Taylor Branch is an eminent historian, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and a certified expert on the life and times of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Branch’s trilogy “America in the King Years” has been required reading since the first volume rolled off the presses in 1988.
There’s just this one small problem with Branch’s acclaimed work, one that teachers often call to his attention: His books are long, weighing in at roughly 800 pages apiece.
“They said my books were unwieldy for assignment, not only in high school but even in college,” Branch said with a laugh last week. “They said it was harder and harder in the digital age to make use of the book in classes.”
A sad commentary to be sure, but the process of remastering his classic for a new era has begun. Branch has published a short new book — “The King Years” — made up of 18 excerpts from the trilogy. It will be accompanied by the obligatory multimedia elements necessary to keep the history of the movement alive for a new generation of readers who prefer their history distilled. The passages capture the arc of the story, minus much of the detail.
The distillation doesn’t bother Branch, who cares only about the history itself.
“It was just kind of a reminder to me that the long-form approach to civil rights history is not for everyone, and everyone’s not to be blamed for that,” he said. “Basically I got a lot of requests to try to make it more accessible.”
The outlines of the movement are familiar, of course: the Montgomery bus boycott, the famous marches, King’s battles with the FBI, the assassination in Memphis that he prophetically predicted as he led a movement he would pay for with his life.
Like many historians and veterans of the movement, however, Branch worries that its grass-roots origins have been given short shrift. A product of the segregated South himself, he found himself moved by the courage shown by so many who came to change history armed with little other than the faith that they could make a difference.
“It started from millions of people having little inspirations that they could do something after all,” he said. “And you could feel history happening in Selma or during Freedom Summer.”
Referring to the bus boycott that accidentally changed America, he said, “A lot of people felt a movement growing for the first time in the black church when no one knew a movement was coming.” Some of them were ministers who thought the boycott inspired by Rosa Parks would be a fleeting undertaking.
“America in the King Years” — the collective title of the trilogy — is not a conventional biography of King; it is instead an effort to tell the story of an era. In the process, Branch rescued countless activists from relative obscurity. One of the most important is Robert Moses, the indispensable King lieutenant who has lived quietly in Cambridge for years, directing an innovative educational program called the Algebra Project. Education, Moses felt, was another frontier in the fight for equality.
What Branch most mourns when recalling such activism is the waning sense today that ordinary citizens can effect meaningful change.
“We’ve curdled against politics,” he said. “The best and most patriotic politics is when you have a citizenry that takes responsibility for public affairs and gets mobilized. That’s really what’s so inspiring about a lot of the politics of civil rights. If we had a true appreciation for what was done, we would have a much more optimistic view of what our politics can be.”
The lesson that we can make a difference is the movement’s true legacy.
“If we don’t have a good grip on our history we won’t have a good grip on our future,” Branch said. “That’s why the civil rights movement is about our future.”