Branch: King's legacy lives in future, not past
Martin Luther King Jr. was more than the leader of a "peculiar movement and a long past set of times," civil rights historian and award-winning author Taylor Branch said during a Jan. 19 MLK Symposium lecture.
Rather, King is about the future and his influence is still ahead of us. He should be regarded as a "modern founder" in this nation's history alongside Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln and the suffragettes to name just a few, Branch said.
Branch, the author of the epic trilogy "America in the King Years" (Simon & Schuster), shared his thoughts during a lecture hosted by the Stephen M. Ross School of Business in its new Blau Auditorium. As a Pulitzer Prize-winning scholar who has dedicated more than two decades to three books chronicling the civil rights era, Branch widely is considered the definitive literary source on King and his legacy.
"King did what the other modern founders did," Branch said. "He confronted systems of hierarchy and subjugation and set in motion changes for a common citizenship, which is the very promise of America. Martin Luther King is about the future. It's about how we apply the ideas born of the civil rights movement going forward, because these ideas are the base ideas of democracy itself."
King's movement was couched in the fact that power grows against the grain of violence. "King was right when he said that democracy itself is nonviolence," Branch said. "You bomb a church and kill four little girls, and now people vote in Alabama. What is a vote? A little piece of nonviolence in a ballot. Democracy is nothing but a huge cathedral of votes. Not just on election day, but on every board, every little league and every corporation. There are thousands and thousands of interconnected votes that make this country run."
As a white southerner who grew up in the segregated south and was transformed by the civil rights movement, Branch said the most enduring amazement to him is that a movement for freedom was led by African Americans who'd never really experienced the benefits, the privileges and the promises of democracy. Somehow they found the political genius, the indescribable discipline, the nonviolent courage and the grace to lift "all the rest of us" toward the true meaning of our own professed values as Americans.
"Now from a larger base, we must all become modern founders," Branch said. "Because that's what the world needs and that's what our citizenship requires. King was right when he said that no leader in a modern democracy in a shrinking world is so wise that the leader can make major progress toward freedom without an aroused citizenry pushing him, behind him, ahead of him. We all have to do our part. That's the great lesson from the civil rights era."