In Minn. speech, historian marvels at non-violent civil rights movement

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Historian Taylor Branch
Historian Taylor Branch, speaking at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. on Monday, Jan. 16, 2012.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

Historian Taylor Branch spoke at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter Monday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian is noted for his biography of Dr. King, along with his trilogy of books that document the civil rights era.

He said several myths about the civil rights movement still persist, including the idea that racial justice has been achieved. But he also said several miracles from the era still go unappreciated, including the use of non-violence as a tactic.

While Branch contends non-violence is largely dismissed in the U.S. today, it has been used across the world to bring down communism, Apartheid and most recently, governments during last year's Arab Spring.

"The lesson of the people who lived for the civil rights movement is that democratic witness is inspirational — it is our hope, it is our heritage, but it is difficult," Branch said. "It is difficult to maintain non-violence in the face of a violent world; it is difficult to offer hope in a cynical world."

Branch marveled at the movement that was borne from a largely ignored minority of the population that hadn't even yet learned to universally exercise its rights to vote.

"That this movement, nevertheless, had the astonishing courage, the political genius, and the non-violent discipline to lift the whole rest of the country — and through them the world — toward the true meaning of our own professed values ... this is a great miracle," he said.

Also Monday, about 2,000 community and business leaders gathered at the Minneapolis Convention Center to mark the MLK holiday.

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