BALTIMORE – Look for the connections. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s opened doors to movements for justice that came later for LGBTQ people, women, people with disabilities, environmentalists and, most recently, victims of sexual harassment and assault.
Taylor Branch, the author and historian who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book “Parting the Waters,” the first part of his “America in the King Years” trilogy, stressed the interwoven nature of the justice movements of the last 50 years in his address Nov. 9 to the Covenant Network of Presbyterians national gathering.
Branch, who attends Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, an urban congregation, said “the world has changed an enormous amount” since the 1960s – for example, with entrenched secrecy involving gay and lesbian identity largely giving way to marriage equality.
People fought for civil rights for so long, and the breakthroughs that resulted, “both spiritually and politically,” opened doors and changed things in other fields, other places, other times, he said.
Branch credited the Covenant Network with working “to create justice a lot of people never thought was possible,” as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) revised its policy to permit gays and lesbians with partners to be ordained and to allow PC(USA) ministers to perform same-gender marriages. “You’re an important group,” he said – pointing out that Covenant Network is now turning its attention to racial justice (the theme of this conference is “Our Shared Humanity.”)
But Branch is not describing a straightforward trajectory of progress. He says, for example, that many fail to give credit to the civil rights movement for the positive changes it brought to the South – as he put it, “the civil rights movement liberated the white South.” At the time, it was the poorest region, not the Sunbelt; the advances earned through the movement opened the door for professional sports to move in and “the stigma washed off of southern politicians,” he said.
Instead of seeing those changes as blessings, some resent them – blaming government interference and with the “nonstop repetition of the word ‘conservative’ as a moniker of upright supremacy,” Branch said. They don’t give credit regarding what wasn’t conserved – to the end of Jim Crow, or to colleges that formerly restricted admission to men opening their doors to women. When Branch attended the University of North Carolina, state law prohibited women from attending, except in the nursing school, he said. Now, more than six in 10 students at the university are women – an illustration of “huge demographic changes we take for granted,” Branch said.
That ought to be celebrated, he said. Instead, “we live in a world that is paralyzed by cynicism” and where a dominant motif of the last 50 years has been that government is bad. And “race is still driving most of our politics to this day.”
He described nonviolence as the foundation of both civil ethics and faith – and said violence is central to the country’s crisis around race. Often college students are taught that power and violence are synonymous – because those who use violence to gain power claim control. But Branch said he learned from political theorist Hannah Arendt that they actually can be seen as opposites – that power can be found in cooperation and nonviolence, and that when everyone is fighting, “there is no power.”
While many say they oppose violence, it permeates the American culture – movies, video games, music. Nonviolence is seen as unfashionable, seen as an “esoteric strange doctrine for vegetarians” – even rejected later by some who participated in the nonviolent civil rights movement, Branch said.
Instead, he views nonviolence as “the soul of democracy,” and laments that “we’re hostage to the gun lobby. … We worship guns.”
Consequently, Branch said, “we don’t claim a bold enough witness for the benefits of nonviolence in religion and for democracy,” or promote the idea that nonviolence on behalf of justice can be a force for “working miracles again.”
Branch also spoke of the enduring legacy of racism – and the reluctance among many to talk about race.
“Race defines where we live, it defines who our likely dinner partner are, it defines our cultural comfort,” he said. Also: “There’s no accident about why people a quarter mile apart in different neighborhoods have life expectancies different by 20 years.”
Now, amid the Donald Trump presidency, there’s “a powerful underground racism that has come to the surface,” Branch said – in part an outgrowth of 50 years of people denying the benefits brought by the civil rights movement, and of saying “government was bad. We know better than Washington.”
George Wallace, the former governor of Alabama, declared, “I’m not running on race. I’m running to take control of this government back to the little people,” away from the biased media, Branch said. “This is 1964. He basically invented the vocabulary for modern politics. Give him his due, he’s a genius in political transformation. … You could get elected just by cussing the government.”
Now, “the distress in the country economically and otherwise is enough” that an anti-government message isn’t enough – and “that’s forcing the underlying racist messages to the surface,” Branch said.
The PC(USA) is about 91 percent white – does that mean “the brand is broken for people of color?” a man asked during a question-and-answer time.
One of the reasons the denomination is so white now is that churches moved to the suburbs in the 1960s, Branch responded. “It’s not an accident,” he said. If the PC(USA) wants to become more diverse, Presbyterians need to go to where the people of color live.