Martin Luther King was perhaps the most eloquent prophet this country has ever produced, and he was assassinated 50 years ago this month. Fifty years and six days after King's assassination — on April 10 of this year — I emailed Taylor Branch, perhaps the world's preeminent Martin Luther King scholar and historian. I told Branch I was a columnist for a Maine newspaper and asked him for 10 to 20 minutes of his time. The next morning my phone rang.

Me: "Hello."

Voice: "Is this Lawrence Reichard?"

Me: "Yes, it is."

Voice: "This is Taylor Branch. I got your email, and I'm between flights, so I thought I'd give you a call. Go."

I did.

Fortunately I was at home, with pen, paper and desk. I thanked Branch for calling and launched in. I had been feeling frustrated with so-called liberals and moderates in the Maine Legislature and the national Democratic Party who have been abandoning liberalism and selling the poor down the river in the name of political pragmatism.

Martin Luther King spoke to similar problems more eloquently than anyone else I had ever heard or read, and that's why I emailed Taylor Branch, to talk about that. I told Branch I knew about King's profound problems with so-called moderates, and I asked him about that.

"It's all right there in the Letter from Birmingham Jail and in my book," Branch said. "But that (Branch's book) is a tome, and you're only writing a column, so you don't have time for that." A tome indeed — Branch's King trilogy runs to 2,912 pages.

Branch said King wrote the 1963 Birmingham jail letter in response to criticism leveled at him by a handful of Alabama clergy for his methods of direct, nonviolent action. "King came to recognize that it was often not haters but silent timidity that was the most vexing problem," Branch said.

In Kings words, from the Birmingham jail letter: "…the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice."

The Letter from Birmingham Jail is one of the great documents in this country's history. It goes well beyond the civil rights movement. It explains much of how this country got where it is today. If you want to understand how we got here, read the letter.

History comes in waves. From the 1932 election of FDR until the 1980 election of Reagan — for 48 years — the wave was liberal/progressive. Since then — for the last 38 years — the wave has been conservative, even reactionary, culminating with Trump, who goes beyond conservatism to white nationalism. And the moderates King describes, more devoted to order than to justice, are as much to blame as anyone for this profound rightward march. More than anything else, it was the abandonment of the white working class that gave rise to Trump, and that abandonment was as much the work of liberals and moderates as anyone else.

Going back at least as far as the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and up until Reagan's 1980 election, liberals and moderates openly embraced liberalism. "The 1964 presidential election, Johnson and Goldwater, was the last triumphant election for liberal candidates," Branch said. "It was a referendum on liberalism, and it won resoundingly. It was the biggest margin in history at that point." Indeed, Johnson wiped out Goldwater 61 percent to 39 percent.

Branch blamed the demise of liberalism on the civil rights movement's failure to claim the benefits of the movement for other groups. "The benefits became grounded in race," Branch said.

The civil rights movement was getting all the press, and while the benefits of liberalism were, in Branch's words, "flowing" to women, and poor and working-class whites, those groups didn't see that and they became resentful of people of color, especially blacks. They saw the benefits of liberalism as flowing only to people of color. The movement didn't do nearly enough to include poor and working-class whites, Branch said. And therein lay the seeds of liberalism's decline.

The first triumph of modern conservatism was Reagan's 1980 election. But liberals misread the lessons of Reagan's win and went into a full retreat from liberalism. This was, and remains, liberalism's second big mistake. "Liberals feel exposed for standing for racial justice and conservatives declare victory even though in retreat," Branch said.

In retreat? Conservatism? Yes. It was not a public embrace of conservatism and widespread public abandonment of liberalism that led to Reagan, or Trump.

The Iran hostage crisis, Jimmy Carter's somewhat lackluster presidency, steady media criticism of Carter, and Reagan's charisma led to Reagan's ascent. Throughout Reagan's presidency, and to this day, poll after poll has shown enduring support for liberalism, as defined by support for robust social services. Poll after poll shows a willingness to pay higher taxes for more services, and this is the very heart of liberalism.

It was liberals' abandonment of the white working class — and voter suppression — that led directly to the rise of Trump. With donations averaging $27, Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed socialist, almost won the Democratic nomination, and might have won it if the deck hadn't been stacked against him. Sanders led Trump in the polls by more than Hillary Clinton did.

In other words, liberalism isn't dead. On the contrary, it is this country's preferred political philosophy; but it has been crippled by the moderates described by King in his prophetic Letter from Birmingham Jail.

I thanked Taylor Branch for his time and we said goodbye and hung up. Sixteen minutes. True to my word. And a great 16 minutes it was. I immediately fired off an email to Jesse Jackson. I'll keep you posted.

Lawrence Reichard is a first-place Maine Press Association winner, freelance writer and activist living in Belfast.