Taylor Branch: TIME Talks with MLK Biographer Taylor Branch

TIME: This is almost a dual biography of two lions—Martin Luther King, Jr., and Lyndon Johnson—very powerful men who are being marginalized. Why did you decide to do it that way?

Taylor Branch: Well, of course, some of that is imposed by the history. I mean, there's the fact that the first Marine combat units land within hours of the first march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge [in Selma. Ala.] You've got the march in Selma and the landing of the troops in Danang, both with garlands around their necks, to me it's very poignant about an era of two different choices about how you foster democracy but starting off with such hope and promise. I didn't realize when I started the book, how closely the two things were going to parallel, but essentially Johnson's presidency is destroyed over Vietnam, and to have him essentially give up and King killed in the same week, you know, I think history itself is telling us these are parallel stories. You put these two stories together and try to examine Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement as models for America, where did we go right, where did we go wrong.

TIME: I was struck by the meeting between Bobby Kennedy and Johnson when basically Kennedy is trying to elicit an endorsement [in his run for the Presidency].

TB: Right, or at least a neutralization. It's the very day before King is killed. In that incredible week. In the great sweep of things, Bobby Kennedy and Johnson agreed about a heck of a lot more than they disagreed about, and once they're no longer rivals, you feel that. Whereas in history, we don't think of that. We think of them as complete opposites and, to me, that's the measure of our cynicism, that we don't really care about the substance of politics. We care about the rivalries and the spitballs.

TIME: Do you think people have a real sense of King's life, or has it become mythologized ?

TB: I think a certain amount of mythology is inevitable when you have great overarching figures like this, but I think there's more than normal with King because he didn't come from mainstream culture and because a lot of people were profoundly uncomfortable with what he was doing, there's a greater need to make him a comfortable mythological figure. And of course, in one sad way to me, there is a tendency to make him a leader of his people, to reduce him to just doing something for black people. When you see him interacting with Johnson and negotiating with congressmen and marching with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, we realize how ecumenical he was. The overall lesson here is he's a leader, and the movement is leading all of America. And that's the real emotional resonance that you get even with Rosa Parks, where we have this paradox that we have an emotional connection, that we know they did something significant but because the tradition is not that it was significant for all of America but was somehow compartmentalized for black people, we falsify and simplify the myth.

TIME: This volume is so sad, not just because of King's death but because it seems as though he was being marginalized—everything was being heaped on him. The FBI is getting uglier with its dirty tricks, his most loyal lieutenants are scrabbling and pulling back. Do you think he would have recovered his strength, his force, because here he seems besieged from all sides?

TB: I don't know, that's a hypothetical, would he have survived. I don't really know. I think a lot of his message and a lot of the energy from his movement really went overseas after he died, more than here in the U.S., but South Africa, the end of the Berlin Wall. I think the energy went there and it certainly would have very likely drawn his attention as well. Whether his health would have withstood—talk about a candle burning on both ends—on top of all the psychological pressures, just his schedule was a killer. TIME: Incredible.

TB: And so I don't really know, but I do think that the vision and what he was talking about, if he survived his health—his health and his sanity—through the end of the movement period, I think he would have had a lot to say about the world and about the end of apartheid in South Africa....

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