Taylor Branch's war on human pride Author addresses seminar on race relations

November 09, 1990|By Patrick Ercolano | Patrick Ercolano,Evening Sun Staff

IT'S NOT THAT PRIDE makes you swell up," Taylor Branch said last night at Johns Hopkins University, "it makes you blind."

Speaking on "The Riddle of Moses: Blacks and Jews in America," the Baltimore-based historian said it was ethnic and cultural pride that ultimately broke the bond of Jews and blacks in the waning days of the civil rights movement. This break ushered in the current American era of so many "atomized" groups whose only shared bond is that each looks after its own interests at the expense of a greater social good.

The author of the prize-winning "Parting the Waters: America in the King Years," Branch addressed some 500 people in Shriver Hall on the Hopkins Homewood campus. His talk was part of the 1990 Milton S. Eisenhower Symposium, titled "Dreams Deferred: Perspectives on Race Relations." The series of six lectures began Oct. 23 and continues through Dec. 13 at Hopkins.

Until the mid-1960s, Jews could still be viewed as willing helpmates in the black struggle for civil rights. The two groups, "our foremost outsider cultures," had much in common, according to Branch. Most important, they shared religious traditions. Moses and his role as a theocratic and autocratic leader of a scorned people was something blacks could identify with. Their Moses, of course, was Martin Luther King Jr. Like the Biblical Jewish leader, he "was not elected or even asked to be a king, but instead asserted that role."

Jews who took part in the civil rights movement, Branch said, embodied the Old Testament notion of "subjugation of pride." Out of that subjugation came "concepts of justice and brotherhood" and a "universalism" that reached out to others, particularly those seeking justice, like blacks during the movement. "The war on human pride," said Branch, "led to the seeds of democracy."

But then, in the mid-1960s, blacks and Jews experienced separate "explosions of pride." For blacks, there was the black power movement, which sought to achieve justice without the help of outsiders, not even Jews.

The Jewish explosion of pride came in the wake of the Six Day War of 1967, when Israel won a military victory by beating back combined Arab forces. "This changed the psyche of Jews from universalism to tribalism," Branch said. "Their feeling was, 'We licked five Arab nations at once, we don't need anyone else.'"

As these two "outsider cultures" severed their ties with each other and turned inward, there was a general "reduction of democratic space, what we see as possible between us" in American society. So many of the dreams of the 1960s turned sour, and consequently, the national landscape has become dotted by fractious, fearful, self-interested groups who want mainly to satisfy their own agendas.

"We have turned so inward that even blacks and Jews, with so much in common, are at odds with each other," said Branch.

The author, currently at work on "Pillar of Fire," the second and final installment of his study on the King years, suggested that he aims to fight this inward turn through "storytelling history." That's his term for the narrative form of historical writing that has earned "Parting the Waters" its raves and awards, including the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for history.

People are touched and moved by stories filled with human detail, which make us realize our common ground, he said. The jargon of political policy-writers and the dry prose of more haughty historians only makes us "draw into ourselves" and away from the universalism that could bring us together.

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