TIME Talks with MLK Biographer Taylor Branch

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TIME: Why was he so steadfast about nonviolence?

TB: It was surprising to me how he emphasized it more and more as other people emphasized it less and less. I didn't really expect that. I think maybe he emphasized it more and more because it was the bridge between the two footholds of his message to America, the spiritual one and the patriotic one, what I call equal souls and equal boats. A mark of King oratory is that he would always offer you two entry points, one through patriotic documents about all men are created equal. Equal votes is the heritage of our country. And the other through the prophetic notion from the Hebrew prophets of equal souls before God. [He is saying], we will win our freedom because the heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.

TIME: Except that in both the patriotic and the scriptural tradition, there has been violence. Patriots who fight for their country, the Crusaders marching on for the cross. But he still maintained that there was a nonviolent way.

TB: Yes, but what I'm saying is I think he had a strong conviction that what mediated between those two things is nonviolence. A vote is a piece of nonviolence. That's what it is, and the heart of the religious tradition that made the prophets say, put down your swords and ploughshares and you, even a King, will be measured by the way you treat widows and orphans because they have equal souls before God, is kind of a root basis for democracy and politics. So, I have a line in there where he put one foot in the Constitution, one foot in the Scriptures, and both in nonviolence because he found a foothold in each tradition through nonviolence.

So I just think that was his balance. He had oratorical gifts, but he also had a great gift for balance. And he knew that he was becoming more isolated and that's why you sense that in his rhetoric. He was very aware that his Poor People's Campaign may not win, but [he felt] it's the direction I want to point toward and it is nonviolent and I may not get there with you, which of course accounts for the title [of the book]—all my titles come out of Exodus—like Moses, he got right up to the edge and was allowed to see a vision where equality is the leading spirit in America and the Freedom Movement, but it's coming apart, and he's not allowed to go there. Like Moses, he doesn't get to the promised land, he gets to the edge of it.

TIME: Is there any guidance from the work that he was doing then, that could be applied now, as people are wrestling with how do we change conditions for poor people in the wake of Katrina?

TB: What he said was, the important thing is that first, we have to believe we can do something about this. We're putting this on the agenda because we think we can do something, not necessarily solve it, but freedom has worked miracles before. Nobody had thought that people in Lowndes County, Ala., would ever be able to vote, and they are, and there's no terror there, and that came because somebody dreamed that it was possible when others thought that it wasn't. He was saying, let's put these wretched conditions of poverty on the table and as a national agenda of hope. And that's really a distinctive thing about King. He had a language of hope in really terrible empirical conditions.

TIME: So many people over the years have said why aren't there any more Martin Luther Kings? Why has there not emerged another leader?

TB: I don't know. I get that question all the time. Usually what I say is they're rare. Any kind of overarching leader. Why aren't there more Abraham Lincolns? They're very rare. They're a product of the times, and of course, King's time was a time when we were wrestling with what the free world meant. Our survival stands on what its inner meaning is, and also of course, he arrived because he was a surprise. Nobody expected an overarching leader of American freedom to be a black man. I mean people did not see that. He was the leader of the whole country. The movement was leader of the whole country, and so, the next Martin Luther King probably won't be black, but he'll be a surprise. Or she'll be a surprise.

TIME: What was it that first brought you to this whole project of King's life?

TB: My childhood. I grew up in Atlanta and in the '50s and was not interested in politics, but I was kind of stupefied by this movement and what it meant and how nervous it made me and all of my friends and how it turned knees to jelly. Really the Birmingham demonstrations in '63 were the first events that turned me political. I was 16, and I had just gotten to the point where I was saying, well, gosh, when I get impossibly old and secure, like 30, maybe this is an important enough issue that I would stick my toe in the water and try to help, and then lo and behold, I look on TV, and there are eight-year-old girls—mostly girls—marching into those dogs and fire hoses and then not turning around. I'm saying, well, what's making them do it, now? They don't have advantages and they're doing it, and they're singing songs that are very much like the songs I sing in Sunday School. How can this be and where is it coming from? And so my whole career has basically been kind of answering that moment.

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