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Taylor Branch and the civil rights 'miracles'

Pillar of Fire

ATLANTA (CNN) -- To Taylor Branch, the civil rights movement was the beginning of a string of "miracles" that have swept the world since the mid 1960s.

And Branch, the Baltimore author whose trilogy about the civil rights years is now two-thirds complete, wonders how Americans became so jaded that they don't appreciate such success.

"There's a tremendous tide of freedom that came out of the civil rights movement," Branch said recently in a speech in his native Atlanta. He ticked off some of the changes: the rise of women and minorities, the fall of the Soviet Union, the reversal of apartheid in South Africa, and "the great upsurge of freedom" in the United States.

An author's compulsion
Why did Taylor Branch feel driven to spend 15 years researching an epic on the civil rights movement?

"When the Birmingham movement happened, it just stunned me," Branch said. "I felt a tiny breath of something very powerful. It changed the whole direction of my life's interest."

After attending the University of North Carolina and Princeton, he read all he could about the movement. "I wanted to know what it was made of. I read all of these books that were highly analytical, but I didn't feel any of that power" of the movement; they included none of "the incredible faith, dedication and patriotism of these kids" that drove it.

"So I decided to do storytelling. (The books) started, for me, as a compulsion."

"Why isn't this more thrilling to us?" he asked.

'Pillars' continues story of civil rights

Branch's "Parting the Waters" chronicled the infancy of the civil rights movement and the political baptism of Martin Luther King Jr. Critically acclaimed and widely hailed as a definitive account of a watershed era, the first volume of Branch's three-part history won a Pulitzer Prize for history in 1989 and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

In "Pillars of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-1965" Branch follows the epic story through the first year of Lyndon Johnson's presidency.

Branch, 51, says Johnson was one of the major surprises he uncovered during his research for the second book. "Not just that he was manic depressant, and therefore entertaining," but he presented to King and the leadership of the civil rights movement a completely different attitude than that of the recently assassinated John Kennedy.

Kennedy had been worried about FBI allegations that the movement was colluding with communists. Meetings between him and King had been stiff and formal. Johnson, on the other hand, would interrupt their talk to take a phone call and then announce to the caller, "I'm meeting with Dr. King. You want to talk to him?"

When King left the White House after his first meeting with Johnson, he must have taken a deep breath and said, "this is a different cat," Branch said.

"He (Johnson) had an amazing spiritual quality about him," Branch said, and he was a master at "preaching" and turning others to work with him. "People have an image of Johnson as a hick with long ears," Branch said, "but there was a directness there that you just don't get" when seeing the president only through the history books.

The president, though, was not the key to the success of the civil rights movement, despite his personal desire to eradicate poverty in American. The key was King.

"King considered himself, first and foremost, a prophet," Branch said, and it is the foreseer who harkens change. "American history progresses when you have prophetic voices in tune with the sensibilities of women," Branch said. And that was the case in 1964, he said, as the issues of civil rights forever changed America and its people.


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