Historian Taylor Branch believes that this year, not fully a month old, marks a unique opportunity for Americans to reflect and learn from our past.
Speaking last week at a book signing forum sponsored by the Aspen Institute, Branch recalled the state of race relations in parts of the United States a little more than a generation ago—50 years ago to be precise, in 1963—a time that brought forth a stream of watershed moments in our nation’s incomplete rise from a shameful history of racism:
In a South that had segregation embedded in the constitutions of the southern states, and in the institutions widespread across the North. In a society that was so segregated that it’s beyond the memory we take for granted all of these things … College sports in the South were segregated. … There was no Sun Belt, it was poor. Segregated by race down to the public libraries. Segregated by gender to the point that there were no female students at the University of Virginia, very few at my old alma mater, North Carolina. None at Yale and Princeton yet. Let alone in West Point. Let alone in combat in the military. The word “gay” hadn’t even been invented. No, nothing for disability. No seatbelts in cars. TV ads incessantly promoting cigarettes as healthy, sophisticated, and invigorating. That’s 50 years ago.
Branch recalled the date—January 14, 1963—when then-Alabama Gov. George Wallace pledged in his Inaugural Address to defy rising black demands for equality with his now-infamous “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” speech. That speech on the cold steps of the Alabama Capitol Building in Montgomery, helped set the stage for the blossoming of the civil rights movement, which would over the next five years change the nation forever—for good and ill.
“Wallace pledged to protect segregation,” said Branch to a rapt audience. “Only 50 years ago. He failed.”
But, Branch continued, he succeeded in planting the seeds of the right-wing, antigovernment attitude that endures to this day:
[Wallace] started cussing, when it was no longer respectable to stand up and defend segregation, he started cussing the government and the politics that people resented and feared for these changes ahead. He talked about pointy-headed bureaucrats in Washington telling you how to run your business, and where you had to send your children to school. And that they were in cahoots with a biased national media that had a racial agenda. Whose effective goal was to concentrate all … power in the central government in Washington.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It does to Branch:
That language is contemporary. It’s the language of “Government is bad.” … It started out consciously in resistance, though Wallace’s … second step, after inventing all of these ingenious terms that we live with, his second one was to insist indignantly, whenever questioned, that he had never said anything in his whole public career that had any bad racial reflection on anyone. And that there was no racial motive in any of this. Because that was the sine qua non of creating unconscious memory in culture. And it became comfortable for a lot of people, because most people are in the business of making themselves comfortable.
It takes a historian such as Branch, someone who can comprehend and communicate with an acuity greater than what’s necessary for a Twitter post, to see and say what so many of us seem to have forgotten. In this day and age, with a black family in the White House, many Americans like to believe such a reality was always possible. But that’s viewing history at an arm’s length. The bitter truth is that, hard as it might be to admit, our contemporary reality was a historical impossibility a few decades—years, even—ago.
Branch is best known for his landmark trilogy documenting the civil rights movement. The first of these books, Parting the Waters: American in the King Years, 1954–63, won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize. The successive volumes—Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963–65 and At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965–68—garnered near-unanimous acclaim and are must-reads for anyone interested in a comprehensive understanding of the movement that changed this nation from a structurally racist society to one struggling to make peace with its complicated history. Branch’s conversation with James Fallows of The Atlantic at the Aspen Institute coincided with the release of another book by Branch, The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement, which is something of a CliffsNotes version of the other three books.
Fifty years is a long time for Americans who seem to have never embraced—or learned—an accurate story of our racial history. In just a half century this nation has come a long way—from George Wallace to President Barack Obama. Branch reminds all of us—and white Americans in particular—that the nation is truly a better place than it used to be and is worthy of heeding the lessons that this 50-year anniversary heralds.
Or, as Branch so eloquently stated:
Any minority person lives having to stretch themselves across the boundaries because their accepted world is not the accepted world. So Barack Obama is the first elected African American president, but he’s also the one who’s mentioned race least since Dwight Eisenhower. And whenever he does, a storm comes up. If he says his son would’ve looked like Trayvon Martin, the whole world goes nuts, saying that he’s being too black. … So it shows that we are accepting, and we are moving forward, and it is vital, but we’re doing it on our terms, that is, the majority culture is doing it on our terms, and we’re blind to the fact that our unconscious assumptions … our political discourse—antigovernment, in which “big government” is bad, is out of phase with what ought to be a very bracing and optimistic view of what we’ve accomplished in the last 50 years that ought to steel us for the task of again stepping outside our comfort zones and again trying to tackle difficult problems today.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.