Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr

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.

23 thoughts on “Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr”

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Jeff! I often joke that I hope there is a library in heaven because I am never going to get to read all the books I want to in this life. But maybe I will get to this one. MLK Jr. is a hero of mine. Humans are such complex beings. None of us is perfect. Certainly MLK Jr. wasn’t, but he accomplished great good in this world. I remember thinking, in far away Nova Scotia during the last five or six months of King’s life, that someone was going to kill him. It didn’t feel like a shock when he was. So tragic. I try to remember now, when the world seems so dark, that we have come through other dark times. I’d be skewered today if I were still teaching. I didn’t pull any punches when I talked to my kiddos about the treatment of Black Americans or Native Americans. I have never forgotten how betrayed I felt when I learned there were internment camps in the US and Canada during WW II when I was 16! I was stunned, and I was angry my parents hadn’t told me that or anyone else. I promised myself that I would never hide history, even if it was ugly or uncomfortable. We can’t move forward if we aren’t willing to look at all of our past. Okay ~ I’ll stop! I hope all is well with you!

  2. Someday… you are so right. I’d love to read the book, someday. Meanwhile, thank you so much for the wonderful synopsis.
    Diane Sullivan

    • The problem is that there are too many good books I want to read! But his other books are high on my list as I have been trying to understand the era in which I came of age.

  3. Sounds like a great book, Jeff. Thanks for sharing this post again. I remember going to the South for the first time when I joined the Navy and had boot camp in Florida. It was quite the eye-opening experience for this teenager from Idaho.

    • While I can imagine it was a strange experience for you (as was my first experience of a summer in the Sawtooth Mountains in 1988), both of us, I think, would have a hard time relating to the South of the 1950s, when much of this book took place. Probably because of coming of age toward the end of the Civil Rights movement, it has always interested men.

  4. I read “Pillar of Fire,” but not the others in the trilogy. Maybe I should put that one my iist, as well, although I’m currently muscling my way through Morris’ 3-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt, and may need to take a break before plunging back into this sort of comprehensive work. You do a great service by bringing books like Branch’s to peoples’ attention. In last Sunday’s NYTimes Non-Fiction Best-Seller List, 8 of the top 10 books were written either by or about a celebrity. Occasional reading of escapist, fun non-fiction is great. But if all we read about is celebrities, we risk growing ignorance of aspects of the world that matter most.

    • I have thought about skipping Pillar of Fire and reading his last volume, “At Canaan’s Edge” which deals with the last three years of MLK’s life (and the time I would remember him as I was in the 5th grade when he was killed). The Morris book sounds interesting. Have you read Robert Caro’s books on LBJ? Caro also does a good job of linking to that which is going on in society to the man he’s writing about.

  5. Branch’s commitment to finding the truth is admirable. It has become every person’s responsibility to look beyond headlines and words to the raw data. I like that Branch seems to do that here.

    Somehow, I got unfollowed from your website. Can’t yet find the ‘follow’ button, but I’ll keep looking!

    • One of the things I like about Branch’s writings, is that he places King within his time (kind of like Caro in his biography of LBJ). Both authors in their multiple volumes cover my early years.

  6. It’s good to find a balanced account of this man. I’m marking it for future reading because that’s a period in our history that still reverberates today. What a time: Vietnam, protests galore, assassinations! You never had time to recover from one catastrophe before the next one came along.

    I’m glad you reposted this because I didn’t see it the first time around. And thank you for the story about Secret Tribute. That was great.

  7. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of this book before, and a Pulitzer winner, at that! It sounds like quite an undertaking. Maybe someday…

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