on May 23, 2000
A compelling account of Americans struggling for the right to be Americans, and in the process ultimately defining what it means to BE American. Fighting against hulking Negro reluctance, bone chilling KKK terror, a hostile FBI, and an unsympthetic Federal Government the real life true grit story is at once great and humbling.
on July 21, 2004
What a great book! Taylor Branch has done an outstanding job with the history of the early years of the Civil Rights Movement in America. He does a great job with a mini biography of Dr. King that digs into his education and thinking which really illuminates the subject. The background on all of the other main players in this important chapter in our nation's history are equally well done. A fine book that was difficult to put down.
on August 19, 2014
PARTING THE WATERS by Taylor Branch is a tremendous book. It covers the Civil Rights Movement from 1954 thru 1963 with amazing scope and detail. The book is at times depressing and at times triumphant. Martin Luther King, Jr. is certainly the star of the show, but this is not a biography. King has a tremendous supporting cast which includes Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King, Sr., W.E.B. DuBois, Harry Belafonte, Jackie Robinson, James Baldwin, John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover, Medgar Evans, Adam Clayton Powell, Vernon Johns, and countless others. But King is at the center, and rightfully so. Though many others had important contributions, it was King who was the leader, though sometimes reluctantly. He was the greatest among some incredible people. The author calls King "a new founding father." Our society owes him a great debt for his courage, his determination, and his dedication to non-violent protest. It was surprising how much jealousy and infighting there was within the movement. But it was King who rose above it all and kept the cause moving forward.
This is an intelligent and scholarly work, though the writing style is quite accessible. My only criticism is that it could grow a bit dry in places, but I suppose this is to be expected in a book of such scope (and 922 pages of text). But there are also many places where it is writ with lightning.
on May 18, 2005
I can't say enough good things about this book by Taylor Branch. With other Pulitzer Prize winning books (like Guns of August) you may ponder, "How did this ever win the top prize for literature?," but with "Parting the Waters," the answer comes immediately apparent that it is deserving of accolades upon accolades. An understanding of 20th century America is incomplete without reading Branch's book on the early Civil Rights movement.
What Branch does so well is write compelling narrative that leaves the book hard to put down. He makes a 922 page book seem much much shorter, which reading that length of a book would mostly be a labor of love to finish otherwise. What he also does brilliantly is to open up the context of the Civil Rights movement to the major events on the world stage and developments of the time. Instead of looking at the Civil Rights movement under a microscope, Branch brings in the Cuban Missile Crisis, popular culture, and so much more to help frame those events and that time.
It is hard to understand the amount of hatred in parts of our country during that time but Branch's book brings it out in shockingly brutal details. To understand what our country went through a scant half century ago, helps illuminate race relations today. We owe a great debt to the leaders of the civil rights movement for being extremely brave, many times to the point of giving their lives, to bring about needed social change in America. After reading Branch's account of the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, it struck me that those years were nothing short of a war, a revolution, fought through peaceful means against all odds.
The reading of this book will leave you changed, liberal and conservative alike. It has reached elevated status of my all time favorite book list...and I have read a few. Everyone should read this book in a lifetime.
on May 30, 2006
Branch's three-volumes on America in the King Years are the best source one can have on the history of the civil rights movement, at least that part of it between 1954 and 1968. The central thread in these books is the life and activities of Martin Luther King Jr. However, Branch also tries to follow some major trends in other aspects of the civil rights movement, especially in his second volume where he provides one of the most complete pictures of the last years of Malcolm X's life, a day to day story of Malcolm's life, to match the evolution of his ideas charted in George Breitman's _he Last Year of Malcolm X: Evolution of a Revolutionary_.
In all of these volumes Branch's strength is his straight-ahead reportage of what happened. Unlike most writers on the civil rights movement, he seems to have no personal agenda, nor position in the issues that were constantly in contention. His picture of King is honest without the hero worship some invest him with.
In this first volume I was impressed by Branch's picture of the middle class milieu that Martin Luther King Jr. emerged from as well as his continued struggle with that milieu or rather participation in struggles within that milieu over whether to take an activist position in the civil rights movement. King always faced not only white racist opposition, but the opposition to others within the African American middle class and especially within the Black Church. This was reflected in the struggle Branch records within the National Baptist Convention, the large Black religious organization on the planet, between Taylor, supported by King and Jackson, a struggle in which the anti-civil rights activism Jackson won.
Another facet of this history is the way the struggle was constantly initiated and pushed forward by two forces, black working and farming people like Rosa Parks and E.D. Nixon, the two people who launched the bus boycott in Montgomery with King, and the tremendous uprising by Black college and high school youth that began with the lunch counter sit-ins in 1960s and continued throughout this period. Constantly it was initiatives and struggles launched by these forces, rather than the machinations or strategy of King and his colleagues that pushed the movement forward.
Sadly, the book revealed a level of collaboration and subordination by King to the powers that be that could have only stifled the struggle. King continually looked to these forces to provide the real force and impetus to break down Southern Segregation, and was continually rejected except when the mass struggle forced the government to act. Branch explains thatsituations that seemed like confrontations between Southern Segregationists and the Kennedy administration like the University integration battles in Mississippi and Alabama were arranged behind the scenes between Kennedy and the segregations to take place in a way that would not weaken the Southern Democrats who led the fight against integration.
This volume recounts how the little skirmishes between J Edgard Hoover, head of the FBI and Kennedy did not get in the way of Kennedy's use of red-baiting to limit and control the civil rights movement in general and King's Southern Christian Leadership Council in particular. What is interesting here is that Branch reveals that despite the political demise of the Communist party as a force in the 1950s under the blows of the witch hunt, the revelations about Stalin's criminal rule, and the crushing of the Hungarian revolution, through this period the bulk of the FBI's focus was fighting "subversives" and not crime.
Yet, the FBI never played any serious role in prosecuting the bombings, murders, burning of homes and churches, and the other terror and brutalization of Black folk seeking their rights throughout this period. Even when the Kennedys were forced to provide law enforcement and phyiscal force against the segregationists, they had to go AROUND the FBI bringing in border patrolmen, prison guards, drug enforcement agents, US marshalls, and the military. As can testify as someone who spent time in the voter registration drives in the Mississippi, Branch is completely accurate when he show that the FBI's real role was to slander, disrupt, paralyze, and otherwise set back the Civil Rights struggle.
We should look at Branch's trilogy about what they say about bigger questions than even civil rights. In the years he covers, a fundamental change took place in the United States. Jim Crow segregation was shattered, big advances took place in Black rights across the country, and the ability of reaction to use racism to carry out its business was weakened. Of course, Black people remain oppressed, formal legal segregation has been replaced by de facto segregation, and racism permeates this society.
However, we can look at the King years as years when millions of African Americans, millions of youth, and millions of other working people entered political life and made big changes. In doing so they pointed the direction still needed to get out of these problems. For this, these books should be studied, for future battles, not nostalgia for the past!
Few books on any subject merit or can sustain 3,000 pages, but this first part of the trilogy is so compelling, so fascinating, so well written that 3,000 pages may not be enough.
This is how history should be written, with the facts creating the emotion, and the personalities highlighting the events. A compelling perspecitive on our shared history with unflinching insight into Dr. King's life and how he affected us all.
on May 26, 1999
I purchased this because I am interested in King, the Civil Rights Movement and because I grew up during this timeframe and wanted to know more. I was a bit apprehensive when I saw the size of the book and worried it would be a drudge, but nothing could have been further from the truth. I find I look forward to reading it each night and can't put it down, but at the same time I don't want it to end. I am almost finished with it and have purchased the second book so I can continue (and I was really glad to hear this is a trilogy). I can't recommend this book enough. And I talk to everyone about it. It is an important work and a pure joy to read. Thank you Mr. Branch!
on April 3, 2009
What more can I say? It's big and intimidating, and most people don't seem to get through it on the first go-round. It doesn't start you off with I Have a Dream, it starts you off with this nutty old preacher you've probably never heard of (Vernon Johns). My advice: stick with it. It might just change your life.
on December 19, 2014
Taylor Branch, in this first volume of his Civil Rights era chronicle, admirably fulfills a writer's twin duties of telling a compelling story while managing a vast amount of historical material. Covering the years 1954 to 1963, Branch takes the reader from movement's birth in the black Baptist churches of the South through the Eisenhower and Kennedy years, concluding with JFK's death and its aftermath. Every participant, man, woman, or child, famous or obscure, has his story told with a veteran reporter's eye for the truth. Branch has a way with words, as we can appreciate on virtually every page. Here are a couple of samples. The first discusses the FBI's extensive wiretapping of King and his associates:
"That an intelligence agency in the belief that King was an enemy of freedom, ignorant of the reality that King had just set in motion the greatest firestorm of domestic liberty in a hundred years, was one of the saddest ironies of American history." (p 692)
The other sample illustrates Branch's use of ironic humor:
"Walker's [an organizer of the March on Washington] presentation was at once breathtaking and quixotic. It envisioned a precisely organized march into history by an organization that had taken four years to find a mimeograph machine." (p 690)
Martin Luther King, Jr. and his movement were rooted in the church, as the titles of the three series' volumes (Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire, At Canaan's Edge) which recall the Biblical journey of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land, make clear. And, as was true in the Bible, the heroes were also all-too-fallible human beings, petty and sinful, but ultimately victorious.
Events today have their roots in the past. If you'd like to understand where we are in Civil Rights, this book genuinely earns its five stars. I look forward to reading the remaining two volumes.
"Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963" is Taylor Branch's magnificent first volume of a three-volume biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. This masterful book traces the early life of America's greatest advocate of civil rights and non-violence from his birth, childhood, and young adulthood; through the critical decade of the 1950s, when the struggle for African American rights reached its peak; to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. King is presented as a flawed but noble hero who battled not only the segregationist establishment of the Deep South, but the federal government as well. (Some very surprising villains will be found in these pages.) A brilliant biography that was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1984, "Parting the Waters" is also a towering history of one of the most disturbing periods of the twentieth century. Most highly recommended.