King biographer recalls early lesson HONORING KING'S MEMORY

January 20, 1992|By Suzanne Wooton

It was 1969 and Taylor Branch, then a graduate student at Princeton, was determined to sample a little of the powerful movement that was sweeping the South. After academicians reluctantly agreed to let him go, Mr. Branch headed to south Georgia. With $10 a week and a little gas money, he planned to travel the backwoods, educating unregistered black voters.

"I went and stepped off the end of my world, my known world," the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian recalled yesterday at an East Baltimore church celebrating the birthday of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

And Mr. Branch's version of truth soon clashed with reality.

He traveled into counties that were 70 percent black with no registered black voters. Segregation signs dotted the landscape even though historic civil rights legislation had been enacted nearly five years earlier.

Still, black ministers tossed him out of their churches, saying things were under control. And when he tried to work with the younger black rebels, he got arrested "for being on the wrong side of town."

"I made a fool of myself very quickly," recalled the 45-year-old writer, who has lived in Baltimore since 1986.

Then, in the summer of 1969, the day Neil Armstrong took man's first steps on the moon, Mr. Branch walked onto the front porch of an 85-year-old matriarch who, with a mouthful of snuff, sat in a rocking chair.

While he talked and talked, and babbled about policy, she said nothing. Finally, Mr. Branch recalled, she replied: "How do you know people landed on the moon this morning?"

Suddenly, he said, a 21-year-old college student understood that truth would be seen only through the eyes of such people. He scrapped the policy memorandum he had faithfully promised Princeton and began keeping a diary instead.

"There was no way I could communicate the reality and truth in policy memorandum," he said.

It was through stories, not abstractions, that he began to understand the heart of the movement that had taken him to the South.

Ultimately, he would write the narrative biographical history of the civil rights movement that won a Pulitzer Prize, "Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63."

Yesterday, as more than 350 people gathered at St. Philip's ZTC Lutheran Church on North Caroline Street, Mr. Branch was honored as a "special guest with special knowledge and special experiences." He was the first non-Afro-American guest speaker for the church's annual Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Celebration, which has attracted nationally prominent clergy in the past.

"We understand truth through stories, not abstractions," Mr. Branch said.

Currently, he is completing another "storytelling history," "Pillar of Fire," the second and final volume on the civil rights movement and Dr. King's work.

"We must study the movement," Mr. Branch said yesterday, "to see how greatly we are today in need of the same kind of movement and commitment that he and his fellow pioneers brought us."

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