Taylor Branch

National Humanities Medal


In May 1963, more than one thousand young black protesters-many of them children-gathered at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. What was supposed to be a peaceful march against segregation turned violent after police used fire hoses and dogs to disperse the marchers. Among the millions watching the events unfold on national television was Taylor Branch, then a teenager living in Atlanta.

"You see authority behaving like that, it seems that the whole world is upside down," says Branch, now fifty-two.

These and other images of the Civil Rights Movement got Branch interested in the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., and other key figures from the period. In Parting the Waters, his Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the movement's rise, Branch goes beyond the stock imagery of news stories to put the reader right in the middle of Birmingham in the spring of 1963:

On command, the officers handling the dogs rushed forward to gain close quarters. Where the crowd was too tightly massed to flee cleanly, the growling German shepherds lunged toward stumbling, cowering stragglers. They bit three teenagers severely enough to require hospital treatment. Other targets, screaming with terror and turning in confusion, either disappeared into the Negro section to the west or took refuge in the church.

Last year, Branch published a second volume, Pillar of Fire, detailing the years from 1963 to 1965, during which the passage of federal civil rights legislation was offset by clashes within the movement, ongoing FBI efforts to damage King's credibility, and other obstacles. Branch is currently working on At Canaan's Edge, which covers the period from 1965 until King's assassination in 1968.

Branch's history of the King years has been praised for the way it crafts exhaustive research into a forceful narrative. Branch says this approach arose from the awkwardness of being a white Southerner trying to understand the black struggle for equality, and from his dissatisfaction with previous work on the subject.

"I found most of the literature overly analytical," says Branch, who began studying the movement out of personal curiosity during college. "It was like a chess match."

Branch has never been content with letting the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement fade into abstractions. After college, he did graduate work at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. For a summer project aimed at encouraging voter registration, he was assigned to write a short policy memorandum on the project's implications for economic development. Branch's experiences trying to gain the trust and interest of skeptical blacks in southern Georgia-including his arrest at a poker game-led him to submit a diary as part of the finished assignment. Portions of the diary were published in the Washington Monthly, where Branch worked as an assistant editor after finishing graduate school.

In 1972, Branch turned to politics, working in Texas for George McGovern's presidential campaign. As a state coordinator, Branch was hoping to do something about racial discord and the Vietnam War. But he most keenly remembers settling disputes like who got to sit where in the McGovern motorcade.

"We got clobbered by Nixon in the campaign," he says. "We lost and people were petty." Disillusioned, Branch decided to return to writing.

He has since held staff positions at Esquire and Harper's Magazine and has written for numerous other publications. Before turning to the King project, Branch co-authored several books and wrote a novel. He served as ghostwriter for Blind Ambition, former White House counsel John Dean's 1976 account of his years in the Nixon White House.

When not working on the third volume of his trilogy, Branch is collaborating on a planned ABC miniseries based on the first two parts. He lives in Baltimore with his wife and their two teenage children.

Branch hopes that Americans will remember the sacrifices of King and countless others to further social change. "I'm worried," he says, "that if people don't really immerse themselves in what it means, they'll take it for granted."

By Pedro Ponce

About the National Humanities Medal

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.