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Historian Taylor Branch delivers MLK keynote

Capping off Martin Luther King Jr. week at Belmont was the keynote address on Friday given by Pulitzer Prize winner and author Taylor Branch.

Branch spoke to the packed crowd about what a movement is, the new movie “Selma” and civil rights.

“What is the movement?” Branch asked. “It begins with something small that moves you. Movements are important.”

Branch commented on the historical accuracies and inaccuracies of “Selma” and the humiliation felt by Oprah Winfrey’s character Annie Lee Cooper as she attempted to register to vote.The registrar asked her how many judges there were in Alabama, she answered correctly but failed to name all of them and was turned away.

A historical inaccuracy that Branch elaborated on was the death of civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson. Jackson did not die immediately as portrayed in the movie, but a week later in the hospital.

“They wanted to put Jackson’s body on display at the capital for the king of Alabama,” Branch said.

After what Branch called “Bloody Sunday”– the infamous nickname given after marchers were attacked on Edmund Pettus Bridge after leaving Selma–, an ABC News crew developed film of Selma to show to the public. The broadcast interrupted “Judgement at Nuremberg” and made international news.

According to Branch, King sent 400 telegrams to clergymen across the nation.

“If you understand what’s at stake here, please come join me in Selma on Tuesday to march again,” Branch paraphrased what the telegrams had said.

Branch added that race was not the only issue at stake, but democracy as well.

Branch was a freshman in college when the Selma march occurred. He also spoke about attending graduate school at Princeton and the summer when he worked in South Georgia. His job was to register voters in 20 counties.

“I would drive into these counties and look for the black part of town,” Branch said. “All the preachers kicked me out saying they had it under control; so did the schools and principals.”

In one county he visited, Branch was directed by the residents to an older women. He spoke with her and she would would ask him obscure questions, such as did he believe that a man landed on the moon. Finally he realized that voting in this county was a matter of life or death for the residents.

“America itself is a movement,” Branch said. “The Civil Rights Movement was a leadership movement.”

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