Acknowledging basic message of civil rights

Award: Author Taylor Branch says the National Humanities Medal he'll receive next week pays tribute to the `reverence for democratic ideals' embodied in his two books on the movement.

September 22, 1999|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

When President Clinton presents Taylor Branch with a National Humanities Medal next week, it will simply be the latest in a series of surreal moments the two old friends have experienced in recent years.

"It may be a new twist on surrealness, but we've already experienced a lot of that over the course of his presidency because we renewed a friendship that was essentially stale," Branch said yesterday from his Mount Washington home, where he was juggling work and some post-hurricane home repairs.

Branch was chosen for his writing on the civil rights movement, a project that has taken almost two decades of his life and seen the publication of two books so far, the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Parting the Waters" and last year's "Pillar of Fire."

He is at work on the third and final book in the trilogy, "Canaan's Edge," which he hopes to publish in 2003. He also continues to work on a television adaptation of his work, in partnership with Harry Belafonte. "That's what's on the screen in front of me, not the book," he said.

Branch is one of nine Americans who will be honored with the medal from the National Endowment for the Humanities on Sept. 29. The other recipients include director Steven Spielberg, playwright August Wilson, journalist Jim Lehrer and writer-performer Garrison Keillor.

The bronze medal, which has been given for only three years, will be presented at a White House ceremony that also will recognize the National Endowment for the Arts medalists.

"The criterion is really outstanding contributions to the nation's cultural life," says Jim Turner, spokesman for the National Endowment for the Humanities. "Taylor Branch is one of the nation's outstanding public intellectuals and historians on the civil rights era."

He also is probably the only recipient to drink beer with the president at Scholz's in Austin, Texas.

The time was 1972, and the two had just finished running George McGovern's presidential campaign in that state. Branch, disillusioned by politics, went into journalism. Clinton ran for Congress, then governor of Arkansas.

"The next time I saw him," Branch says of the 20-year gap in their friendship, "he was surrounded by the Secret Service."

Branch did pretty well for himself in those 20 years, too, first as a magazine journalist and author. In 1981, he wrote the proposal for what would become his trilogy. He knew it would be bigger than anything he had ever written, so he suggested what he considered a reasonable length of time for its completion -- three years.

Seventeen years after signing a contract with Simon & Schuster, he has won not only the Pulitzer but also been the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship. But he says such honors as the NEH medal mean even more to him now.

When he won the Pulitzer, "I wanted to say, `Wait a minute, I'm not finished,' " he says. "I appreciate it much more now than I did then. Whatever recognition comes to the purpose of this work, which is steeped in reverence for democratic ideals. I appreciate the awards more and more."

His desire to reach an ever-wider audience keeps him working on the TV project, despite what he calls its "roller coaster" aspects.

"I think even if it ultimately fails, which I don't think it will, I'd have to say it was worth the effort. I think the need for the message at the heart of the civil rights movement is greater than ever."

Perhaps he could ask Spielberg for some advice when they meet next week?

"Maybe a loan," Branch counters.

Arts recipients

The 1999 winners of the National Medal of the Arts are:

Arts patron Irene Diamond, who gave more than $73 million to the arts through foundations and personal gifts.

Singer Aretha Franklin, the "Queen of Soul," whose career has earned her 17 Grammys.

Designer and architect Michael Graves, who created some of century's most admired structures, including the Riverbend Music Center in Cincinnati. He is a consultant on Baltimore's Ritz Carlton hotel project.

Odetta, the "Queen of American Folk Music," who created a groundbreaking sound with her voice and guitar.

The Juilliard School of performing arts in New York, which includes among its alumni comedian-actor Robin Williams, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist and composer Itzhak Perlman.

Writer and director Norman Lear, who created some of the most popular television social comedies, including "All in the Family," "Good Times" and "The Jeffersons."

Actress and producer Rosetta LeNoire, who boasts a more than 60-year career that includes numerous movies, Broadway productions and TV shows, including "Family Matters" and "Amen."

Arts administrator Harvey Lichtenstein, who was president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music for 32 years and established it as a leading arts center.

Singer Lydia Mendoza, who brought Mexican-American music to the public's attention and became famous in Latin America with her signature song, "Mal Hombre."

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