics and the psychology of democracy, and James and Dolley Madison kind of do that in a different era.

Photograph by J. Brough Schamp.