TIME Talks with MLK Biographer Taylor Branch

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TIME: Was it difficult for you to get people to talk who were at that time questioning him, to talk about that?

TB: It was difficult to get some people to talk, just because a lot of people think that the realities of the movement are so far removed from whatever the myth was, that it's not worth talking, or that I'm not worth talking to, or whatever, but, the movement was filled with self-confident men and women to be able to do what they did, and for most of them, whether it was [black power advocate] Stokely Carmichael or Captain Joseph, Malcolm X's guy, giving their raw-boned opinions is a trifle compared with what they had done before. So they were pretty comfortable in their criticisms of King.

TIME: I was interested in how King continued to turn to [attorney] Stanley Levison. What was it about that relationship that seemed to make him so comfortable? What was the role that Levison filled for him?

TB: I just think that he's somebody that he always listened to and the thing about King was that he was comfortable in having—essentially having a circular gunfight with him in the middle with all these very big egos, yelling and screaming at one another, and he always wanted Stanley to be part of that, and he did, it is true, talk to him more than any of the others one-on-one. He would call him and talk to him in private. He had a confidence that Stanley didn't want anything. He had no ulterior motives and agendas, and that's something which is very rare, as you see. You see how much he's different from everybody else, including [March on Washington coordinator] Bayard Rustin and lots of other people who are brilliant, brilliant people, but they all have their own angles, and also Stanley criticized King unvarnished and straight-on as opposed to in great rhetorical sermons, and that sort of thing. He would tell him, you know, Martin, I think you're making a profound error here. Nobody else said things like that.

TIME: One of the things that the book does is without being sensational, is talk about King's affairs and his chauvinistic attitude towards women. Was that a difficult decision to put those things into the book?

TB: Yes. It was difficult how much weight to give it. But the people who traveled with him were pretty frank. Martin was a chauvinist. Some of them described it almost just as a way of simplifying his world. He had to have rules about what kind of meetings he was having with people, and he tended to want to have business meetings with the men and social meetings with the women, although at the same time, he also knew that the movement lived and breathed on the labor of women.

TIME: If I read the book correctly, the genesis of the idea for the Poor People's Campaign comes from Marian Wright [who, under her married name, Marian Wright Edelman, later became head of the Children's Defense Fund]. TB: Absolutely, and the genesis to go to Selma comes from Diane Nash. In many respects, Diane was the most unsung heroine of the whole movement because in earlier times, she was right up there on the Freedom Ride. She's an innovator in nonviolence, and King gave her his highest award and I think he recognized her, but at the same time, she was kind of trampled and lost and neglected, and not appreciated. He knew that she was doing pioneer things, and that the women did, but the tradition of pulpit leadership was so male and that standard, he was just comfortable with that.

TIME: This is hypothetical, but might he have evolved, become a feminist?

TB: Well, I always think there's hope for anybody, and the Women's Movement—he was discussing that. I mean he was talking about it. He recognized it as an issue not only of politics but of his own mental health toward the end of his life, but I don't think that he transformed his life.

TIME: His own mental health, meaning?

TB: This is an issue—the way I think of and treat women is an issue of my own identity and health. Because he was discussing that. There are little hints of that. But his life was cut short. There was a transitional time really for everybody on things that his movement had set in motion. He was cut down, so we don't know what he would have become privately.

TIME: You've spent two decades working on these books. What's going to be your next project?

TB: Well, I don't know. I just finished this one. I know the next thing won't be this long. It's not going to be another three volumes, but my guess is it's going to grow out of it. It's been such a profound education for me to live with this for almost 24 years, that there is a lot there and I hope to wrestle with some of the themes. Maybe not some of the people, but some of the ideas in it. But I want to get back to books that only take a year or two.

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