During Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s May 1964 visit to Bowdoin, Wayne Burton ’66 asked what the civil rights movement had to do with him, a white kid at a white school in a white state. King answered, “If your conscience stops at the border of Maine, you’re less of a person than you should be.”
Fifty-five years later, King biographer and Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Lecture speaker Taylor Branch posed a question to a crowd of Bowdoin students, Brunswick community members and alumni, including Burton: “What are race relations in Maine?”
Branch is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “America in the King Years” and a MacArthur Fellow. On Wednesday, he gave a lecture titled “The Radical King: His Final Years” in Kresge Auditorium as part of the programming for Bowdoin’s Black History Month and Beyond, which runs throughout February.
Branch’s response to the question of race relations in Maine echoed King’s holistic approach. Race relations in Maine, as in the whole of the United States, “are the barometer of the democratic experiment.”
In his lecture, Branch laid out the factors that made King’s later years so radical: optimism and a fundamental belief in democracy.
Benjamin Harris, director of the Student Center for Multicultural Life, thought about a variety of factors when inviting Branch to campus.
“I’ve tried to bring people who are committed to talking about King, but also folks who have a message of social justice and change and the betterment of the human condition and who are doing the work of King,” he said.
Harris hopes to use quality events to encourage students to grapple with social justice in their own lives.
“Black History Month is, of course, not just February,” he said.
This goal for further reflection was, on Wednesday at least, widely achieved. Jay Yoon ’21, who works with the Student Center for Multicultural Life, called Branch’s talk “reassuring and uniting.”
“Everyone in the room was nodding and rethinking what MLK really meant for America,” she said.
Yoon’s coworker at the Center, Ray Tarango ’20, enjoyed the focus on King’s more controversial stances.
“It reminds us that we sanitize the history and remove the complicated stuff we don’t always agree with,” he said.
However, some students wished Branch’s talk had gone further. Kinaya Hassane ’19 wanted to know even more about what made King so radical and how his ideas are still challenging mainstream ideas today.
During his talk, Branch focused on the development of King’s core values and resistance strategies. After witnessing the student sit-ins and Freedom Riders of the early 1960s, King recognized that there were “injustices that words alone cannot reach” and adopted a new strategy of cultivating what Branch called “public trust.”
This strategy centered around nonviolent self-discipline and self-government. According to Branch, it wasn’t until King agreed to allow young children to walk into police dogs and firehoses that America could conceive of the Civil Rights Act. Protesters were able to “amplify their beliefs with suffering.”
Branch also drew a direct line between radical nonviolence and democracy, comparing King’s “irrational faith” in the promise of democracy to that of the Founding Fathers.
“Nonviolence is a vote,” Branch said.
During King’s final years, Branch was a college student. His political actions at the time landed him at the pivotal 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, where he was part of the movement working to defeat the party’s pro-Vietnam wing.
As Branch tells it, King’s staff begged him not to come out against the Vietnam War, but the civil rights leader did anyway.
“He recognized you can defend democracy with violence,” Branch said, “but you cannot propagate it with violence.”
Violence, as King understood it, could be both physical and spiritual. Spiritual violence included poverty, which Branch highlighted as part of King’s radical agenda.
As a historian, Branch connected the themes and events of King’s era to the present. He noted how George Wallace, who served as the governor of Alabama for four terms between the 1960s and the 1980s and supported Jim Crow policies, created a new political vocabulary by turning his racial animosity into animosity towards big government. Branch explained that this tactic continues to be used today. Branch also underlined King’s experience with backlash against social progress.
Branch described King’s life as a “struggle for decency,” a phrase not out of place in current political discourse.
“We flutter back and forth between taking democracy for granted and saying it’s in crisis or retreat,” he said and argued that we need to adopt more of King’s irrational optimism.
“He woke up every morning and nothing would change,” said Branch, but King maintained his “driven audacity.”
Harris hopes that further Black History Month and Beyond programming, as well as programming celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Russwurm African American Center and Africana Studies department planned for next November, will continue to make students grapple with the current state of race relations in Maine and in the Bowdoin community.