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Parting the Waters: Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement 1954-63 (America in the King Years #1)

4.41  ·  Rating Details  ·  4,928 Ratings  ·  267 Reviews
First of a 3-volume social history, Parting the Waters is more than a biography of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the decade preceding his emergence as a national figure. This 1000-page effort, which won the Pulitzer Prize as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction, profiles the key players & events that helped shape the American s ...more
Paperback, 924 pages
Published 1990 by Papermac (first published January 1st 1988)
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Frank Stein
Jan 23, 2014 Frank Stein rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is simply an unparalleled work of history that makes one appreciate and understand the civil rights movement in a way no other work can. It consistently astounds and amazes, which is itself impressive for a tale so often told.

To tell the truth, I've never been very interested in the "classical" civil rights movement, the one we read about in all the US history textbooks, from the Birmingham bus boycott of 1955 up through the march to Selma in 1965. I thought it was perhaps the most importan
Clif Hostetler
Mar 25, 2016 Clif Hostetler rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
This book is the first of three volumes that comprise America in the King Years, a history of the civil rights movement by Taylor Branch which he wrote between 1982 and 2006. The three individual volumes have won a variety of awards, including the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for History. This book covers the history of the civil rights movement between the years of 1954 to 1963.

This book has over a thousand pages, so I need to confess that I listened to an abridged audio version that is about 6.5 hours
May 09, 2011 Clif rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I first read this book years ago and was so impressed that I put it on the shelf to read again. In the meantime, I discovered that this is only the first of three books Taylor Branch has written on the Civil Rights struggle and this time I intend to take them all in.

From any perspective, Parting of the Waters is a masterpiece. Branch doesn't let a person come into the story without a lively introduction including the character traits that will help the reader keep track of one person among so ma
Mikey B.
Jul 09, 2013 Mikey B. rated it it was amazing
A monumental history of America and the Civil Rights movement. Superlatives abound! It is amazing how Mr. Branch can go from the top (King, Kennedy, Hoover) to people at the very roots of the Civil Rights movement (Rosa Parks, John Lewis, William Moore, Louis Allen…). The cast of characters who made things happen and broke down barriers is astonishing.

Dr. King is portrayed as a man of moral fibre who knew what was wrong and right in society and deeply tolerant of other people’s shortcomings – pa
Sep 22, 2007 Joel rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: history buffs, activists
Parting the Waters defines what a popular history should be: detailed, well-researched, and as readable as a novel. While the life of MLK is the fulcrum of the work, Branch delves deeply into into areas as diverse as the history of Dexter Avenue Baptist and power struggle between Bobby Kennedy and J. Edgar Hoover. All this detail means that as Branch moves chronologically through the major events of the Civil Rights struggle, you feel like you have the context to understand exactly what these ev ...more
Dec 22, 2015 Kay rated it really liked it
This book has been sitting by my nightstand for a while, but when I heard that Taylor Branch, David Simon, and Ta-Nehisi Coates were working together on a screen adaptation of it, it jumped to the top of my list. Though I know the vague outlines of MLK's life and of the early days of the mid-20th century civil rights movement, I was like many other Americans and embarrasingly thin on the actual details.

This book was incredibly helpful at filling out the contours of that narrative, and is a fun
Mar 12, 2015 judy rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
Part of the definitive trilogy on the Civil Rights movement. An incredible read--meticulously researched. It took him 23 years to complete it. Branch is white but a number of years ago I saw him on an MLK Day panel on BET. He was surrounded by black leaders from the movement whose names probably any informed person knows. What does that tell you about how the people who lived the events in this book think about Branch's version? The most amazing thing about this book is that you realize that MLK ...more
Dec 06, 2008 Bill rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Standing in front of the smoking ruins of the bombed dwelling lately occupied by your wife and newborn daughter before a seething mob crying out to avenge you is a powerful test of a man's character. On January 30, 1956, Martin Luther King's house was bombed during the Montgomery Bus Boycott; his wife Coretta and daughter Yolanda barely escaped the blast. After the bombing, the house was ringed by a thin line of white policemen in imminent fear of attack by a much larger African American crowd. ...more
Steve Horton
Jul 02, 2011 Steve Horton rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
One of the reviewers echoed my feelings...this is probably the best non-fiction I have ever read. King is the axis of this brilliant but disturbing narrative, but the history of the US is skillfully interwoven. Although there were many uplifting portions of the story, what a sad commentary on us as a nation. What were the outrageous demands of the civil rights movement-opportunity and equality?

In what can easily be characterized as a battle of good vs. evil, Taylor takes us from the deep south,
Jul 06, 2014 Eliz rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2010
For sheer size and detail, it seems inarguable that Taylor Branch has written the definitive Civil Rights Movement history. This tome, which I hauled around with me for the better part of three weeks, is only a third of the series. In over 900-pages it covers the history of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the history of King's family in Atlanta and, most extensively, the crescendos and nadirs of the movement from Montgomery to the March on Washington and the assassination of President Kennedy.

Apr 27, 2009 Richard rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Parting the Waters is about the civil rights movement of mid-20th century America. Branch indicates in his title that these late-1950, early 1960's years were properly "The King Years." Martin Luther King Jr. came of age and had his career path steered by the events that were taking place in America at that time, and in turn he became the single most influential figure shaping the manner in which the civil rights battles would be waged. The book is not therefore purely a biography of King, as mu ...more
Apr 01, 2011 Donna rated it liked it
Did not dock a star for the 20 missing pages in the paperback edition I read. Accidents will happen. I missed some childhood. I enjoyed how smoothly this was written--the thing is huge, so it was 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 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 wat
Apr 23, 2008 Fritz rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, biography
More a history of the times than a traditional biography, Parting the Waters is a fascinating telling of the American civil rights movement up to the time of JFK's assassination. There is a huge amount of material in just this first of three volumes, but the pace and flowing concision of Branch's writing makes it easy--maybe even necessary--to get through.

I've known of many of the history's major characters and events throughout my life, but I had no sense of how superficial that knowledge was.
Oct 04, 2008 Ira rated it it was amazing
The book took me weeks to read through and at times I wasn't too happy about its (or my) slurring pace but when its all said and done - this book is great. The book is an almost day to day recounting of the uprising of the civil rights movement and begins with King as a young man. Branch captures Kings maturation as a leader as seen through the movement. There is also heavy room given to the competing leaders, preachers, etc in the movement as well as the Kennedy administration and the state and ...more
This is the most epic, engrossing history book ever. It's pretty difficult to find a 1000-page book that's densely written but you nevertheless can't put down, but this book accomplishes that feat. It's the first in a trilogy about the Civil Rights Era, and would be a superior replacement for every history book I had to read from 6th grade on through high school. For most of us who sat through Texas history, MLK was reduced to his "I have a dream" speech, and the particulars of his strategic, me ...more
Apr 12, 2016 Bruce rated it it was amazing
I just finished Parting the Waters: Volume One of Taylor Branch's amazing America in the King Years Trilogy. I was struck by how King became the key balance point between the more aggressive Student Non-Violence Coordinating Committee and the more moderate NAACP. His commitment to non-violence allowed him to work with both groups, gain influence with political leaders and earn the moral support of millions of Americans. King, despite Hoover's attempts to portray him as a revolutionary and commun ...more
Jeni Enjaian
Feb 14, 2015 Jeni Enjaian rated it it was amazing
Some things are obvious about this book without even having to crack the cover, mainly the fact that it is quite long and will take quite a while to get through even for a fairly fast reader. (This is the reason that I am 5 books behind on my reading challenge.)

In no particular order, here are my thoughts about this book. First, Branch penned a smooth, well-flowing narrative that somehow spans multiple diverse and far-flung characters and events in such a manner that leaves very little confusion
Dec 01, 2015 Harper rated it it was amazing
The first of three volumes about America in the king years all three are good but this first volume I found moved mr, challenged me and hopefully taught me lessons we could all use in these times. The courage of the first actors in the civil rights movement equals that shown by anyone in any age. It is hard for us to imagine today what changes were put in motion by simple acts of civil disobedience carried out peacefully even in the face of violent response the book explores the king years but i ...more
David Bonesteel
Jun 14, 2013 David Bonesteel rated it it was amazing
Taylor Branch has written a magnificent history of the early civil rights movement, using the life and career of Martin Luther King, Jr. as a framework. Although there is a great deal of information about King's life both public and private, other key players in this great drama also receive extensive treatment. Some, such as John & Robert Kennedy and J. Edgar Hoover, are well-known. Others have received far less recognition: Vernon Johns, the powerful itinerant country preacher who was a ki ...more
Feb 03, 2014 Rick rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
The first volume in Taylor Branch’s magnificent three-volume biography of Martin Luther King, was first published in 1988, and read by me shortly thereafter. Then as they were released I read the second (Pillar of Fire, 1998) and third (At Canaan’s Edge, 2006) volumes. Parting the Waters won the Pulitzer Prize and the others have also deservedly won various honors because of the skill Branch brings as a writer, researcher and storyteller (in the finest sense of that word). He weaves a compelling ...more
Apr 04, 2010 Jacob rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2010-2011, 900-plus
I found this on display at my library back for Black History Month and knew I had to read it. Formidable is right: this hefty book, 900+ pages, is both a biography of Martin Luther King, jr., and a near day-to-day history of the American Civil Rights Movement. The first of a trilogy, it chronicles King’s early life, culminating in his arrival at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery in 1954, the shaky start of the movement with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and follows King and others through ...more
Neil White
Jul 29, 2012 Neil White rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
When I started reading this book, I hadn't yet been hired to my current employer, Bush was still president, and there was no such thing as an iPhone. It was January of 2006, and the third volume of Taylor Branch's trilogy had just been released, piquing my curiosity enough to check out the first volume.

Six and a half years and a thousand massive textbook-sized pages later, I'm finally laying this massive tome to rest. It didn't take me this long because it was bad - quite the opposite - it was j
Erik Graff
Feb 26, 2016 Erik Graff rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Americans
Recommended to Erik by: Ralph Pearson
Shelves: history
First of a three volume study of the civil rights struggle in the United States during the 20th century, Parting the Waters focuses primarily--and critically--on Martin Luther King, but not without extensive forays into other representative events and their participants. Beautifully written and profoundly moving throughout, this book is to be recommended to all citizens.

I was too young to be much aware of the period, 1954-63, covered. My attentions were on the Kennedy administration and the spac
Jul 11, 2010 Pedsplace rated it it was amazing
This is one of the best nonfiction books that I have ever read. Easily deserving of a Pulitzer, Branch documents the early history of the Civil Rights movement in a thorough but incredibly engrossing style. His approach is nuanced and he does not create black and white characters. King is a flawed individual who nevertheless succeeds in rising to greatest, to a large extent, as a product of his times.

But after reading this book, one is thoroughly astounded and appalled at what life was like in
Jul 21, 2007 Patrick rated it really liked it
Shelves: americanhistory
Superb but long, even for me, who likes a lot of backstory and detail. The best section is on the creation of the "Letter from Birmingham Jail." After the last of this trilofy was published I read review that stated that Branch either didn't get the full story on all of the events covered or didn't incorporate all points of view on a lot of the most important matters. Given the length of each book it seems hard to belive that's the case, but I would like to hear from anyone who shares that criti ...more
Jun 30, 2015 Simon rated it it was amazing
Magisterial, gripping, evocative, provocative. Best book I have read this year. Branch moves you through the ten years he has chosen as the structure for his book with assurance, a keen eye for detail, and a relentless focus upon the people at ground level in the civil rights movement. It is profoundly moving for me to realize that I lived through this decade, my first; some of my earliest mental images are the hoses being turned upon demonstrating young people, and the sound of Martin Luther Ki ...more
Glen Murrin
Mar 27, 2013 Glen Murrin rated it it was amazing
This an exceptional book. It describes in great detail one of the greatest accomplishments in American history - a people rising up to seize their right to participation in American life on equal terms with all other citizens. I does this with comprehensive detail and narrative drive. The leaders of this movement faced overwhelming obstacles, which they overcame through heroic actions. Though there are true heroes described here, Taylor Branch does not overly romanticize them. They were human be ...more
Mari Stroud
Mar 08, 2011 Mari Stroud rated it it was amazing
Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. Branch writes all of the major historical players in one of the biggest movements in history in accessible prose, with volumes of context, and with very little editorialising of frequently flawed men and women. (Except for Hoover; he hates Hoover. Come on, though, if there was ever a person who deserved a hate-boner...) I especially loved the emphasis, so neglected in modern teachings of the Civil Rights Movement, on the *movement*. This was not a series of lucky ...more
Joshunda Sanders
Jul 30, 2010 Joshunda Sanders rated it it was amazing
This is a beautifully written account of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King's development as a pastor, the Freedom Rides, the Albany Movement, SNCC, SCLC and all the horrors that were endured from Birmingham to Mississippi and beyond in the early 1960s. I considered it a must-read for several reasons; the main one is that my generation has no knowledge of people being hosed down or beaten or jailed for freedom and I wanted to read more from someone who knew the subject well. Taylor Br ...more
Alison Iris Mandelker-Burnett
Apr 01, 2012 Alison Iris Mandelker-Burnett rated it really liked it
So well-written that I cannot give up on this civil rights tome. At times it feels overdone, until you're recounting stories from the era like you were there. I have taken countless Civil Rights history classes in college and never even skimmed the surface of the complex characters, personalities, and politics that were playing out. I will one day get to the next one, but I need to read something light after this...although i cannot wait to read the next one eventually.
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Taylor Branch (born January 14, 1947, in Atlanta, Georgia) is an American author and historian best known for his award-winning trilogy of books chronicling the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. and some of the history of the American civil rights movement. The third and final volume of the 2,912-page trilogy — collectively called America in the King Years — was released in January 2006. Branch live ...more
More about Taylor Branch...

Other Books in the Series

America in the King Years (3 books)
  • Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65
  • At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years 1965-68

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