As today is Martin Luther King, Jr. day (and a day of digging out of a heavy snow that had a layer of ice on top), I thought I would repost a review from a former blog of mine. This is a good biography of the first nine years of Dr. King’s professional life.
Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988)
This book is an enormous undertaking, for both the author and the reader. The author provides the reader a biography of the Reverend Martin Luther King’s work through 1963, a view into the early years of the Civil Rights movement, as well as showing how the movement was affected by national and international events. This is the first of three massive volumes by Taylor Branch that spans the years of King’s ministry, from his ordination in 1954 to his death in 1968. This volume also provides some detail about King’s family history and his earlier life through graduate school at Boston University. I decided to read this book after hearing Branch speak in Birmingham AL in June (2006). It’s like reading a Russian novel with a multitude of characters and over 900 pages of text. However, it was worth the effort as I got an inside look as to what was going on in the world during the first six years of my life.
Branch does not bestow sainthood nor does he throw stones. The greatness of Martin Luther King comes through as well as his shortcomings. He demonstrates King’s brilliance in the Montgomery Bus Campaign as well as in Birmingham. He also shows the times King struggled: his battles within his denomination, the National Baptist; King’s struggles with the NAACP; as well as his infidelities. The FBI also had mixed review. Agents are credited in standing up to Southern law enforcement officers, insisting that the rights of African Americans be protected. They often warned Civil Rights leaders of threats and dangers they faced. However, once King refused to heed the FBI’s warnings that two of his associates were communists, the agency at Hoover’s insistence, set out to break King. Hoover is shown as inflexible, a man who reprimanded an agent for suggesting that King’s associates are not communists. The Kennedy’s (John and Robert) also have mixed reviews. John Kennedy’s Civil Right’s Speech (and on the night that Medgar Evers would be killed in Mississippi) is brilliant. Kennedy drew upon Biblical themes, labeling Civil Rights struggle a moral issue “as old as the Scriptures.” Yet the Kennedy brothers appear to base most of their decisions based on political reasons and not moral ones. This allows King to sometimes push Kennedy at his weakness, hinting that he has or can get the support of Nelson Rockefeller (a Republican). Although we think today of the Democrat Party being the party of African Americans, this wasn’t necessarily the case in the 50s and early 60s. Many black leaders, especially within the National Baptist Convention leadership, identified themselves as Republicans, with Lincoln’s party.
Another interesting aspect in this book is the role many of the black entertainers played in the movement. King was regularly in contact with Harry Belafonte, but also gains connections to Sammy Davis Jr., Lena Horne, Jackie Robinson, James Baldwin and others. The author also goes to great lengths to put the Civil Rights movement into context based on the Cold War politics. Both Eisenhower and Kennedy found themselves in embarrassing positions as they spoke out for democracy overseas while blacks within the United States were being denied rights.
The book ends in 1963, a watershed year for Civil Rights. King leads the massive and peaceful March on Washington. Medgar Evans and John Kennedy are both assassinated. And before the year is out, King has an hour long chat with the President, Lyndon Johnson, a Southerner, who would see to it that the Voting Rights Acts become law.
As a white boy from the South, this book was eye opening. I found myself laughing that the same people who today bemoan the lack of prayer in the public sphere were arresting blacks for praying on the courthouse steps. The treatment of peaceful protesters was often horrible. There were obvious constitutional violations such as Wallace and the Alabama legislature raising the minimum bail for minor crimes in Birmingham 10 fold (to $2500) as a way to punish those marching for Civil Rights. I was also pleasantly surprised at behind the scenes connections between King and Billy Graham. Graham’s staff even provided logistical suggestions for King. King’s commitment to non-violence and his dependence upon the methods of Gandhi are evident. Finally, I found myself wondering if the segregationists like Bull O’Conner of Birmingham shouldn’t be partly responsible for the rise in crime among African American youth. They relished throwing those fighting for basic rights into jail, breaking a fear and taboo of jail. The taboo of being in jail has long kept youth from getting into trouble and was something the movement had to overcome to get mass arrest in order to challenge the system. In doing so, jail no longer was an experience to be ashamed off and with Pandora’s Box open, jail was no longer a determent to other criminal behavior.
I recommend this book if you have a commitment to digging deep into the Civil Rights movement. Branch is a wonderful researcher and his use of FBI tapes and other sources give us a behind the scene look at both what was happening within the Civil Rights movement as well as at the White House. However, there are so many details. For those wanting just an overview of the Civil Right’s movement, this book may be a bit much.