Atlanta-born journalist and historian Taylor Branch is best known for his epic narrative trilogy of the civil rights era, America in the King Years. He has written extensively for national magazines, and he has authored or collaborated on influential books about United States politics and American sports.
Branch grew up in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta during the 1950s, and he has said that he first became aware of racism when he and his father went to Atlanta Crackers baseball games at Ponce de Leon Park, where he saw black fans and white fans segregated by race. Drawn to the civil rights struggle as a teenager watching televised news of black marchers in the South being attacked by police, Branch became involved in in political activism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he earned a degree in history.
After college, Branch joined the Georgia Delegation of Loyal National Democrats, which challenged the seating of the Lester Maddox delegation at the 1968 national Democratic convention on grounds of cronyism and racial inequality. Then in 1969, while working on a master’s degree in public affairs at Princeton, Branch took a job registering rural black voters in southwest Georgia. He kept a diary that his professor showed to an editor at Washington Monthly, and the magazine invited Branch to develop his impressions into two stories. “Freedom of Choice Desegregation” in November 1969 and “Black Fear” in January 1970 became the first of many articles Branch would write for the Monthly, where he worked as a writer and editor until 1973.
Branch’s magazine work in the 1970s built his reputation as an exhaustive researcher and talented writer, and prepared him for several book-length projects that preceded his civil rights history. In 1972 he and Yale law school student (later to be President) Bill Clinton co-managed the George McGovern presidential campaign in Texas, and that same year Branch contributed several articles to Blowing the Whistle: Dissent in the Public Interest, a book he co-edited on government whistleblowing. He collaborated on three more publications: Blind Ambition: The White House Years by John Dean (as ghostwriter); Second Wind: Memoirs of an Opinionated Man, with basketball star Bill Russell; and Labyrinth, a book on the Washington D.C. assassination of former Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier that Branch co-wrote with the case’s prosecutor. After leaving Washington Monthly, he joined the staff of Harpers Magazine (1973-1975) as Washington editor and was a featured columnist for Esquire (1976-1977).
After he left Esquire and completed work on Second Wind, Branch published a novel, Empire Blues, a political satire set in Washington. Then he began the work with which he would come to be identified, his three-book history America in the King Years.
The trilogy, which Branch has called his major life’s work, required more than twenty-four years of intensive research between 1982 and 2006. The first volume, Parting the Waters, would share the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for history with James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom, and it also won the 1988 National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction.
Parting the Waters, begins in 1954 as Martin Luther King Jr. becomes pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and organizes the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and concludes in the aftermath of the 1963 Birmingham church bombings that killed four young girls. The second book in the trilogy, Pillar of Fire, covers the period 1963-1965, when King’s civil rights struggles in the South became entwined with national politics and crossed paths with other movements such as the Nation of Islam and rising opposition to the war in Viet Nam. At Canaan's Edge documents the evolution of the civil rights era and King’s character in the last three years of his life, ending with his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.
Since completing America in the King Years Branch has published The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President, in which he drew upon seventy-nine intimate conversations he had with President Bill Clinton between 1993 and 2001, and The Cartel, in which Branch dissected the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s history of opposing payments to college athletes while sharing in “amateur athletics” big-money deals. Originally a cover story for The Atlantic magazine called “The Shame of College Sports,” Branch’s report sparked an ongoing public debate and led to an invitation to testify before Congress.
In 2013, Branch published The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement, a distilled selection of eighteen critical events from the civil rights era presented in his trilogy, designed to be a convenient “teaching tool for the digital age.” In addition to his writing, Branch has lectured widely on Martin Luther King’s legacy, discussing his research on civil rights nonviolence with audiences that have ranged from prisoners at San Quentin to officers at the National War College, Oxford University students to middle-school pupils.
The recipient of a 1991 MacArthur Foundation fellowship – “genius grant” – Branch was awarded the National Humanities Medal from President Clinton in 1999.
Photo by J. Brough Schamp courtesy of Taylor Branch.
The following titles by Taylor Branch are held by the Hargrett Library:
Blowing the Whistle: Dissent in the Public Interest. [With Charles Peters] New York: Praeger, 1972.
Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man. [With Bill Russell] New York: Random House, 1979.
The Empire Blues. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981.
Labyrinth. [With Eugene Propper] New York: Viking Press, 1982.
Parting the Waters: America in the King years, 1954-1963. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.
Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.
At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.
The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009.
“The Shame of College Sports,” in The Atlantic, October 2011.
The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013.
The Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, holds the papers of author Taylor Branch including manuscripts, photographs, and correspondence.