Author Taylor Branch to speak at Lehigh

Noted historian Taylor Branch is perhaps best known for his three-volume series about the civil rights era, America in the King Years. The first book in the series, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63, won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for History and the National Book Critics Circle Award, among many other honors.

Branch will deliver a public talk titled “Voting Rights: A Civil Rights Challenge Yesterday and Today” on Tuesday, Sept. 20, at 7:30 p.m. in the Zoellner Art Center’s Baker Hall.

The Voting Rights Act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, prohibits racial discrimination in voting.

However, “17 states have imposed new restrictions on voting in 2016, and some of these restrictions have amounted to voter suppression,” said Lloyd Steffen, university chaplain and co-chair of Lehigh’s Martin Luther King Celebrations Committee. “The federal courts have said as much, addressing this issue in North Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin. Recently, a federal appeals court declared the North Carolina restrictions unconstitutional and charged with a racially discriminatory purpose. Voting rights are still very much an issue in American society, and threats to the vote are very real—as real as they were in the 1960s when voting rights were at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement.”

The MLK Committee invited Branch to speak at Lehigh, said Steffen, to help the community “understand where we have been and where we are on this issue.”

“[Branch] is an award-winning historian and a popular speaker who will be able to put the racial politics of voting rights in historical perspective. He will help us understand where we have been in the past and what these current efforts to restrict voting rights mean for the well-being of democracy as we move toward an important presidential election," said Steffen.

Branch’s latest book, The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement, utilizes selections from his trilogy to explore 18 key moments throughout the civil rights era.

Said Branch of The King Years: “For all readers, I believe, lessons from the civil rights era apply not to bygone forms of racial segregation but most urgently to a troubled future. Drawn from the core of our national purpose, they show how ordinary people can work miracles against intractable burdens to advance both freedom and the common good.”

Branch's talk is the first event in a year-long series of programming events focused on activism, and more specifically, voting rights. Over the past several years, the MLK Committee has expanded programming beyond a one-day, or one-week observation of King's birthday, to focus on issues such as mass incarceration, the prison industrial complex, activism and social change. Past speakers include author, educator and activist Angela Davis; hip-hop artist Nas; acclaimed civil rights lawyer, advocate and legal scholar Michelle Alexander; activist and filmmaker Bree Newsome; and Opal Tometi, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The Sept. 20 talk is also presented by Africana Studies, the Dialogue Center, the department of political science and the department of history. The event is free and open to the public.

Note to students: This event qualifies as a 5 x 10 program.

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