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Author reviews research

by MEG HANDELMAN | Wednesday, October 2, 2013


Pulitzer prize winning author, historian and public speaker Taylor Branch came to campus to discuss civil rights, journalism and politics in the Hesburgh Center Auditorium Tuesday. 

Branch is best known for his narrative history of the civil rights era, a trilogy titled “America in the King Years,” according to his website. Branch spent 24 years conducting intensive research to write the books. 

In his talk, Branch discussed his research on Dr. Martin Luther King and his latest book “The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement,” as well as his relationship with President Bill Clinton as discussed in his memoir “The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President.” 

Civil rights history

Branch said the civil rights era was a great time to be a journalist.

“It was the golden era of journalism, the civil rights movement,” Branch said.

Branch said while writing The King Years he drew from a wide range of sources, but the most vital of all were the interviews he conducted

He said it was difficult to convince people involved in the movement to give him the real story he was looking for, and even to simply agree to an interview. 

Branch said his experience in writing the trilogy left him with a greater admiration for King than he had when he began the project. 

“He was dealing with much more difficulty on a much [more] profound level than we realize,” he said. 

When asked if he struggled with whether or not to include certain details about King’s personal life, Branch said he was faithful to the events but used balance in his presentation of the details. 

“I guess that’s the journalist’s faith really: that unflinching truth in details, if told in balance, will not subvert any cause that you have,” Branch said.

Branch said during the civil rights movement, journalists largely ignored African American issues. Leaders of the movement faced the major challenge of gaining the attention of people making a deliberate effort to ignore them.

“Black news was simply not part of the news,” Branch said. “It was hard to break a veil that kept segregation in the south essentially out of view.”

The movement’s commitment to non-violence also made it difficult to gain the attention of a news media more responsive to violent events, he said.

“Civil rights in a journalistic sense was how do we make news in a media environment that is attracted to violence,” Branch said.

Branch said the civil rights movement was kick-started and catalyzed by people in college and younger, so it was significant  that young people were in the news for the first time, he said.

“Even in the NAACP, the civil rights organizations had a hard time accepting the notion that young people could be doing anything serious,” he said. “It took a while for people to be able to say, okay, these are serious people.”


The march on Washington

This year marks the 50-year anniversary of King’s March on Washington, which was celebrated with a huge parade in the national capital last month. Branch said he spent all day watching the coverage in honor of the anniversary.

Branch said the celebration reflected the profound legacy of the march and the civil rights movement overall.

“You had representatives from every subsequent collateral movement that grew out of the civil rights movement standing there,” Branch said. “The civil rights movement opened the door. It was the gateway. When America addressed race it could do anything.”

He said the civil rights movement was focused on race but because of their efforts so many other issues, such as women’s rights and gay rights, were brought to the fore, which allowed for a great deal of progress. 


Buddies with Bill Clinton

In 1972, Branch lived and worked with Bill Clinton while the two worked for the McGovern campaign in Texas. Branch said it was the beginning of a deep friendship between the two men. 

“He [Clinton] called me up and asked if he could bring his new girlfriend, Hillary, which he did. The three of us shared an apartment together for six months,” Branch said.

When Clinton became President, the two continued their friendship and Branch was a close confidant of the President.

Branch said he was particularly impressed with Clinton as president-elect because of Clinton’s concern over documenting the work done in the White House. 

“Most of our history and what we know about what really goes on inside the White House is done by psychological projections on the part of journalists who weren’t there. Its guess work,” Branch said. “So I thought it was significant that a president-elect was worried about documenting.”

Branch said he became President Clinton’s personal sounding board. He drove down to the White House once or twice a month to talk with the President about different issues he was facing. Branch said in this capacity he met with Clinton for 79 long sessions. 

“He [Clinton] would talk about what he really did. It started off as a historical project for the historical record to make up for the fact that he wasn’t going to tape his telephone calls,” Branch said.

When writing the “The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President,” Branch said he struggled to determine what his role was in telling the story. 

Branch said he had to think about his duty as a citizen versus a recorder of history, and also consider what sort of duty he had to Clinton as a friend.

“It was an amazing experience of what its like to be President, which is the purpose of that book. It is a memoir of what it’s like to be a personal sounding board for president of the United States.” Branch said he is proud that he produced a unique window of how a President balances so many things going on at once. 

Branch said their project was kept entirely secret – President Clinton hid the tapes from their sessions in the back of his sock drawer. Branch said that he would bring an extra tape to dictate all the way home what Clinton seemed like, what they discussed, and what Clinton said.

Branch said during the process of publishing the book his relationship with Clinton became somewhat strained, mostly due to the reaction of Clinton’s staff.

“We had some arguments. He and I had arguments during the sessions. I put the arguments in the book and the staff really didn’t like that,” Branch said. “That really ended our relationship on a kind of nasty note until about a year and a half later, he called out of the blue and said, ‘You were right and I was wrong.'”

Branch said Clinton feared that some of the writing about Hilary and Chelsea would be distorted by journalists, but that did not happen. 

Clinton continues to contact Branch every so often, most recently before his speech at the March on Washington anniversary last month, Branch said.