- Series: America in the King Years
- Paperback: 1088 pages
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster; Reprint edition (November 15, 1989)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0671687425
- ISBN-13: 978-0671687427
- Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 2 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 114 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #52,326 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Parting the Waters : America in the King Years 1954-63 Reprint Edition
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The first book of a formidable three-volume social history, Parting the Waters is more than just a biography of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the decade preceding his emergence as a national figure. Branch's thousand-page effort, which won the Pulitzer Prize as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction, profiles the key players and events that helped shape the American social landscape following World War II but before the civil-rights movement of the 1960s reached its climax. The author then goes a step further, endeavoring to explain how the struggles evolved as they did by probing the influences of the main actors while discussing the manner in which events conspired to create fertile ground for change.
Timeline of a Trilogy
Taylor Branch's America in the King Years series is both a biography of Martin Luther King and a history of his age. No timeline can do justice to its wide cast of characters and its intricate web of incident, but here are some of the highlights, which might be useful as a scorecard to the trilogy's nearly 3,000 pages.
David Levering Lewis The Philadelphia Inquirer Endlessly instructive and fascinating, thorough, stupendous. Now the source and standard in its field.
Robert C. Maynard The Washington Post Book World In remarkable, meticulous detail, Branch provides us with the most complex and unsentimental version of King and his times yet produced.
Richard John Neuhaus The Wall Street Journal A compelling story, masterfully told.
Jim Miller Newsweek A masterpiece ... remarkably revealing.... The past, miraculously, seems to spring back to life.
Garry Wills The New York Review of Books Already, in this chronicle, there is the material of Iliad after Iliad...There is no time in our history of which we can be more proud.
Robert Wilson USA Today Superb history.
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In 1962, after having to eventually do what he hoped to avoid and sending thousands of troops to enroll one Black, James Meredith, in "Ole Miss": "'It makes me wonder,' Kennedy said privately to Sorensen, 'whether everything I learned [in Harvard] about the evils of Reconstruction was really true.'"
W.E.B. Du Bois had published his groundbreaking work Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 in 1935, but the Dunning school was still almost an official version of US history, especially in schools for the ruling class. (Ignore the Stalinist-influenced nonsense about "the dictatorship of the black proletariat"; this was a bourgeois-democratic revolution).
Despite racism in the labor movement, Black workers had been part of the formation of the big industrial unions (see Labor's Giant Step: The First Twenty Years of the CIO: 1936-55), and there was a significant fight against racism in the armed forces during World War II (see Fighting Racism in World War II). Some of that sentiment managed to survive through the years of the witch hunt.
There were hundreds of thousands of people involved in the civil rights movement in one way or another. It destroyed Jim Crow segregation, and forever changed this country, although other forms of institutional racism will take a revolution to be wiped out. Branch discusses many of the leaders of this movement. Martin Luther King wasn’t my favorite, but he clearly was the central one. To me, civil disobedience is just a tactic, not a principle. The non-violent approach frequently limited the number of people who would participate. Unfortunately, King also had big illusions in John F. Kennedy. The Democratic Party then included most Blacks for the first time, but it also still included most segregationists. On the other hand, Malcolm X in 1964 said “Any Negro who registers as a Democrat or a Republican is a traitor to his own people.” (See By Any Means Necessary (Malcolm X Speeches and Writings) (Malcolm X speeches & writings)).
Meeting with Kennedy was not wrong, but letting Kennedy dictate who King could associate with (because of FBI assertions of “Communist infiltration”) was something else. King tried to maneuver around this, but it’s not easy fooling the rulers.
Kennedy, and Johnson were forced to enact civil rights legislation, not only because of the mass movement developing in this country, but because of the colonial revolution and the Cold War. The Soviet Union also oppressed minority nationalities, but Cuba was different. The US government wanted to avoid pictures of Blacks being beaten showing on TV and newspapers all over the world. They wanted to steer the civil rights movement toward voting rights, but did they really think that would be any less bloody! It obviously wasn’t.
While Kennedy was willing to take the world to the brink of nuclear disaster to try to overthrow the revolutionary government of Cuba (which gave high priority to fighting racism), Malcolm X, in 1960, when he was still a member of the Nation of Islam, met with Fidel Castro in New York (see To Speak the Truth: Why Washington's 'Cold War' Against Cuba Doesn't End, and Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and the Road to Workers Power). In 1964, when Che Guevara was in New York to speak at the United Nations, Che agreed to speak at a meeting sponsored by Malcolm’s Organization of Afro-American Unity. Security concerns led to his cancelling, but he sent greetings which Malcolm X read (see Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements). Branch doesn’t mention all this, but he does mention “rallies of support [for the struggle in Birmingham] as far away as Birmingham, England, and Havana, Cuba….”
The civil rights movement helped inspire the next mass movement, against the Vietnam War, which King and others came to join (see Out Now: A Participant's Account of the Movement in the United States Against the Vietnam War). And both these movements helped inspire the fight of women for equal rights.
For those who think that the election of Trump is because white workers who had twice voted for Obama suddenly became racist, I recommend The Clintons' Anti-Working-Class Record (Why Washington fears working people?). The working class has not become more racist; it is having second thoughts about the Democrats because of the world capitalist economic and social crisis. There were, I believe 201 counties where people who had twice voted for Obama voted for Trump. The fact that their lifespan is 20 years less than the US average seems far more relevant than their attitude toward Black people, which probably hasn’t changed.
Had the Democrats run Bernie Sanders, he would likely have won. He also has no answers, but unlike Hillary Clinton, he didn’t pretend there were no problems.
"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.