Richard's Reviews > Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63

Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch
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's review
Apr 24, 2009

it was amazing
Read in March, 2009

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 much as it is the story of the arc of King's life as it intersected a crucial point in the nation's history. This is a monumental work which is the first of a three-part series of books.

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to follow a bus driver's order to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama. She was cited with violating the city's bus laws and refused to pay the fine. A planning committee of prominent black citizens used this incident as a touchstone to challenge the law by way of a bus boycott. King, the young pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, agreed to lead the boycott. Events caused the boycott to be prolonged for a year, during which the poorest residents of the city who were most in need of public transportation, refused to use the service. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually affirmed a lower District Court order which declared unconstitutional both the Montgomery and Alabama segregated bus laws. King, at age 26, experienced his first taste of fame in the South at this time.

Many early civil rights leaders were drawn from the ranks of southern black Baptist preachers. King and other prominent preachers formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and continued the fight for civil rights by aiming at the South's restrictive voter registration laws. Initially the SCLC was interested in educational efforts to teach blacks how to navigate the laws designed to disenfranchise them, the most conspicuous example being Robert Moses' heroic efforts in McComb County, Mississippi. Soon, effort was expended to teach leadership and organizing tactics and strategies for civil rights leaders. Low-key efforts by SCLC organizers to get local blacks registered at their local courthouses throughout the deep South were joined by high profile movements involving civil disobedience and mass arrest at places such as Terrell and Albany Counties in Georgia; McComb and Greenwood in Mississippi; and Birmingham in Alabama.

There was no doubt that efforts to challenge the South's segregation laws would lead to violence against the protesters. Following the example of Ghandi, King established the rule that the hatred leveled against the protesters would be met nonviolently. Nonviolence was effective in disarming the white perception of innate black violence, and it would turn white violence into an asset. Protestors by the thousands would have to fight for their civil rights courageously for years, without returning the violence directed at them.

Branch describes the formation of the second significant civil rights organization which came into existence at this time. Young blacks, mostly college students, started being engaged in protest efforts to challenge the segregation laws barring blacks from lunch counters and other public facilities in cities across the South. The sit-in movement became organized under the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Their tactics were not always endorsed by the SCLC, but they adopted the policy of nonviolence and joined SCLC in many important campaigns, starting with Albany in 1961-62.

SNCC, in conjunction with leaders of CORE, followed the sit-ins with a new movement which would place its participants in the face of violence from the segregationists. The 1961 U.S. Supreme Court decision of Boynton v Virginia outlawed segregation in waiting rooms and restrooms at bus stations of companies engaged in interstate commerce. Integrated groups of blacks and whites would ride buses throughout the South to test the states' compliance with the law. Branch pulls no punches as he describes the resistance faced by the first Freedom Ride in May, 1961 from Washington D.C. to New Orleans, including the firebombing of the first bus, and subsequent beatings of riders in bus stations. One of the most egregious examples of this type of intimidation occurred when Public Safety Director Bull Connors' officers left the Birmingham bus station to the mercy of a KKK mob immediately before the arrival of the bus bearing the first Freedom Riders.

Branch describes all of the beatings, shootings, arsons and bombings confronting King and others as matters of historical fact and allows readers to form their own opinions regarding the outrageousness of events depicted in the book. One may ask where the federal government stood at this time, when southern state governments were defiantly enforcing the segregation laws. Couldn't the U.S. government just swoop down and force the states to at least protect those engaged in peaceful protest against unjust laws? The answer was more complicated than I had imagined. Branch does a superb job of describing the Kennedy administration, where the President's brother, Robert, was head of the Justice Department. The Kennedy's certainly personally believed in the need for civil rights reform, but they were not ready to commit the government to be a leader in the fight. President Kennedy was adamant that military or police power could not be an agent for effecting a revolution in race relations. Of course there were some notable instances when the government took action at this time. John Doar, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, worked tirelessly throughout the South to investigate civil rights abuses and bring suits, on a county-by-county basis, regarding violations of the 1957 Civil Rights Act. Federal Marshals were used to protect Freedom Riders in Montgomery and risked serious imminent threats to their lives in the confrontation with rioters during the integration of University of Mississippi.

However, the overall federal role, as seen by the President, was to be peacemaker and mediator. There were powerful motives forcing this passivity. President Kennedy was worried about the possibility of losing Democratic congressmen in the mid-term elections in 1962 and was looking forward to his reelection prospects in 1964. His party at that time was moderate, with a strong conservative base in the South. The southern segregationist governors had worked hard to get him votes in 1960 and he did not want to alienate them. He and Bobby were also being influenced by J. Edgar Hoover, who kept feeding the White House with poisoned intelligence connecting King with associates who had had communist ties. Jack Kennedy knew also that there were limits to how far he could influence the FBI to work harder to investigate crimes against civil rights workers, when its Director had a secret dossier of Kennedy's self-destructive extra-marital sexual escapades going back several decades.

All of this reflected on Martin Luther King, who enjoyed having his status as a rising civil rights leader confirmed by the attention paid him by the President, but was constantly thwarted by demands from the Justice Dept. to refrain from civil disobedience and from the president to get rid of alleged subversives working for him. He would powerfully convey two messages in 1963 that would firmly establish him as the most eloquent spokesperson for civil rights. The first would occur while he languished in the Birmingham jail during the grueling campaign which brought the world newsreel pictures of Bull Connors' high-powered fire hoses and police dogs set loose on demonstrators. Finally shaking free of the stigma associated with being a lawbreaker for engaging in civil disobedience, he wrote a letter, addressed to his southern white minister allies who constantly urged him to steer clear of jail. As Branch quotes, King wrote about the shortcomings of seemingly sympathetic fellow ministers who were quick to urge their worshippers to support desegregation, when it was supported by the law, instead of taking the risk of calling for integration, regardless of its legal status in the South, because it is morally right and leads to brotherhood between the races.

Also in that year King spoke several times in which he followed a developing theme to explain his vision for the moral ends to be attained by the civil rights struggle. Branch describes how King's oral presentation became more forceful as he spoke to succeeding audiences. All of the essential pieces were present when he spoke before a group of Black capitalists in Chicago in which he started by letting them know that they could provide valuable resources for "the struggle", then denounced white politicians in Congress for maneuvering to weaken civil rights legislation, finally making abstract remarks on the power of nonviolence. He concluded the speech remarking that he had a dream ... deeply rooted in the American dream... a dream that in Alabama (where violence against a friend just occurred) (people of all races) "will be able to walk together as brothers and sisters." (p. 871)

King's speech was finely honed by the time of the March on Washington on August 28th. This decades-long dream of A. Philip Randolph, who organized the March with Bayard Rustin, brought speakers from most of the major civil rights organizations to a live crowd of hundreds of thousands and a vast national television audience. King edited his text partly to placate demands from the White House to keep the rally from becoming an anti-government event (resulting in the boycott of the event by Malcom X and the Black Muslims) , and also to set aside his usually lofty oratory. The result was a speech in which the Old Testament was combined to the as yet unrealized American sense of being. As Branch notes, critics would point out the ethereal tone of the speech and the usage of content too simple for the occasion, but they would miss the point that this was a speech which presented ideals with an emotional command of oratory that gave King the credibility to define democratic justice. Branch judges that the power of his voice projected King across racial divisions and established him as a new founding father.

King's personal triumphs in 1963 would have mixed results. He was now instantly recognized by all Americans, black and white. He would no longer be constrained by those outside his movement who had always insisted on waiting until times were better to initiate protest. He was America's foremost civil rights representative. However, his national stature would make him more resented by other civil rights leaders who also worked hard in the movement. Ralph Abernathy, fellow preacher who marched alongside, and shared triumph and defeat with King since the beginning, would increasingly find himself in the shadow to King's spotlight. J. Edgar Hoover, who was finding it increasingly difficult to keep Americans alarmed about Communist influence on American institutions when CPUSA had lost almost all of its membership, looked at King after the March on Washington as a national menace worthy of directing his agency's resources to harassing and destroying.

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