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Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63

(America in the King Years #1)

4.31  ·  Rating details ·  8,305 ratings  ·  389 reviews
In volume one of his America in the King Years, Pulitzer Prize winner Taylor Branch gives a masterly account of the American civil rights movement.

Hailed as the most masterful story ever told of the American civil rights movement, Parting the Waters is destined to endure for generations.

Moving from the fiery political baptism of Martin Luther King, Jr., to the corridors of
Paperback, 1120 pages
Published November 15th 1989 by Simon Schuster (first published January 1st 1988)
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Average rating 4.31  · 
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 ·  8,305 ratings  ·  389 reviews

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Frank Stein
Jan 22, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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
Dec 27, 2014 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 rated it it was amazing
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
May 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
“One of the white men in the audience walked to the stage and lashed out with his right fist. The blow made a loud popping sound as it landed on King’s left cheek. He staggered backward and spun half around. The entire crowd observed in silent, addled awe. Some people thought King had been introducing the man as one of the white dignitaries so conspicuously welcome at Birmingham’s first fully integrated convention. Others thought the attack might be a staged demonstration from the nonviolence wo ...more
Mikey B.
Dec 12, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Kirsten #EndGunViolence
Wow! Whew! I finally finished!!

This is a superbly researched book and was a great read. It really humanizes MLK for me as well as showing me just what an incredible era my parents lived through.

Though an intimidating doorstop of a book, it was actually written in quite an accessible way. I highly recommend it for people who are students of history or just want to know more.

I also recommend it to those who don't see anything wrong with the continuing litany of deaths of black men by the police
Aug 07, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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.

Sep 13, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Steve Horton
Jul 02, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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,
Dec 07, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Oct 02, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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
Jul 05, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
Dayna Long
Sep 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Truly one of the most fascinating books I've ever read. I wish there were more pictures. I recommend taking the time to pause, look things up, listen to speeches, etc. Really wonderful and revealing.
Nov 28, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Oct 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Everyone needs to understand and know this part of our history
This book took me a over year to read, but was worth it. I read it off and on over a year and a half. Such hatred is hard to read, but the hope of Civil Rights for all is a powerful story.
Apr 24, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Doreen Petersen
Feb 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: politics
A very dark period in U.S. history and one that must never be forgotten. So much can be learned from these pioneers of the civil rights movement. A must read for all.
Mary Ronan Drew
Nov 23, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
First-rate history of the civil rights movement. I've read it many years ago and have now re-read it very slowly on my Kindle.

In addition to the voter registration, sit-ins, bus boycott, and marches of the early civil rights movement, much of this first of three volumes involves the battle between J Edgar Hoover's FBI and the Kennedy White House. Bobby Kennedy devoted much time and energy to defeating organized crime before his brother was elected to the presidency, with enormous support from t
Christopher Saunders
Exhaustive, engrossing volume (the first in a trilogy) chronicles King’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement’s formative years, from his tentative role as a spokesman for the Montgomery Bus Boycott and co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to emerging as the movement’s undisputed leader following the March on Washington. It’s the kind of sweeping, grand-scale social history that so few writers can pull off (Robert Caro is the closest analogue), with Branch attuned both ...more
Mar 25, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography, history
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.
Mar 26, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Ira friedman
Oct 04, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Dec 08, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Brian Willis
Jul 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Simply one of the most important books about American history ever written. It is a massive book, 922 pages of text, but then again, its epic scope tells an epic story, one as eventful and difficult as the Book of Exodus for which it is named. Prefaced with a brief history of the Baptist Church in the South, it then shifts to MLK's emergence as a preacher there, and proceeds to detail how the Civil rights movement emerged from the churches of the South. It obviously focuses in major detail about ...more
Neil White
Jun 22, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
Feb 12, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 900-plus, 2010-2011
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
Craig Werner
The first volume of Taylor Branch's epic history, Parting the Waters focuses on the part of the story that most deserves the subtitle "America in the King Years." This will remain the definitive narrative history of the Civil Rights Movement as conventionally understood. It's beautifully written, exhaustively researched and convincing in its analysis. Anyone who wants to commit a couple thousand pages of reading time to the Movement--and its time well spent--should begin here. Branch concentrate ...more
Jeni Enjaian
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
Jeff Sulman
Jan 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Anybody interested in getting nuts and bolts of the civil rights movement? Here is the book. The first volume of three. All the stuff your not taught in Black History month.

At 1000+ pages, covering King's birth and background to the death of Kennedy, it is very tedious and highly detailed but a must for Civil Rights historians.

I look forward to reading the second two volumes.
Feb 09, 2017 rated it it was amazing
What an amazing book. This is the story of the birth of the civil rights movement. The bravery and vision of all the people involved-preachers, students, eccentrics, lawyers, everyday folks, children-springs to life in these pages. One person's action, another's decision, a single voice, each a step towards the realization of King's Dream. We still have a long way to go on that path!

Taylor tells a story that is both frustrating and uplifting; it is heartbreaking at times, inspiring at others. I
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Taylor Branch 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 lives in Baltimore, Maryland, with his wife, Chri ...more

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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