Sunday, September 22, 2013

Taylor Branch, Man on Fire!

Yesterday Don and I went to the Library of Congress Book Festival and had the distinct honor of attending a talk by the Pulitzer Prize winner Taylor Branch. I have been recommending him for years to my cohorts at the Lee County Reading Festival since our non-fiction authors seem to draw such great crowds but, so far, no one has taken me up on it.

Now I realize that maybe it's just as well. I surmise that the Lee County Florida audiences would run for the doors in the face of his fire and brimstone cry for better cooperation and understanding of the subtle, still powerful racism that is the undercurrent of our inability to accomplish anything in Congress and the Senate these days.

Mr. Branch's passion for his subject, the result of his life's work, practically brought the tent poles down. He didn't need a microphone and the young woman charged with translating his words into sign language was practically out of breath. Mr. Branch became so overwrought by the injustice of the world that his face turned a deep, unhealthy red and I worried that he might fall out right in front of us. I'd guesstimate that close to 600 people gave him the longest standing ovation of the day was obvious that he was preaching to the choir.

The Pulitzer was awarded for his three volume definitive study of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., the most thorough history lesson that I've ever had in all my years of schooling. America in the King Years covers the timeframe of 1954 to 1968 and it is the most vibrant, fascinating and horrifying look at the birth of the civil rights movement and its aftermath that you will ever read.

You will never see the Kennedy family and the myth of Camelot in the same way again. You will learn to have a healthy fear of your government, the FBI, the attorneys general and all the others who you would like to believe have your best interests at heart. You will despair at the inhumanity of man for his fellow man. But, you will know the truth and no longer be easily susceptible to the rewriting of history that our kids and grandkids are subject to.

When I closed the pages on At Canaan's Edge, the final book in the trilogy, I opined that it should be required reading for every high school student in the country. Apparently others agreed but didn't think that most kids, or their teachers for that matter, would have the time or inclination to steep themselves in the more than 1500 pages. So Mr. Branch and some professors at the University of Maryland came up with a way to distill the finest nuggets into a classic text that could go down a little easier with the masses. The result is The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement, now available at your favorite bookstore or library.

You might wonder how this middle aged white man from Atlanta, Georgia, with the coveted degree from Chapel Hill, came to be such a powerful spokesperson for civil rights in America. He honestly couldn't explain it himself, except to point to the Birmingham church bombings which he saw on TV at the impressionable age of sixteen. I believe that there are just some people who are born with a more honed sense of world in which they live and the drive and wherewithal to do or say something significant about what they see and what they'd like to change. Taylor Branch is one of those people and we readers are the better for it.

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