Award-winning author and historian Taylor Branch spoke about the connection between Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights activist and author James Weldon Johnson and how the men’s lives and legacies reflect modern views of race and democracy at the 2018 James Weldon Johnson Distinguished Lecture titled “Lift Every Voice: Martin Luther King Jr. and James Weldon Johnson.” The event was held on April 5 at Cannon Chapel with more than 90 people in attendance.
Branch’s speech centered around the “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a song written by Johnson that has had significant influence on the annals of America. The historian discussed the song to emphasize how King and Johnson, though they have two distinct voices, are profoundly similar.
Branch said that a spirit of optimism forged the connection between King and Johnson.
“[King] saw more hatred in his lifetime than all of us put together, I think, and kept going out and facing it,” Branch said.
Though King faced difficulties, he maintained an optimistic attitude.
Branch said King wrote that “the American people are infected with racism far beyond what they know. That is the problem. But the American people are also infected with Democratic ideals. That is the hope.”
The historian highlighted King’s “How Long, Not Long” speech delivered at the end of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march, in which King quoted the second verse of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” to “introduce his warning” that civil rights activists would achieve the Voting Rights Act and combat racism in America.
Branch took questions from the audience about the “importance” of continuing to support the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the historical significance of reforming congressional districts to reflect their racial makeup and the connection between non-violence and anti-capitalism. The historian also said that the U.S. Constitution should guarantee a “universal right to vote.”
Additionally, Branch praised Emory for having an outlet that discusses race in the James Weldon Johnson Institute and discussed how he sees Johnson as a “renaissance man,” due to his far-reaching career, which included writing music for Hollywood movies, Broadway musicals and Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential campaign. Johnson was also a professor at New York University, worked in the foreign service as U.S. Consulate for Venezuela and Nicaragua and led the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1916-1930.
University President Claire E. Sterk opened the lecture by commending the James Weldon Institute for the Study of Race and Difference’s role in promoting crucial discussion on campus.
“I’d like to say that [Branch is] one of us. He’s one of our professors. He belongs to the Emory community,” Sterk said. Branch’s speech was a “fitting way” to remember the “historical significance of the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination,” a day before the event, Sterk added.
Nursing School Associate Professor Kathy Wood told the Wheel that she found the lecture to be “wonderful” and “enlightening.” Wood said Branch describes his “historical viewpoints, so it was like you were there.”
Doctoral candidate in the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing Roxana Chicas (16N, 24G) told the Wheel she enjoyed how Branch described King’s “anguish and his internal debate” to stay optimistic and how King’s struggle is relatable today.
“I think it’s something that we struggle with today still,” Chicas said. “That internal tension that we have within us.”
Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church and the Laney Legacy Program in Moral Leadership at Candler School of Theology co-sponsored the event.