Pulitzer Prize winner: Democracy 'is never secure'

In Elon University’s 2013 Baird Pulitzer Prize Lecture, author Taylor Branch reminds his audience that despite progress born from the civil rights movement, the American system of government and its democratic principles remain fragile.

Americans today take for granted the benefits that flowed from the civil rights movement, according to a leading historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, even though the gains made by the sacrifice of a relatively small number of men and women “paid dividends across the board.”

For Taylor Branch, who has spent his career telling the story of civil rights pioneer Martin Luther King Jr., progress is tenuous, and continued work is required to ensure equal opportunity and equal rights for all people living in the United States, regardless of race, gender, nationality, sexuality or belief systems.

“Talk about global engagement. You are embracing it as the future. You are embracing it not just of goodness, but of strength. The promise of democracy is never secure,” he said. “Citizenship is an obligation and a dogged belief that you can make a difference as a person engaging with all citizens of the world.”

Branch spoke Wednesday night to a crowded McCrary Theatre as part of the university’s Baird Pulitzer Prize Lecture Series. As the author of the critically acclaimed trilogy “America in the King Years,” his remarks – which took place less than a month after the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and King’s “I Have a Dream” speech – focused less on the history of the American civil rights movement and more on its future.

That doesn’t mean history wasn’t important. Branch noted that King permitted many hundreds of teenagers and children, some still in elementary school, to peacefully march in Birmingham, Ala., on May 2, 1963, knowing the type of resistance they would encounter from white authorities.

King’s decision marked a turning point in American history, ultimately leading to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he said. Why? Because news coverage of what unfolded connected with the public on an emotional rather than intellectual level. Up until the Birmingham demonstration, many Americans felt the issue of equal rights would resolve itself with time and new public leadership.

Branch said on Wednesday night that it took children to compensate for the fear of adults.

“In a supreme, some say insane, gamble, Dr. King allowed high school students and elementary school students to march into dogs and firehoses,” he said. “The photographs from that day broke the emotional resistance in the United States on the race issue, it was that strong. … What changed America was anything but rational. It was the searing emotion of watching dogs and firehoses attack children on the streets in Birmingham, in large numbers singing the same songs I sang in Sunday school.”

Branch also challenged students to do more than attend celebrations or volunteer at soup kitchens on Martin Luther King Jr. Day each year. They should “find something that makes you a little uncomfortable about human beings that are slightly different than you” and engage those people in conversation, or join them in learning more about their cultures and practices.

You’ll be better off for it, he added.

“Diversity is not about being nice,” Branch said. “Diversity is about learning how to be strong, intelligently, in an interconnected world.”

Lest his audience believe bipartisanship is dead, Branch discussed three points on which Democrats and Republicans agree: state lotteries, college sport and gerrymandering. The problem is that none of those three areas respect the spirit of American democracy. The poor overwhlemingly feel the effects of lottery addiction, college athletes lack any rights under NCAA rules, and voters themselves possess little practical opportunity to vote incumbents out of office.

“On a bipartisan consensus, the Republican view is that lotteries are better than taxes, and in the Democratic view, lotteries are the only way we can get money for schools,” he said. But lotteries don’t align with the values of a democracy. “What is a democracy? It’s a compact of citizens. What is a lottery? It’s an institutional license by the state that plays it’s own citizens for suckers.”

As for voting: “Both parties will gerrymander and draw the longest possible lines to generate the safest possible districts with the most meaningless possible elections in each election cycle.”

Branch’s most acclaimed books include: “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63”; “Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65”; “At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968”; “The Clinton Tapes”; and “The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement.”

A native of Georgia, Branch earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a Master of Public Administration from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University.

In his remarks, he tipped his hat to Elon University for another contribution to his current hometown in Maryland. “I also want to thank you as a Baltimore resident for Aaron Mellette,” said Branch, referencing a 2013 university alumnus drafted as a wide receiver for the Baltimore Ravens professional football team. Mellette is now on injured reserve. “We wish him well in the recovery of his injury.

“He’s in the news all the time in Baltimore, so thank you for sending him our way!”

The Pulitzer Prizes, awarded annually since 1917, are the nation’s most prestigious awards in journalism and the liberal arts. The Baird Pulitzer Prize Lecture Series brings recipients to campus each year with guests who have included David McCullough, Dave Barry, George Will, Anna Quindlen, Thomas Friedman, David Halberstam and Maureen Dowd.

The Baird Pulitzer Prize Lecture Series was made possible in 2001 with an endowed gift from James H. and Jane M. Baird of Burlington, N.C., who were the first presidents of the Elon Parents Council. Their son, Macon, is a 1987 Elon graduate and their son-in-law, Michael Hill, earned his Elon degree in 1989.

“We thank the Bairds for their generosity and contributions to the intellectual life of the Elon community,” Kenn Gaither, associate dean of the School of Communications, said in his welcoming remarks to the audience. “These are people who are on the front lines of moderating seminal issues in our national dialogue, and they do so in a way befitting the most prestigious award in journalism and the arts.”