“Truth requires a maximum effort to see through the eyes of strangers, foreigners and enemies.”
Over the course of his storied career, author and historian Taylor Branch has won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Lifetime Achievement Award, and a National Humanities Medal.
His landmark narrative history of the Civil Rights Era, America in the King Years, has been compared with other epic histories such as Shelby Foote’s The Civil War and Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. The King-era trilogy required more than 24 years of intensive research as Branch sought to illuminate not only the life of the man, but also the times in which he lived. Writing in The News & Observer, Timothy B. Tyson said, “Taylor Branch has become the most important narrator of America’s democratic aspirations…. a profound act of citizenship, scholarship, and storytelling as he brings those years to life and lets them speak their truth for the ages.”
The trilogy’s first book, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63, was hailed in Time as a “major accomplishment in biography as social history” and as “a paradigm of the new American history at its best” by Newsweek’s Jim Miller. It was honored with a Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and a Christopher Award. President Obama included Parting the Waters on his list of 10 books he recommends for future leaders.
Two successive volumes also gained critical and popular success: Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65, and At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968. Of Pillar of Fire, a Sojourners contributor wrote, “The drama of the times comes through in gripping fashion.” Anthony Lewis, writing in The New York Times Book Review, called At Canaan’s Edge “a thrilling book, marvelous in both its breadth and its detail. There is drama in every paragraph.”
Branch’s drew on this essential history to write The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement, which presents eighteen key episodes across the full span of the era, selected and linked by language from the trilogy, with new introductions for each of the chapters. The result is a compact, 190-page primer for readers interested in this transformative period in American history. “You come away from this trim digest inspired and enlightened,” wrote Gene Seymour in American History. Branch also offers an online seminar from the University of Baltimore built around The King Years and other texts.
Branch served as an executive producer of the “thought-provoking, richly detailed” (San Francisco Chronicle) HBO documentary King in the Wilderness, winner of the 2019 Emmy for Outstanding Historical Documentary. Along with archival footage, the film includes interviews with Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Jesse Jackson, John Lewis and more in “a searing portrait” of the last 18 months of Dr. King’s life. It captures him in “a purgatory of anxiety and conflict” (Variety) as he, in the words of Andrew Young, fought “to redeem the soul of America from the triple evils of racism, war and poverty.” King in the Wilderness was hailed as “a call to action and a radical embrace of the values of nonviolence that Dr. King preached throughout his short, purposeful life” (RogerEbert.com).
In the October 2011 issue of The Atlantic, Branch published an influential cover story entitled “The Shame of College Sports,” making a strong case for the payment of college athletes. Author and NPR commentator Frank Deford said it “may well be the most important article ever written about college sports.” The article touched off a continuing national debate on the treatment of college athletes and the sometimes-messy relationship between sports and scholasticism. An expanded version of the article was published as a digital book and on-demand paperback: The Cartel: Inside the Rise and Imminent Fall of the NCAA.
Far more personal than Branch’s previous books, The Clinton Tapes: Conversations with a President, 1993 – 2001 was the result of an unprecedented eight-year project to gather a sitting president’s comprehensive oral history on tape. Joe Klein, writing in The New York Times Book Review, called it an “odd, revealing and often delightful book.”
Branch addresses audiences at colleges, high schools, churches, synagogues, mosques, and political and professional groups. He has discussed doctrines of nonviolence with prisoners at San Quentin as well as officers at the National War College. His seminars on civil rights have reached sixth-grade classrooms and the halls of Oxford University. His 2008 address at the National Cathedral marked the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s last Sunday sermon from that pulpit. In 2009, he delivered the Theodore H. White Lecture on the Press and Politics at Harvard.
Branch began his career in 1970 as a staff journalist for The Washington Monthly, Harper’s, and Esquire. He holds honorary doctoral degrees from over a dozen colleges and universities. Currently, he is at work on a new book about race in America, Freedom’s Veil: Race in American History.
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