ST PETER — In a violent world, the nonviolent philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr. is often denounced as a thing of the past, as the only means available to an oppressed and dispossessed people grappling for equality.
This has been one of the greatest myths after the civil rights era died down, said Taylor Branch, called the pre-eminent biographer of Martin Luther King Jr.
We have forgotten the unequivocal power nonviolence has had in causing change worldwide, he said. And where the civil rights movement is concerned, we often forget the “astonishing courage” it took for unarmed, powerless people to confront their oppressors.
“I’m here to try to convince you that Martin Luther King Jr. Day is not just a quaint and inspirational moment from our past,” Branch said Monday morning at Gustavus Adolphus College during the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Lecture. “Nonviolence lifted the whole country toward the true meaning of our professed values.”
That’s why it troubles Branch so much that so many people view King as a symbol, only remembering the CliffsNotes to the movement. In the face of “searing dishonor,” black people put all of their hope and fear on the line, one act of civil disobedience at a time. And turning such events into mythology and symbolism blinds us to reality, he said.
Among the myths that have developed since the civil rights era is that racial injustice is largely conquered, he said. And existing simultaneously is the idea that race is intractable. People look at racial problems, such as the achievement gap in schools and the high percentage of black males in prisons, and they say the problem is too big, he said. Whichever myth one ascribes to, the result is the same: “It’s a waste of time either way,” he said. “We avoid them, and we avoid looking under the surface at reality.”
Another troubling prevalent myth, he said, is that violence is the bedrock of democracy. And even the “miracles” achieved through nonviolent means from 1955 to 1965 are forgotten.
When Branch was a boy, the KKK were referred to as “redeemers” in the history books. Black families were afraid to report the murders of their family members because they likely would have been reporting them to their killers. And a decade of nonviolence put an end to that terrorism.
“Wherever hope raises its head on our Earth, nonviolence is there,” he said. “We ignore this at our peril.”
Branch was born in Atlanta in the segregated South, and he remembers seeing young children, mostly girls, on television in May of 1963 march in Alabama to talk to their mayor about segregation, an act of nonviolence later named the Children’s Crusade. Fire hoses and dogs were used to prevent them from reaching the mayor.
Being unable to understand their motives was what initially piqued Branch’s interest in the movement.
He went on in 1970 to become a staff journalist for The Washington Monthly, Harper’s and Esquire. He became best known for his landmark narrative history of the civil rights era, called “America in the King Years.” The first book in the trilogy, “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63,” won the Pulitzer prize for history in 1988.
At the end of his 45-minute lecture Monday, Branch cited Nelson Mandela’s influence on ending apartheid in South Africa and Tiananmen Square as examples of the power of nonviolence.
“A vote is a piece of nonviolence,” he said. “And democracy is a cathedral of votes.”
Victoria Clark, a sophomore and editor of the Gustavian Weekly, said Branch inspires people to examine who King is to us today. And she respects that Branch urges readers of his published work to “see beyond ultra simplifications” of that period in history.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Lecture is an annual event at Gustavus. Previous speakers have included the Rev. C.T. Vivian and Bernard Lafayette Jr.