Parting the waters : America in the King years, 1954-63

by Taylor Branch

Paper Book, 1989


Chronicles the civil rights struggle from the twilight of the Eisenhower years through the assassination of President Kennedy.



Call number



New York : Simon and Schuster, 1989.

User reviews

LibraryThing member ALincolnNut
It is difficult to adequately classify Taylor Branch's monumental Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63, the Pulitzer Prize-winning first volume in Branch's trilogy on the American Civil Rights era. The book is audacious in its scope, brimming with new insights from dozens of
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interviews with participants. It is epic, not just in narrative or research but in length.

In attempting to sort out the religious, cultural, and political waters that propelled and buffeted the Civil Rights movement, Branch explicitly hypothesizes that "[Martin Luther] King's life is the best and most important metaphor for American history in the watershed postwar years." This has many significant consequences, beginning with the genre of the book, which is a mix of biography and narrative history. Branch balances these genres well in his detailed, but also deliberately focused, writing.

And while a focus on King seems almost pedestrian from a Civil Rights perspective, Branch is arguing more broadly, I think, and arguing that King is the single most important figure of the age, period. Carefully, but emphatically, Branch is signaling a reassessment of other key figures in the 1960s, especially John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Robert Kennedy. He sees King's story as more central to the era than JFK's Camelot, LBJ's Vietnam, and RFK's populism borne out of social anxiety.

Whether Branch entirely succeeds in this provocative thesis is a matter of some debate, particularly as it relates to the other over-arching issue of the period, the Cold War. Branch, through his detailed examination of King's close associate Stanley Levison, who was regarded as a Communist agent by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, seems to argue that the Communist threat to the United States, especially domestically, was sensationally overstated by the FBI. While this is true, it does not directly override the Communist threat globally to the US in the era.

But this meta-argument is irrelevant to the other historical content of Branch's extremely fine book. He incorporates dozens of characters from the era in detail, emphasizing the multiple people beyond King who shaped and forwarded the Civil Rights movement. While mostly chronological, Branch is not handcuffed by the day-to-day timeline, which allows him to highlight the different perspective's of the people involved "in making history" through their day-to-day decisions and actions.

Branch is at his best when dealing with King though, especially as he explores the relationships that King had with the other major participants of the era: government officials, allies, intellectuals, and religious leaders. In fact, it is these last participants who really benefit from Branch's careful analysis: even though Branch focuses extensive attention on the political aspects of the era, he never loses sight of the movement's roots in African-American Christianity (actually, almost entirely Baptist as opposed to African Methodist). And he demonstrates what an odd figure King was among the Baptist ministers of the time, which led to some strained relationships with King and other pastors, including some of those who worked closely with him.

In summary, the book is highly recommended. It is elegantly written, and shows the fruits of Branch's significant research. It is informative, entertaining, and moving, and certainly stands as one of the best volumes about both the Civil Rights movement and the American decade chronicled.
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LibraryThing member mwcgrad97
I was assigned this book in college and liked it so much I kept it and have bought the two sequels. It's not a biography of MLK, but since he figures prominently, it does talk a lot about his life. It's also about the impact he had on America and how politics affected him. It's a thick book, very
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comprehensive and well-researched. Definitely recommended for anyone interested in the Civil Rights Era.
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LibraryThing member mrkurtz
The first volume of a three volume series of America in the King Years. It won the Pulitzer Prize for History. The trilogy will be the standard for all other histories of the civil rights movement to be judged as literature. The people who stirred the nation and changed the lives of all Americans
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during the years 1954-1963 are covered by Branch. In addition to King and his twelve disciples, we are presented with insights into the thinking of John and Robert Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover, and Lyndon Johnson.
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LibraryThing member mdobe
Written with "skill and passion" by an admirer of King, Brach's thesis is that King is the central figure of US history in the 50s and 60s. Present here in a compelling biography with all of his strengths and his weaknesses, King's representative status is only matched by the Kennedys who appear in
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the second half of the narrative as a politicized foil to the sincere convictions of King. At various points in the narrative, it becomes clear that the Kennedys are over their heads in the world of racial politics and John, at least, is portrayed as much more comfortable in foreign policy than in race matters. The Kennedys' attempts to "manage" the civil rights movement to their own political advantage almost leads to serious bloodshed in the context of both the Freedom Rides and the admission of James Meredith to Ole Miss.

Clayborne Carson, in reviewing the book for the Journal of Southern History, casts the main theme of the book as a struggle between civil rights activists and the national liberal leadership:

No previous work has revealed so clearly the contrast between, on the one hand, the worldview of activists transformed by their experiences in the expanding southern struggle and, on the other hand, that of national liberal leaders, who consistently misunderstood the political implications of mass black activism, seeing it merely as a bothersome and potentially dangerous manifestation of discontent rather than as an effort to achieve constantly redefined racial aspirations. (p. 562)

Branch provides an intimate portrait of the Kennedy Justice Department, an organizational which Harris Wofford was relatively insignificant and Burke Marshall was chosen to head the Civil Rights Division because of his lack of Civil Rights experience. Kennedy became a reluctant convert to the civil rights cause only after events had moved him against his own personal apathy and resistance to take up the cause.

Amongst the other portraits of national leaders, J. Edgar Hoover comes through as the ultimate bureaucratic politician. Using his finely tuned political intelligence organization, Hoover was able to influence national policy while claiming for his G-Men the ability to stay above the fray as the civil rights of blacks were violated in the South. Building on the work of David Garrow, we see Hoover as the vindictive and petty man who guarded his bureaucratic power against all challengers.

Starting the book with a highly engaging portrait of Vernon Johns, MLK's predecessor in the Montgomery pulpit, the book it is also a sensitive portrait of the black church and its role within the movement. Branch shows that the church was a real source of strength for the movement but also that the movement was riven by the conflicts within the Church, as King's moderate activist wing sparred with conservative fundamentalists.

In his second volume Pillar of Fire, according to William Chafe, the central role of King is lost amongst a welter of detail. James Findlay makes the same point about this second volume, noting that the work is the worse for this loss of King as the central thread to the book. More fundamentally, John Dittmer in reviewing the second volume for Reviews in American History, faults that volume for missing the importance of local people. Missing from this account of "old-fashioned" race history are the accounts of Fannie Lou Hamer and Diane Nash Bevel along with anyone else not "deemed important enough to have their telephone conversations taped."
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LibraryThing member michaelbartley
a very detailed and insightful study of the civil rights movement from the bus bocott to the march on washington. shows america at its best, the men and women, that led the battle for rights and america at its worest. those that did all they could to oppose the movement. I highly recommend this book
LibraryThing member PhilipJHunt
Well, this certainly deserved the Pulitzer Prize. Over a thousand pages of names, events, drama, pain, blood, suffering, injustice, success and hope. Almost impossible to take in one long reading (but it was on loan, so I persevered) because of the hundreds of characters and dozens of threads (can
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one say 'plots'?). Taylor still manages to write with a light touch and good humour. And this is just Part 1 of the trilogy!
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LibraryThing member deldevries
Well deserving for 100 New Classics designation. Told in a conversational style with rich details that provide a history lesson and an understanding of individuals that made history. It takes skill, courage, and perseverance to write a book of this magnitude. It was not always comfortable to read
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the events and the actions, but I appreciate the historical education from reading and thinking about these events and people. Kudos to the author for writing with such clarity and boldness.
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LibraryThing member m.belljackson
Taylor Branch makes the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. the primary focus of this first volume,
while he illuminates the faith and strength of the many brave, daring, and controversial men and women who supported,
inspired and sustained him. That Dr. King did not always do the same for them is an
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example of the author's extensive
research, sparing no one, Black or White, male or female, rich or poor, Baptist or Atheist, radical or conservative - from the Kennedys to King -
to examine
fault lines, evil, and greatness.

From Vernon Johns and Stanley Levison to Robert Moses, Bayard Rustin, and John Lewis, all are heroes!

Taylor Branch moves with understated eloquence and honesty as he relates how kids were risking their lives
in pursuit of FREEDOM while their rich religious elders and the liberal establishment in Washington created
a violent farce for white racists to gloat over. They could continue to murder, then sue the survivors for creating a disturbance.

Questions: Did MLK ever help those men he was imprisoned with? He gave them a promise.

Why did Eisenhower do so little to help?

and, most important, would Dr. King have sent his own children out to face the deadly hoses and the snarling dogs?
The "Children's March" that saved The South could so easily have turned into the Bull Connor/George Wallace Children's Massacre.

Would King and the other pacifist leaders have confronted the men who sent that little girl rolling down the street?

How did the rich northern Baptist churches justify themselves when so many African Americans in the South
faced lives of near-starvation, poverty, and no schools, doctors, or hospitals?

The author 'parts the waters' is so many ways, revealing the lame and dangerous excuses the Kennedys offered for their refusals
to send in the desperately needed federal forces to end and prevent the violence and murders of those merely seeking to register to vote.
Where was the promised "Voter Protection?!?"
And why did the Baptist leaders waste so much time and money on ridiculous confrontations
like the Taylor Preacher fracas? Again, Taylor Branch spares no fools.

What could be improved are the confusingly marked photographs, notably the first set.
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LibraryThing member darlenebarlow
Volume one of Taylor Branch's masterful and highly detailed survey of the Civil Rights movement. This book opens the reader's eyes to the many many brave people who worked and sacrificed with Dr. King during this amazing time.

Read this book in June, 2011
LibraryThing member dmarsh451
Did not dock a star for the 20 missing pages in the paperback edition I read. Accidents will happen. I enjoyed how smoothly this was written--the thing is huge, so it was a nice bonus while I propped up the brick, that it was also a decent read. This is not always true with biographies.
The book is
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very detailed about the civil rights movement and the times in general. It's a triple biography that adds names, details and background to all that black and white footage I watched while eating supper with my mom. History and TV trays are forever inseparable in my mind.
I found the chapter about his schooling especially interesting. He's learning to preach. The young preachers trade licks like guitar players. There are forms to play with and tricks of the trade. They work on their moves. Put the patterns in the right hands and it's quite an art. I can see now, how that cross-over happens between early rock n' roll and preaching.
This is the first of 3 volumes. Excellent photographs.
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LibraryThing member ohernaes
The civil rights movement in general and King in particular.
LibraryThing member Steve_Walker
The Civil Rights movement did not come overnight. It was decades in the making. Parting the Waters is probably the best written history of the early days of the civil rights movement. Taylor Branch goes back before
MLK came to Montgomery to set the scene. It's publication has changed the nature and
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tone of the books that have come after it. Taylor Branch tells the story of a movement that was based on black communities banding together to seek change. The first of three volumes, it is book that, as
we move further away from that era, deserves careful reading.
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LibraryThing member nbmars
This is the first of Taylor Branch’s magnificent three-volume chronicle of the civil rights movement and the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. Each volume takes its title from aspects of the Old Testament’s Book of Exodus.

This volume discusses the influences upon MLK, Jr., including Reinhold
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Niebuhr, Gandhi, and Billy Graham. Branch reveals details about the interactions of King with other civil rights leaders and with the political leaders of the time, in particular, the Kennedys.

In spite of the length and detail of these three books, Branch manages to imbue his narrative with interest and excitement. It is quite simply never boring, and is essential reading for students of American history.
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Original publication date



0671687425 / 9780671687427
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