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Parting the Waters: Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement 1954-63

(America in the King Years #1)

4.34  ·  Rating details ·  8,949 ratings  ·  452 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 socia ...more
Paperback, 1062 pages
Published 1990 by Papermac (first published November 15th 1988)
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Average rating 4.34  · 
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 ·  8,949 ratings  ·  452 reviews

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Jul 20, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
“The crowd retreated into stunned silence as [Martin Luther King, Jr.] stepped away from the pulpit. The ending was so abrupt, so anticlimactic. The crowd had been waiting for him to reach for the heights a third time at his conclusion, following the rules of oratory. A few seconds passed before memory and spirit overtook disappointment. The applause continued as King made his way out of the church, with people reaching to touch him. Dexter members marveled, having never seen King let loose like ...more
Frank Stein
Jan 22, 2014 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
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  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, biography
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
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
May 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing
“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
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
Aug 07, 2010 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.

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
Sep 13, 2007 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 07, 2009 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
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
Mark Jr.
Sep 10, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2020, library-book, audio
So diligent, so enlightening. I’m hoping to put an article together when I finish the trilogy (I’ve read two so far). I knew the outline of this story, but so much surprised me—especially the very stark internal divisions among American blacks, the almost maniacal animus of J. Edgar Hoover against MLK, and the way John Kennedy’s immorality silently hampered efforts toward civil rights. I was struck by how quickly so many people shouted lies (“The Civil Rights movement is just a front for Communi ...more
Jul 05, 2008 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 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,
David B
Feb 15, 2019 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 kind o ...more
Joshunda Sanders
Apr 17, 2010 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
Sep 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing
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. ...more
Nov 28, 2015 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
Oct 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing
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  ·  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
Doreen Petersen
Feb 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing
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.
Feb 01, 2021 rated it it was amazing
The best biographies don’t merely give you a sense of the person, they help you understand the times. Taylor Branch’s MLK biography does just that.
Brian Willis
Jul 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Craig Werner
Jun 05, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Mary Ronan Drew
Nov 23, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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
Mar 25, 2008 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.
Mar 26, 2011 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
Erik Graff
Feb 26, 2016 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 sp
Ira friedman
Oct 04, 2008 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
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MLK's Top 5 Book Recommendations 1 5 Feb 21, 2018 02:38PM  
NonFiction Pulitzers: Parting the Waters: Buddy Read 2016 179 39 Oct 26, 2017 03:10PM  

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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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