Revisiting the King message

Author Taylor Branch urges students to address race, equality


March 28, 2000|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

Imagine being a vital cog in the wheel of a national political movement at age 18 -- and risking your life to do it.

That's what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. asked of thousands of young people in the 1960s civil rights movement.

It's also what author and historian Taylor Branch asked of hundreds of Howard County students yesterday during a talk at Columbia's Wilde Lake High School called "Why Should I Care About Martin Luther King?"

Making King's message of nonviolent protest and activism relevant to students is sometimes a challenge, especially when some young people are bored with the idea of discussing the slain leader, Branch acknowledged.

Others have no idea who King was.

"Some young people have asked me if he was related to Don King, the boxing promoter," said Branch, who won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for history and the national Book Critics Circle Award for "Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63."

Branch released his second volume about the King years, "Pillar of Fire," in 1998. The final book, "Canaan's Edge," is scheduled for publication in 2003.

He is executive producer with Harry Belafonte of the ABC-TV miniseries based on "Parting the Waters."

Nearly 300 students from five Howard high schools listened to Branch and asked questions about the relevance today of the civil rights movement.

Branch talked about the South's segregated lunch counters, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., where a bomb set by Ku Klux Klansmen in 1963 took the lives of four young girls, and civil disobedience that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

"Dr. King depended on people your age," Branch said. The civil rights movement "would've died without it."

High school students "were ready to go to jail," Branch said. "High school juniors and seniors -- mostly girls and even elementary school students -- had dogs and fire hoses turned on them. The movement was built on the strength of the witness of people who were younger than you."

Yesterday's lecture was sponsored by the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society.

Branch's talk with the Howard County students could not have come at a better time, said David Barrett, HoCoPoLitSo's chairman of the board.

"People came to Columbia in early days because of the promise that they could look forward to participating in a place like this," Barrett said. "I tend to put faith and hope in young people because they are the ones who'll determine what we'll do about [segregation] in upcoming years."

The challenge is to "bring the relationship of what was going on then in terms of a philosophical basis into what's happing in America now."

"The civil rights movement is not a dead letter," Branch said after his lecture, as students stood in line leading to a microphone to ask questions. "Ask your parents about the movement -- they'll remember. A lot of time, it's embarrassing for them to talk about because it's such an emotional subject."

George Nychis, an 18-year-old senior at River Hill High School in Clarksville, found Branch's blend of personal and historical reminiscence inspiring.

"It's pretty remarkable that he made a personal decision to join the civil rights movement when he didn't have to," said Nychis, who had a copy of Richard Wright's novel "Black Boy" on his lap. "It's so hard to do something like that today because there's no movement of that size that you can take part in."

But talking to today's young people about something as serious -- and as seemingly distant -- as the civil rights movement is admittedly a challenge, even if you wrote the book on the subject, said Zillah Ingram, who teaches 11th-grade American history at Howard High School.

"Young people are very interested in the subject of race," Ingram said during the question-and-answer portion of Branch's lecture. "But it would help if he could relate some current things into his talk. With high school audiences, it's really hard to keep their attention.

"I would have liked him to comment on the fact that the kids in this auditorium are segregated," she said. "They segregate themselves without being asked."

Wilde Lake High teacher Carla Bayton agreed.

"You take a look at the cafeteria in every high school in the county, and you'll see that the kids aren't sitting together," Bayton said. "It's very segregated."

Branch responded by suggesting that teachers set an example to their students during lunchtime by eating in the students' cafeteria and "not separating themselves."

Bayton suggested that the inclusion of a few of the now-famous archival images from the civil rights movement would have helped Branch's talk.

She suggested that Branch use the picture of Emmitt Till, a 14-year-old who was mutilated and murdered in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi, or show video clips of Eugene "Bull" Connor, the public safety commissioner who ordered firefighters to blast demonstrators with high-pressure fire hoses during a 1963 protest in Birmingham, Ala.

Branch "could have borrowed some of that footage from us," Bayton said.

Leaving the Jim Rouse Theatre, Hammond High School junior Ashleigh Georgia, 17, wondered whether racism is alive and kicking in America, and whether Branch's initial question -- "Why Should I Care About Martin Luther King?" -- was even the right one.

"I think racism is getting worse in recent years," Georgia said. "How do you fight the problem when America refuses to admit it exists?"

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