Taylor Branch is an American author and public speaker best known for his landmark narrative history of the civil rights era, America in the King Years. The trilogy’s first book, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63, won the Pulitzer Prize and numerous other awards in 1989. Two successive volumes also gained critical and popular success: Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65 (1998), and At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968 (2006).
In 2009, Simon and Schuster published The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President. Far more personal than Branch’s previous books, this memoir tells of an unprecedented eight-year project to gather a sitting president’s comprehensive oral history on tape. The collaboration is a story in itself, born of mutual concern over the declining quality of raw material for presidential history. Branch met with President Bill Clinton for 79 secret sessions, nearly always late at night in the White House residence. They recorded candid observations for posterity. The book reveals a president up close and unguarded, as perceived by an author struggling to balance many roles.
In the October 2011 issue of The Atlantic, Branch published an influential cover story entitled “The Shame of College Sports,” which author and NPR commentator Frank Deford said, “may well be the most important article ever written about college sports.” The article touched off continuing national debate. Byliner.com, a pioneer e-book publisher, issued an expanded version of the article as a digital book, The Cartel: Inside the Rise and Imminent Fall of the NCAA. Branch and his work are featured in a 2013 documentary film, Schooled: The Price of College Sports.
Branch returned to civil rights history in his latest book, The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement (2013). It presents eighteen key episodes across the full span of the era, selected and knitted together in language from the trilogy, with new introductions for each of the chapters. The result is a compact, 190-page immersion for readers in this transformative period of American history.
He served as executive producer for the HBO documentary film “King in the Wilderness” (2018), about Dr. King’s final three years before his assassination in Memphis. The film is directed by Emmy Award winner Peter Kunhardt of Kunhardt films. It features a treasure of archival footage from the years 1965-68, with interviews from key eyewitnesses including Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Xernona Clayton, Marian Wright Edelman, Jesse Jackson, Clarence Jones, Bernard Lafayette, Diane Nash, C.T. Vivian and Andrew Young.
Aside from writing, Taylor Branch speaks before a variety of audiences—colleges, high schools, churches, synagogues, mosques, political and professional groups. He has discussed doctrines of nonviolence with prisoners at San Quentin as well as officers at the National War College. He has presented seminars on civil rights at Oxford University and in sixth-grade classrooms. His 2008 address at the National Cathedral marked the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s last Sunday sermon from that pulpit. In 2009, he gave the Theodore H. White Lecture on the Press and Politics at Harvard. Since 2005, under Executive Director Lonnie Bunch and (the late) chair John Hope Franklin, he has served as a member of the Scholarly Advisory Committee for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016.
His musical sidelights have spanned the Atlanta Boy Choir in the 1950’s, a high-school folk trio and a contemporary men’s group for spirituals, Soulful Revue, at Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore. In 2006, he and two friends reconstituted their 1960’s college band as the cover group Off Our Rocker, which has released four CDs largely in tribute to the Beatles. (www.offourrocker.biz) The fourth Off Our Rocker album, Children At Play (2017), includes debut original songs along with covers of artists from Arthur Alexander to the Kinks.
Branch began his career in 1970 as a staff journalist for The Washington Monthly, Harper’s, and Esquire. He taught history courses at Goucher College and at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. He holds honorary doctoral degrees from fourteen colleges and universities. Other citations include the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008 and the National Humanities Medal in 1999.
Samples of book reviews, lectures, media appearances, blogs, printed commentary, and musical tracks are available on his career website, www.taylorbranch.com.