Craig Werner's Reviews > Parting the Waters: Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement 1954-63

Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch
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's review
Jun 05, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: african-american, history
Read from September 24, 2012 to July 27, 2014

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 concentrates his attention on King, the Kennedy brothers, a familiar gallery of movement activists and leaders (Roy Wilkins, James Farmer, John Lewis, James Bevell, Ralph Abernathy, Bayard Rustin, Bob Moses--I'll get to the women in a second), and antagonists (Bull Connor, Laurie Pritchett, J. Edgar Hoover). He's excellent in his portrayal of the institutional in-fighting that frequently threatened to swamp the movement's energy; the political calculus of the Kennedy administration; and the oscillation between near-despair and often unexpected triumph that characterized King's life. While he doesn't set out in so many words to deflate the myths of the Movement, he makes it clear that at any given moment the Movement was moving *against* the desires of the established Negro power structure, and that the Kennedys were at the very best reluctant allies. (I think it's more accurate to file them midway between supporters and antagonists.)

Obviously, I think this is an important, necessary book. But it doesn't really tell the complete story. While Branch is aware of Ella Baker, Septima Clark, Diane Nash and the other women whose contributions have been emphasized in more recent scholarship, they don't really get the attention they deserve--especially Baker. That's partially because Branch is coming from the "leadership tradition" approach to the movement. That's been challenged by Danielle McGuire, Barbara Ransby, Tim Tyson Charles Payne and a younger generation focused on the "organizing tradition." It doesn't negate Branch's accomplishment, but readers who want the complete story should take his work as the starting point, not the end.
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12/25/2011 page 42
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Maxwell (new) - added it

Maxwell I really need to get around to reading these!

Danielle McGuire I just reread this last summer and loved it--I even assigned it and my students liked it too.

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