Author narrows the racial divide

Branch to speak Sunday in Columbia

March 23, 2000|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

It's been 40 years since the civil rights movement swept through the South and nearly that long since the town of Columbia was inaugurated.

When Pulitzer Prize-winning author and civil rights historian Taylor Branch comes to Columbia's Slayton House on Sunday, he will talk about the divisive issue of race in American society, a subject that is widely discussed in the town started as the late James W. Rouse's experiment in racial harmony.

The speaking engagement will be Branch's third go-round as a guest of the Howard County Literature and Poetry Society (HoCoPoLitSo), which has been host to numerous authors and poets in the past 25 years.

Since its start, HoCoPo- LitSo has gone from an upstart literary club to one of the region's most respected cultural institutions. Its ability to attract such literary stars as Amiri Baraka, Saul Bellow, Grace Paley and Rita Dove is a testament to the organization's significance on the local arts scene.

After Sunday's appearance at Slayton House, which is open to the public, Branch will talk with a group of high school students Monday morning at Jim Rouse Theatre at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia.

HoCoPoLitSo President Ellen Kennedy says Branch will appeal to both audiences.

"The last two times Taylor was here, he told wonderful stories that everyone loved," Kennedy said. "He has an incredible grasp of things and he's obviously deeply committed to understanding the whole sweep" of the history of civil rights in America.

"He's also a most interesting man," Kennedy added. "I'm sure he'll have a lot to say that's new -- it has been 10 years since he's been here to speak. And race is certainly a big enough topic."

Race has been Branch's preoccupation for the past two decades. After a successful career as a magazine journalist and author, Branch began work in the early 1980s on a trilogy about the civil rights movement.

Two books have been released: the Pulitzer-winning "Parting the Waters" and "Pillar of Fire," which was released in 1998. The final book, "Canaan's Edge," is scheduled for publication in 2003.

Branch's topic at Slayton House -- "Race at the Millennium" -- will look at race relations in the coming decades.

"The condition of race at the millennium is a lot better than you might believe from reading newspapers and what you hear on the TV," he said from his Baltimore home. "Over the last 30 years, a lot of resentment about race has built up.

"It's almost as if national politics had burdened us with race, and we don't want to try anything else and get burdened with anything else."

In the past decade, a pattern has developed in Howard County schools and neighborhoods that has concentrated black students and their families in older schools and communities, mostly in Columbia, while many white students and their families have moved to newer, outlying school districts.

Some have seen the move as white, middle-class flight in the face of growing numbers of black residents.

While Branch acknowledged that he does not know the demographic makeup of Columbia, he cannot imagine that it's "any different from the rest of the country. You have to kind of work at the margins and talk about it [white flight]. It's not a problem to be solved. There's no finality there; it's something that people have to deal with.

"From an historical point of view, it can be argued that the great classical example is segregation. [It's] designed to protect the white population from intermingling in a way that was uncomfortable. When you try to escape something, instead you get more tangled up," he said.

The time has come, Branch said, to broaden the discussion of race beyond black and white to include other minority groups.

It's increasingly obvious that such a dialogue is "simply a matter of practicality. As the world shrinks, white people are becoming the minority," Branch added. "As a white person, your ability to get and keep a job may depend on how well you get along with a lot of different people."

It's also important to get young people talking about race in a way that's applicable to their generation, he says. He'll broach that topic with hundreds of Howard County high school students Monday and ask the question, "Why should I care about Martin Luther King?"

Over the course of numerous lectures to young people across the country, Branch uncovered a distressing fact.

"Kids just don't connect with King, and a lot of high school students are pretty bored by it," he said. "They don't know that much about segregation. They don't know that people their ages played a central role in the civil rights movement. Some don't believe it."

But once today's teen-agers are made aware of the importance of the civil rights movement, Branch said, it's "a great mistake to assume that they don't care. All young people have this innate sense about what's fair. They do respond to the equality issues."

Taylor Branch will speak at 4 p.m. Sunday at Slayton House. Admission is $10. Seating is limited. Information: 410-730-7534.

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