"Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter From Birmingham Jail and the Struggle that Changed the Nation," by Jonathan Rieder. Rieder, a sociology professor at Barnard College, Columbia University, puts one of the nation's most famous missives under the microscope. Published on the 50th anniversary of King's penning of the letter in which he said that the freedom movement could not wait, Rieder's book argues that the Birmingham jail letter influenced protest movements from the 1960s up until now. (Bloomsbury Press, $25)
"Martin's Dream: My Journey and the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., A Memoir" by Clayborne Carson. Carson, founding director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University and editor of King's papers, is intimately acquainted with King's gifts as a scholar and orator but also his flaws. Using his own participation in the March on Washington as an entry point, Carson puts us in the room with him as he makes his discoveries about a man who became one of the country's transformative and enduring figures. (Palgrave/MacMillan, $27)
Taylor Branch stands as one of the most prominent chroniclers of the American civil rights movement. His trilogy, “America in the King Years,” is considered the definitive account of the tumultuous years that reshaped not just race relations but the nation’s political landscape. The Atlanta-native’s first book in the trilogy “Parting the Waters,” earned him the Pulitzer Prize. It was followed by “Pillar of Fire” and “At Canaan’s Edge.” But even Branch is aware that at more than 800 pages per volume, the editions are, in a way, trophy books for a lot of people — volumes that you own, know you should read but haven’t managed to finish.
Branch’s newest addition to the series, “The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement” (Simon & Schuster, $26)is the sort of book you can finish in a day or two. It is, in fact, a compilation of excerpts from the original series. At less than 200 pages, “The King Years” hits just enough of the era’s high points. From his home in Baltimore, Branch talks about the new work and how he’s hopeful it will make people revisit the three volumes that may be idling on their bookshelves.
Q: If you count all of the pages of your three volumes about the King years and the civil rights movement, they total more than 2,300 pages. Whose idea was it for you to trim all of that down to a new volume of less than 200 pages, and how difficult was it to do?
A: I can guarantee you it wasn't mine. After spending 24 years of your life on something, I thought it was perfect the way it was. But I did get pretty systematic complaints from teachers over the years saying that their students liked it when they read a section of it, but that it was unwieldy for students to deal with 800 page books. These are college professors, let alone high school. And I got a lot of those complaints from regular readers, who said that the books hurt their collar bones because the books were so fat.
Q: Your books cover the movement from 1954 to 1968. For the new book, how did you winnow that down to the 18 most important moments of the era?
A: There are two hard things. No. 1: Which stories do you tell if you can tell only 5 percent of the material? And No. 2: Can you give people context to get into those stories in a way that makes sense? It wasn’t easy. There’s lots of blood on my office floor. I had to cut loose a lot of characters and things that are very dear to me.
Q: For example?
A: Selma. It's a very unorthodox choice because what I chose was not to do "Bloody Sunday," [the famous Selma march for voting rights]. I chose this middle march in Selma two days later, which most people have forgotten, because that's really a turning point. All the various elements that had been scattered in the earlier part of the movement—King in one place, SNCC [Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee] in another, the federal government here, the judges there, the congress there — they are all involved in that march. So I'm trying to pick moments that might not always be the most famous ones but that really teach you how a citizens' movement and government can interact over a problem as fundamental as voting rights.
Q: In the 1963 March on Washington chapter, you spent as much time on the speech delivered by U.S. Rep. John Lewis as you did on King’s iconic “I Have Dream” speech. Why give them equal weight?
A: The "Dream" speech is well known. John Lewis is one of the characters that a lot of people know because he has been a congressman. But this is a moment where a character that is not widely associated with the March on Washington got to give a speech that was different than King's but complemented it in many respects and is novel in many respects, including the fact that he referred to what were then Negroes as "black people." We normally think of John Lewis as a hold-over from a previous era, but in that respect he was ahead of common culture at the time. There were other aspects of that speech that were the same way. His speech talks about partisan politics, meaning how do the parties shake out on the fundamental question of race? He's really saying that race is the barometer of how democratic we are. This is only months before party realignment.
Q: We just finished an election cycle, so in light of that, talk about that realignment of the two major political parties.
A: Most Americans need to be reminded that race and race alone had the power to turn our partisan politics upside down in one year — 1964. When I was growing up in Atlanta, Republicans were as scarce as polar bears. The only Republicans we had were a few eccentric judges who said we need to have a two party system. The only other Republicans were Daddy King's generation, the old black-and-tan, party-of-Lincoln Republicans. The Democratic Party was the party that rescued the South from Reconstruction. It was the party of segregation. Before 1964 you could not win elected office in the South if you proposed any change to segregation. It was in the [Georgia] state constitution. All of that changed in June 1964. The Senate was going to vote on the Civil Rights Act, and [then-U.S. Sen.] Barry Goldwater basically had a prayer meeting with himself and got a 75-page legal opinion from William Rehnquist and Robert Bork against supporting it. Goldwater came back and announced he was going to vote against the Civil Rights Act. That moment was the catalyst that changed American politics to this day, because as soon he said, "I'm going to vote against the Civil Rights bill," you had candidates all across the South springing up and saying, "I'm going to be a Republican."
Q: So the flight from the Democratic Party then was …
A: Just what Strom Thurmond said, that the Democratic party [led by Lyndon Johnson] had embraced a vision and wanted to destroy segregation by the power of federal law. It made resentment of the federal government respectable. That kind of resentment, the notion that government is bad, grew out of resentment of the Civil Rights Act and it has lasted ever since as an attitude in the anti-government wing of American politics.
Q: In some ways you’re speaking to a generation for whom Twitter is the 21st century equivalent of the mimeograph leaflet, which was the instrument used to get people to attend rallies during the movement.
A: I guess that's true and I'm struggling to catch up with it. Just today I had to get my son's iPad to look at this enhanced [digital] version of the book. In the text where I talk about a demonstration where people are going to jail, you can actually see news footage of it. I don't know whether that will make a difference to modern readers or not, but it's really fun for me to look at it. To me, this is all news because we've worked too hard make our memories of the racial upheaval of that time comfortable.
Q: How so?
A: The real danger in racial history is that our first objective will be to make ourselves comfortable in the memories, and that we will find the Martin Luther King that is comfortable for us. So if we don't like Martin Luther King, we will find the Martin Luther King who had a mistress or who violated the law. We will find some way of avoiding the moral witness that he represented and the fact that he really did improve American democracy for everybody.
Q: With this book you could have updated us on the lives of the survivors of the movement. Why didn’t you?
A: The thing that's most on my mind is not exactly what happened to all the people, but what happened to all the issues that they raised? I think the key part that is missing is when will the United States get a balanced memory of what the 1960s meant to American politics? A lot of people are still living in resentment and other people are still worshipping the 1960s without really understanding it. When we have a balanced view we'll be better off in tackling tough problems. That's the enduring lesson. We've got to start figuring out how to cross our differences so we can solve really intractable problems.