Bringing alive lessons of civil rights movement Taylor Branch shares passion for history in Goucher courses


For his class assignment, Damian Pitts reluctantly attended a Jewish bar mitzvah in Park Heights. He was pleasantly surprised.

"They made me feel at ease, even though I was six-four and black and stood out like a sore thumb," the Goucher College junior from Laurel said last week.

Having a black student visit a Jewish synagogue is par for the courses taught at Goucher this year by Taylor Branch. Author of two critically acclaimed books on the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Branch is trying to impart his passion for the subject to a new generation -- one for whom the era is ancient history.

He has two classes this semester at Goucher, with some students from Morgan State University attending as well. One covers the history of the civil rights movement; the other is a seminar on race, religion and democratic thought.

"I should have had my head examined," Branch said last week, shaking it.

By all appearances, the novice teacher has challenged and engaged his students, but it has not been easy. Branch, 51, has had to sandwich his classes into a hectic schedule that had him crisscrossing the country early in the year promoting the publication of his latest book: "Pillar of Fire," the second part in a trilogy on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the movement.

Though the book tour is over, the frenetic pace continues. On Monday, he flew to Memphis, Tenn., for a conference on children. On Thursday, he went to Los Angeles to see about filming his first book, "Parting the Waters." And on Friday, he drove to Ocean City to speak to the state librarians association.

With much of last week on the road, Branch had almost no free time left for a final review session for students before final examinations this week. So he agreed to meet with his classes over the weekend -- on Friday, Sunday and Monday nights.

If any students felt cheated by their instructor's limited time, none said so last week.

"I was always interested in civil rights history, and no one knows more," said Pitts. "He really knows what he's talking about, and he's not afraid to say it."

Branch blamed his "Protestant work ethic" for his teaching debut, explaining that he feared he would be idle after he finished writing "Pillar of Fire" in the fall.

But another reason for his teaching may be Branch's conviction that the people, ideas and events that launched the civil rights movement in the 1960s still have a lot to say to Americans of today.

In the preface to "Pillar of Fire," he writes that "never before was a country transformed, arguably redeemed, by the active moral witness of schoolchildren."

Yet today's schoolchildren -- and even many adults -- are woefully ignorant of what happened in the 1960s.

In San Francisco, during his book tour, Branch recalled, a 30-something news anchor asked him who J. Edgar Hoover was.

On the first day of class at Goucher in January, Branch found out that fewer than half his students knew Dwight D. Eisenhower had been president. Only a few recognized Nikita Khruschev and Ho Chi Minh as the leaders of the Soviet Union and North Vietnam during the early 1960s.

"The fact they didn't have a fact base in the movement really scared me at first," Branch said. But as he told them about the protest marches, the political struggle and the wave of social change unleashed back then, they responded.

"They were excited that young people their age were actors," he said. "That really fascinated them."

So much so that when he asked the students who they would like to have as a guest lecturer, they overwhelmingly voted for Diane Nash, 59, who as a college student in Nashville, Tenn., helped organize lunch counter sit-ins, "freedom rides" and voter registration drives in the South. At Branch's behest, Nash flew from Chicago to speak with the class two weeks ago.

Tales of the FBI

Branch challenged his students last week as one gave a book report on how the Federal Bureau of Investigation had spied on King and even threatened to expose his illicit affairs if he did not commit suicide.

"I'm surprised none of you are asking whether or not what the FBI said about King was true." He went on to recount the FBI's abuse of its law enforcement powers under its iron-fisted director, J. Edgar Hoover.

Of King's alleged infidelities, he told the class: "He stands in a long line of powerful people, including religious leaders from St. Augustine on, who got carried away in matters of passion."

Branch is a longtime friend of President Clinton, another powerful person accused of similar shortcomings, and Branch's wife, Christina, works for Hillary Rodham Clinton.

A feel for history

The synagogue visit was another way Branch challenged his students. He wanted the history class to get a feel for the suspicion and outright hostility that young black activists faced in trying to break down the entrenched segregation in the South. So he required everyone to go somewhere in the community where they clearly did not fit in.

Some students went to black churches, others to mosques. A few went to a soup kitchen, a homeless shelter and to Baltimore County jail. Then they had to stand in front of the class and recount their experiences.

"I was the only person who wasn't black," Kent Yuen, a junior from New York, said of his visit to Mount Calvary African Methodist Episcopal Church in Towson. "I kind of thought when I went in that people were going to look at me and think, 'Who is this kid?' I left feeling really loved."

The class on the civil rights movement covers ground Branch has researched for the past 15 years. His seminar on democratic thought is more abstract, but related.

"My goal," he explained, "is to get them to see that [democracy] is precious, relatively new in any big historical perspective, and fragile. And that there are a lot of people, including me, if you punch down deep enough, who have anti-democratic fears and beliefs."

The last several classes, he tried to get the seminar students to apply what they'd learned to current controversies. Almost TV talk show-style, students argued over the democratic basis for everything from abortion to motorcycle helmet laws. There were no right or wrong answers.

Complex issues

"We're trying to figure out how you reconcile individual freedom with democratic power," Branch interjected at one point.

Though struggling to make sense of complex issues, the students he had this semester are bright and idealistic, Branch said.

"I don't see any Generation X or any of those other caustic labels put on them," he said.

For senior Kate Hughes, her class assignment -- helping serve lunch at Our Daily Bread in downtown Baltimore -- reaffirmed her desire to work with homeless people.

"It was just sad how 900 people a day go in there and need food," she told the class. "It makes me question our country's priorities."

A lesson comes to life

One 34-year-old black student from Morgan, Brenda Taite, found segregation alive -- at least in spirit -- when she inquired about enrolling her son in an all-white private academy in her Alabama hometown.

The school requires applicants to get the endorsement of at least two members of its board. Taite, a descendant of slaves, said that one board member hung up on her when she telephoned, even though she had met him while visiting the school earlier. Another discouraged her from applying by saying: "We don't let just anybody into the school."

Taite, a history major, said Branch's lectures on what happened in Alabama during the '60s were news to her. Although she grew up there, she said, the local schools did not teach anything about how then-Gov. George Wallace attempted to prevent integration of the state's university and other public places.

"My dream is to go back to Alabama and write those history books," she said.

Pub Date: 5/11/98

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