Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Taylor Branch emphasized the importance of making civil rights history pertinent for today's youth when he spoke at the Civil Rights Memorial Center (CRMC) here on Saturday.
"We need to show young people they're standing on the shoulders of those in the Civil Rights Movement," he told a crowd that filled the CRMC's theater.
Branch was here to promote his newest book, At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years 1965-68, the conclusion of a three-volume history that began with Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63. It won the Pulitzer Prize for history. The trilogy is generally acknowledged as the definitive chronicle of the modern Civil Rights Movement.
Branch described the Movement as a "great miracle" of ordinary citizens who recognized they owned a piece of the country and that it was up to them to fix its wrongs.
"This era liberated everyone, if you look at the long span of history, beginning with white southerners," Branch said. "Until black people struggled for equal rights, white women couldn't serve on juries. Almost 30 states restricted service. That's so foreign to us today."
Branch's informal talk touched on a number of topics, including the debate over use of non-violent protest among movement leaders, the defining importance of the sit-ins instituted by college students in the early 1960s, and the dissipating effect of the Vietnam War on the Civil Rights Movement's energy.
"This movement has blessed not only America but all over the world. Its spirit today is more alive outside our country than in it. We need to revive that citizens' movement," he said.
His comments reflected the theme of the CRMC: "The March Continues." The CRMC's exhibits tell the story of the Civil Rights Movement and those who died during that time. They also show that the great triumphs the 1950s and '60s continue to inspire those who seek justice today -- in this country and around the world.
Branch thanked the Southern Poverty Law Center "for helping keep that spark alive -- with fidelity."
"We need a more fundamental, forward-looking debate of what makes a democracy," Branch said. "During the Movement, people were working on it at a basic level. Now our public discourse has atrophied.
At Canaan's Edge opens with the voting rights struggles in Alabama and ends with the Poor People's Campaign in Memphis, where Dr. King was assassinated.
"The lessons that come from discovery of the Movement's story should point us forward," Branch said.
In introducing Branch, Center president Richard Cohen noted that in "in this same month 17 years ago, Taylor Branch came to this same building to sign his first book." The building then served as the Southern Poverty Law Center office.
"I was 13 when Dr. King was slain," Cohen said. "I didn't have the opportunity to know him. But reading Taylor's books make me feel that I do know Dr. King."