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'The King Years': An Intersection Of Race And Politics

Jan 5, 2013
Originally published on January 5, 2013 7:59 am
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Two and a half weeks from now, President Obama will stand on the western steps of the Capitol Building, recite the oath of office and deliver his second inaugural address. His inauguration falls on the national Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It's a confluence certain to be recognized by the president, who invoked King's words in a campaign speech in Iowa in the very early days of his first presidential run.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I chose to run in this election, at the moment, because of what Dr. King called the fierce urgency of now. Because we are at a defining moment in our history.


WERTHEIMER: Martin Luther King Jr. He was speaking at the 1963 March on Washington. Taylor Branch won the Pulitzer Prize for his history of the struggles for civil rights. He has a new book, "The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement." And he joins us from WYPR in Baltimore. Taylor, thank you so much for being with us.

TAYLOR BRANCH: Thank you, Linda. Nice to be here.

WERTHEIMER: Now, your new book takes 18 events, important historic markers in the civil rights movement, and the first of them was the Montgomery bus boycott, which began when a seamstress named Rosa Parks was arrested when she refused to move to the back of the bus. Can you draw a historical line from that moment in the civil rights movement to Barack Obama's presidency?

BRANCH: Yes, I can. I think that that's fairly easy and really resonant to do at this moment. Fifty years after the March on Washington - 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, by the way. So, we have a lot of resonant things happening now. Dr. King went home two days after Rosa Parks was arrested to give a speech about what it meant. And that was his first public speech. And he achieved such an amazing resonance with his audience that day that he became forever a public person. That's the beginning of a movement toward freedom that we still celebrate.

WERTHEIMER: President Obama's been in office for nearly four years. Has his election and time in office, do you think, has it changed race relations at all or prospects for African-Americans and others? Has it fulfilled some kind of promise?

BRANCH: Only very slowly, which is the way race beguiles us in history. I think it's fair to say that his first term has had probably less overt discussion about race than many, even though he's the first African-American president. He certainly hasn't initiated very much. And I think what that shows is that we're still fundamentally uncomfortable with discussing race openly in public. It's a step forward that we have an African-American president. But race has taught us in American history that things take an awful long to adapt and become comfortable.

WERTHEIMER: Just after Barack Obama's election in 2008, you said on our air that his victory was a symbol of potential. You, I take it, do not feel that the president has fulfilled that potential?

BRANCH: Well, I think that the president has been coping with a fiscal and economic crisis and a crisis of confidence and stagnation in the country. But I don't think that he or anyone else would say that this is a jubilee moment in U.S. history. I think he has done some remarkably good things, but no one should be celebrating any sort of millennium. We are 50 years from not only the March on Washington but the time that George Wallace in January 50 years took the oath of office as governor of Alabama saying segregation now, segregation forever. That has passed. Segregation is gone. But George Wallace invented a good many of the slogans of modern politics, including tax and spend liberals taking over big government, and a conspiracy of the media to concentrate all affected power in the central government in Washington. And those sorts of things still dominate a lot of our politics, indicating that just as it took us 100 years to get over the Civil War, when we had an incandescent moment about race, it's taking us 50 years to get over the effects of the 1960s and the remarkable witness that Dr. King's movement set in motion.

WERTHEIMER: Let me ask you what you think is left on Dr. King's agenda.

BRANCH: On Dr. King's agenda. Well, the best expression of it was in his Nobel Prize lecture when he said that he thought democracy was a great inspiration for non-violent witness against the three great scourges of the world, which is racism, war and poverty, which he called violence of the spirit and violence of the flesh. There is still plenty of that all over the world today, and what's lacking is the kind of spirit he had that the risk that's most productive is when we express faith in our common beliefs and not in our violence in trying to answer it. That's what democracy is after all. King was the only one who said the prosaic fact that democracy is about votes and votes are about non-violence; how we decide to create power out of agreements instead of our of fights. That example has receded to a large degree in a world that's so divided and so violent.

WERTHEIMER: Taylor Branch is the author of a new book, "The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement." He joined us from WYPR in Baltimore. Thank you.

BRANCH: Thank you, Linda. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.