Worldwise Arts & Humanities Dean’s Lecture Hosts Two Pulitzer Prize Winners

Taylor Branch, Isabel Wilkerson in conversation with Sherrilyn Ifill. Photo courtesy of Toyin Akinwande.

Authors Taylor Branch and Isabel Wilkerson noticed that there was a gap in published books about the history of the Civil Rights Movement and personal accounts of the movement, so they decided to fix it by writing their own books.

Branch won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for his book, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63. Wilkerson also won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for Feature Reporting prior to writing The Warmth of Others Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration which was published in 2010.

Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 by Taylor Branch. Photo courtesy of Amazon

The Pulitzer Prize, named after American newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, is a series of prizes awarded in 21 categories based on American online journalism, literature, newspaper, drama, poetry, photography and musical composition each year.

As part of the Pulitzer Prizes’ 100th year celebration, The University of Maryland’s College of Arts and Humanities partnered with Maryland Humanities to bring Branch and Wilkerson, who talked about their award-winning works at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

Sherrilyn Ifill, seventh president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, moderated the conversation.

“When I was growing up, we read about history like the American Revolution, and it was about them,” Ifill said. “I never felt like they were trying to say something to me or of the moment that I was in.”

Wilkerson’s book tells the story of the Great Migration, a movement referring to a time when several African Americans from the South journeyed to the northern and western United States between 1915 to 1970. The narrative is told through the biographies of three people.

The goal of her book was to “allow the reader to see and feel what it was like to be these people and to experience what the people were going through,” Wilkerson said. “They were not just reading history, they were experiencing it.”

The book won the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction and became a New York Times best seller.

Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson. Photo courtesy of isabelwilkerson.com

“It’s not just about the Great Migration,” Wilkerson said. “It’s really about freedom and how far people are willing to go to achieve it.”

Branch, who was a senior in college the spring that civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, also focused on the Civil Rights Movement in his book.

“My writing was personal to me because I wanted to know where the [Civil Rights] movement had come from,” Branch said.

While researching the Civil Rights Movement, Branch said he found the texts to be “terribly abstract.”

“People tend to talk about race in labels that defend whatever position they want be on,” Branch said.

Like Wilkerson, Branch said his approach to writing was to “avoid labels of all kind” and “try to tell personal stories and make them as human as possible.”

Bonnie Thornton Dill, Dean of the College of Arts and Humanities says Branch’s book is a personal favorite because it documents the Civil Rights Movement and the struggle to “first change the South, and then the Nation.”

For Wilkerson, it took 15 years and many interviews to write her book. Some of the people she interviewed got sick and passed away in the middle of the process, including a couple characters from her book, Robert Joseph Pershing Foster and George Swanson Starling.

Starling told her, “If you don’t finish this book soon, I’m going to be proofreading this from heaven.” He later died before the manuscript was complete.

“The race issue gives us a sad opportunity because it’s by far the most important factor in our American history and American politics, but only once every century or so do we realize that,” Branch said.

“We have to remember what it was like, what it took and what was at stake in order to make the current era that we are in now,” Wilkerson said.