Emory Report

January 24, 2000

 Volume 52, No. 18

Branch speech highlights King Week 2000 at Emory

By Eric Rangus

African Americans were not the only beneficiaries of the civil rights movement, author Taylor Branch told a gathering of about 100 people at Cox Hall, Jan. 18.

The growth of the entire Southeast, in fact, owes its prosperity in the last three decades of the 20th century to the sacrifices of people from all races during the 1960s.

"The Civil Rights Bill of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 liberated the white South psychologically, economically and politically," said Branch, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his book Parting the Waters, America in the King Years, 1954­63.

"That was a great gift from this movement to the white people of the South," Branch said. He was in town as King Week's featured speaker. He also signed copies of the book, as well as its follow-up, Pillar of Fire, America in the King Years, 1963­65, which was published in 1998.

Branch said the civil rights movement and the enfranchisement it gave to blacks shook the South from its segregationist past and forced it to look into the future. The growth of southern cities and industry and the 1996 Olympic Games, for example, would never have been possible without the civil rights movement, he said.

It was a viewpoint that resonated among the attendees.

"He was really powerful, very insightful and moving," said Andrew Walker, who works at the Georgia Municipal Association. "Everybody should walk out of here changed."

Branch did not stop with the South, either. He said the civil rights movement had effects worldwide.

"It's the greatest liberation in human history, whose blessings have spread far and wide," he said. Branch listed landmark historical changes in the Czech Republic, Germany, South Africa and China as being modeled on the civil rights movement.

Rudolph Byrd, director of African-American Studies, said Branch's presence at Emory during King Week activities was "enormously important."

"He is one of the most important chroniclers of the civil rights movement and Dr. King," Byrd said.

Branch spoke for 45 minutes, then took an hour's worth of questions. He touched on several subjects concerning civil rights and King, including King's belief systems, the importance of nonviolent protest and how today's children need to be better educated about the civil rights movement.

Branch also detailed the often overlooked participation of students, including grade-school children, in the movement, particularly in Birmingham, Ala., a city Branch called "the citadel of segregation." More than 600 children voluntarily went to jail in that city, Branch said, and Police Commissioner Bull Connor's use of firehoses and dogs on African-American children is one of the most enduring images of the struggle for civil rights. Adolescent protest had no previous historical presence, and people did not know what to make of it.

"It had enormous political effect--but no vocabulary for discussing it," Branch said. "Nobody wrote about the strategy, nobody supported it and nobody studied it, yet it was the tactical stroke that worked. It parted the waters."

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