Set your head and heart straight with a dose of Taylor Branch

If you were at least 10-years-old in 1955, you should read Taylor Branch's trilogy on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: "Parting the Waters, 1955 - 1963"; "Pillar of Fire, 1963 -1965"; and "At Canaan's Edge, 1965 - 1968." You were alive as American history was taking place. You may have known what the newspaper and television said, but what you heard, read, and saw was actually the tip of the iceberg and these books provide extensive details.

If you were less than 10 years old in 1955, you should read Branch's books because knowing this American history may assist you in understanding some of the conflicts of the present. More importantly, you may understand why and how you can help solve problems rather than be a problem, especially an unwitting one.

Though the "King Years" numbered a mere 13, occurrences during that short period directly influenced Montgomery, Al., the South, the United States and much of the world. The painstaking odyssey of King and company and his opponents as examined and reported by white Southerner Taylor Branch moves on many levels.

Branch and this black female Southerner have a number of similarities. The words "civil rights" are a mantra for both of us. The two words almost always bring to mind protesters being attacked by dogs; marchers being sprayed, knocked down by the force of water from fire hoses; the four little girls in Sunday school getting bombed; Viola Liuzzo; the open casket view of Emmett Till in Jet magazine; Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney; the "Little Rock Nine" at Central High School; the petite Rosa Parks; the pint-size 6-year-old Ruby Bridges escorted to elementary school by what must have seemed to her huge policemen.

I never again have to see any of the pictures that mark these events because the pictures are embedded in my mind. I can't recall thinking of one and not remembering all, or some, of the others.

There's nothing pleasant about these events, but I am always proud that, as a result, some of the people involved - the good and bad, right and wrong - along with their contemporaries, and certainly their descendants, have generally fared better in America. Though Branch might not say that civil rights is a mantra for him, I think he would agree that at least one experience strikes him as the ones above strike me: the bombing of the 16th Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham. The perplexity in Branch's voice as he relates the story today reminds me of my feelings.

Branch was an early teen when the four little girls were killed in Birmingham, and he could not understand how anyone could be killed in Sunday school. Branch himself attended Sunday school, and he guessed these girls sang some of the same songs he sang while there.

Though he was miles away from this incident, it was a defining point in his life. The young Branch began asking questions that many - especially Southern blacks - had been asking more than 350 years. While the books do not answer these questions, they do tell the stories of the major players during the time of some of the events, especially King. Perhaps readers can construct satisfactory answers after reading Branch's work.

Branch has stated that, "The civil rights movement democratized the United States far beyond the end of legal segregation. It lifted subjugation to help create a visible black middle class. It shifted the entire partisan structure of national politics. It enriched and de-stigmatized the white South, spurring new opportunity everywhere from major league sports to presidential leadership. It enhanced bold collateral movements that put women into West Point and the clergy, gained access to normal life for disabled people, and made homosexual rights imaginable. It opened naturalized U.S. citizenship to legal immigrants from Asia, Africa, and southern Europe. Abroad, it inspired stunning democratic hopes to dismantle both the Soviet empire and South Africa apartheid without the scourge of war."

Branch's weaving of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War presents a picture, a connection, which many fail to see. The solution to both, notes Branch, was the same: treat each other as we wish to be treated. It's a lesson religious leaders all over the world have taught for centuries.[[In-content Ad]]