Taylor Branch distills Pulitzer-winning trilogy for students

'The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement" consists of 18 watershed events in the battle to end racial discrimination

  • Author Taylor Branch at home.
Author Taylor Branch at home. (COLBY WARE, BALTIMORE SUN )
January 25, 2013|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

The math is daunting: More than 2,300 pages of prose winnowed down to 190, including photographs and the occasional blank sheet that signals chapter breaks.

Yet, that's exactly the challenge that author and historian Taylor Branch tackled when he condensed his three-part history of the U.S. civil rights movement into one slender volume that could be taught in the nation's classrooms.

Never mind that Branch, now 66, devoted more than 25 years of his life to crafting his acclaimed trilogy. The mammoth undertaking was recognized in 1989 with the Pulitzer Prize and in 1991 with a MacArthur Fellowship, commonly known as a "genius grant."

The result of the Baltimore resident's efforts at compression is "The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement." The book consists of 18 watershed events in the battle to end racial discrimination in the U.S. in the 1960s.

The moments highlighted in the book include milestones, such as the March on Washington, and frequently overlooked events, including the aborted "turnaround" march that followed the infamous Bloody Sunday assault in Selma, Ala..

Branch, who will read from his book Tuesday at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, spoke this week about what he hoped to accomplish by the potentially humbling exercise of self-editing.

You seem like the least likely author ever to put together a Reader's Digest version of your own work. And since your trilogy is still in print, aren't you essentially competing with yourself for readers?

The idea was not mine. I would never have suggested it; my publisher did. I hesitated at first, because there's always the danger that someone will think that all the work you did on the previous books was unnecessary. Or they may think that the stuff that you left out of the new book isn't as important as what made it in. I went through those misgivings, but I decided to subdue my pride.

I've always gotten complaints from schoolteachers who said: "We love your storytelling approach. Most history textbooks are all analysis and dates that don't connect with students. But, it's hard to ask a college student to read a 900-page book — let alone a high school student."

I've talked to teachers as far away as Idaho, and it almost broke my heart. America doesn't evaluate schools on how well they teach history, just on how well they teach reading and math. If you're a good history teacher, the principal will try to push you into teaching reading.

But if you don't study American history, you won't have a feeling for what makes this country unique and you're not as prepared to be a good citizen. I wanted to do everything I could to give the remaining history teachers the materials they need.

Aren't you using the book as a teaching tool yourself?

Yes, we're trying an experiment at the University of Baltimore. I just started conducting an honors seminar on the history of the civil rights movement with students in the classroom. Meanwhile, people are watching online from all over the country and as far away as the Solomon Islands. They're paying no fees and receiving no college credit.

There's a Web camera in the classroom. Online students can send in questions and interact with one another in chat rooms. They can stream the sessions live or watch them later on demand

Most classes that are taught online are lectures and they're usually in the technical fields like chemistry. This is an experiment to see if we can do a history seminar and make it palatable to a wide variety of people online.

I noticed that the e-book comes in an enhanced version.

Yes, and that was a novelty for me. There are maybe 20 places in the book where you can click and see things that the book just described. So when the book talks about a polite but painful phone conversation that Martin Luther King Jr. had with President [Lyndon B.] Johnson about the Vietnam War, you can click and literally listen in on the conversation. When the book describes the demonstrations, you can click and see the news footage.

Music was really important at the time, and you can hear the Freedom Singers from Albany, Ga., singing "This Little Light of Mine."

You mentioned that in some cases, the compressed format allows you to make certain points more clearly.

For instance, I took material that separated the Republican and Democratic conventions of 1964 and put them together in one chapter. Before 1964, we didn't have Republicans in Georgia. For the previous century, the Republican Party had been the party of [Abraham] Lincoln, and the Democratic Party had been the party of the segregationists.

But then Johnson began pushing the civil rights bill. The issue of race was so powerful that it turned American partisan politics upside down in one summer. It was a turning point in history, and we're still living with the consequences.

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