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Cover image for Parting the waters : America in the King years, 1954-1963
Parting the waters : America in the King years, 1954-1963
Publication Information:
New York : Simon and Schuster, c1988.
Physical Description:
1064 p. : photographs.
General Note:
Includes index.


Material Type
Call Number
Item Available
Book 973 BRA 1 1

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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 Camelot where the Kennedy brothers weighed demands for justice against the deceptions of J. Edgar Hoover, here is a vivid tapestry of America, torn and finally transformed by a revolutionary struggle unequaled since the Civil War. Taylor Branch provides an unsurpassed portrait of King's rise to greatness and illuminates the stunning courage and private conflict, the deals, maneuvers, betrayals, and rivalries that determined history behind closed doors, at boycotts and sit-ins, on bloody freedom rides, and through siege and murder. Epic in scope and impact, Branch's chronicle definitively captures one of the nation's most crucial passages.

Reviews 5

Publisher's Weekly Review

Pacifist theologian Reinhold Niebuhr influenced Martin Luther King Jr. more deeply than did Gandhi, according to Branch, whose 880-page chronicle shows the civil rights leader taking Billy Graham's evangelist crusades as his model for organizing mass meetings to attack segregation. Epic in scope, often startling in its judgments and revelations, this gripping narrative mingles biography and history as it moves from the founding in 1867 of the First Baptist Church in Alabama, where King's movement took hold, to John Kennedy's assassination. Branch, journalist and coauthor of Second Wind , provides disturbing glimpses of John Kennedy wavering over integration while manipulating King, and of Robert Kennedy, who authorized FBI wiretaps on King's home and offices. Ralph Abernathy, Bayard Rustin and other leaders are also here, though King holds center-stage for most of the narrative. This stirring, vivid tapestry is the first volume in Branch's America in the King Years. First serial to Washington Post Magazine; BOMC segmented main selection. (Dec.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Booklist Review

An exhaustively researched, eloquently written account that captures the social upheaval and powerful personalities of the early civil rights movement.

Choice Review

Branch's celebrated study of the life and times of Martin Luther King Jr. comes close to meriting the widespread accolades it has garnered. This massive work, covering King and the Civil Rights Movement through the 1963 Kennedy assassination, blends superb scholarship, capricious conjecture, and the brutal honesty of new disclosure with the inherent dishonesty of canonizing King at the expense of tens of thousands of courageous local volunteers. Branch is brilliant on King as pastor and as theologian. He offers invaluable new insights into King's bizarre persecution by the FBI, and his troubled relationships with Roy Wilkins and other movement dons. Accentuating their qualms over activism while downplaying a stronger aversion to bigots, Branch portrays JFK as an indecisive dilettante and brother Robert as an unprincipled whore. Frank in his portrayal of King, including his philandering and lapses in personal courage, Branch nonetheless contributes to a gathering mythology that must of necessity diminish rival leaders and intrepid local workers. Nevertheless, this book belongs in every public and academic library. -R. A. Fischer, University of Minnesota--Duluth

Kirkus Review

An affecting, wide-ranging evocation of a turbulent decade when the civil-rights movement launched its fiercely determined, largely nonviolent battle for America's social conscience and soul. A sometime magazine writer/editor with one novel (The Empire Blues, 1981) and a ghosted sports bio to his credit, Branch provides introductory perspectives on the Deep South's black churches--where the cause of desegregation was nurtured to the accompaniment of animating anthems, prayers, and sermons. In this first volume of a two-part work, though, he focuses on the period that began with Martin Luther King's 1954 arrival as pastor of Montgomery's upscale Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and ended with the 1963 assassination of JFK. In what he styles a narrative biographical history, the author recalls the economic boycotts, demonstrations, jailings, financial woes, judicial decisions, political maneuverings, internal dissensions, and vicious reactions that marked the early stages of blacks' first organized efforts to achieve equal rights in the face of entrenched racism. Cutting back and forth between the distinctly different worlds of black and white leaders, Branch provides warts-and-all portraits of those who played key roles in the long-running drama. King claims the heart of this account. But the author also profiles Ralph Abernathy, Harry Belafonte, J. Edgar Hoover, JFK and his brother Robert, Stanley Levinson, John Lewis, Robert Moses, George Wallace, and a host of other principals. Covered as well are less celebrated participants--including the estimable Septima Clark, who once reminded Andrew Young that it might be wise to share the lot of the hungry volunteers he recruited and bused about for confrontations with recalcitrant municipal authorities. Nor does Branch shrink from harsh judgments. At the close, for instance, he reports without disputing King's belief that Kennedy's death was a blessing for the civil-rights campaign, which might otherwise have stalled. In brief, then, a vivid, panoramic text that documents in telling detail the roots of an epic, many-splendored cause. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Library Journal Review

S. & S. 1988. 1064p. bibliog. index. ISBN 0-671-46097-8. $24.95. hist An epic of black civil rights in postwar America centered on the life of Martin Luther King Jr. Branch's narrative reaches back to King's forerunners in the Montgomery pulpit from which he led the 1955 bus boycott, then weaves in and out of King's path through the freedom rides, Ole Miss, Albany, Birmingham, and other episodes of the movement, closing this first of two volumes in November 1963. A graceful display of both the ironies and majesties of the past, it traces the historical axis joining the Kennedys' Washington to King's world of the black church and the Deep South. A tour de force of research and synthesis, richer than any extant King biography or civil rights history, this will be the measure of all books to come. BOMC main selection; see LJ' s ``Best Books of 1988,'' p. 42. Robert F. Nardini, North Chichester, N.H. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



From Chapter One Nearly seven hundred Negro communicants, some wearing white robes, marched together in the exodus of 1867. They followed the white preacher out of the First Baptist Church and north through town to Columbus Street, then east up the muddy hill to Ripley Street. There on that empty site, the congregation declared itself the First Baptist Church (Colored), with appropriate prayers and ceremonies, and a former slave named Nathan Ashby became the first minister of an independent Negro Baptist church in Montgomery, Alabama. Most local whites considered the separation a bargain, given the general state of turmoil and numb destitution after the war. Governor Robert M. Patton and the new legislature, in a wild gamble based on Andrew Johnson's friendliness toward prominent ex-Confederates, openly repudiated the Fourteenth Amendment's recognition of Negro citizenship rights, only to have a Union brigadier walk into the Montgomery capitol to declare that he was superseding the state government again until its officials saw fit to reconsider. White spirits fell; Negro spirits soared. The town's population had swelled to fourteen thousand, with Negroes outnumbering whites three to one. Refugees of both races were fleeing the crop failures and foreclosures in the countryside and streaming into Montgomery, where they often lived in clumps on the streets and entertained themselves by watching the outdoor sheriff's sales. Under such conditions, and with the U.S. Congress threatening a new Fifteenth Amendment to establish the right of Negroes to vote and govern, most whites were of no mind to dispute the Negro right to religion. Many were only too happy to clear the throngs from the church basement, even if it meant that their previous items of property would be conducting their own church business at the corner of Columbus and Ripley-offering motions, debating, forming committees, voting, hiring and firing preachers, contributing pennies, bricks, and labor to make pews and windows rise into the first free Negro institution. The Negro church legal in some respects before the Negro family, became more solvent than the local undertaker. Ten years later, a dissident faction of the First Baptist Church (Colored) marched away in a second exodus that would forever stamp the characters of the two churches. Both sides would do their best to pass off the schism as nothing more than the product of cramped quarters and growing pains, but trusted descendants would hear of the quarrels inevitable among a status-starved people. Undoubtedly some of the tensions were the legacy of slavery's division between the lowly field hands and the slightly more privileged house servants, the latter more often mulattoes. These tensions culminated when "higher elements" among the membership mounted a campaign to remodel the church to face the drier Ripley Street instead of the sloping Columbus, where they were obliged to muddy their shoes on Sundays after a rain. Their proposed renovation, while expensive, would afford cleaner and more dignified access. Most members and some deacons considered this an unseemly and even un-Christian preoccupation with personal finery, but a sizable minority felt strongly enough to split off and form the Second Baptist Church (Colored). Although the secessionists shared the poverty of the times and of their race-and held their organizational meeting in the old Harwell Mason slave pen-the world of their immediate vision was one of relative privilege. At the first baptismal services, conducted by a proper British minister, guests included three equally proper white Yankee schoolmistresses from the missionary legions who were still streaming south to educate and Christianize the freedmen. In January 1879, the new church paid $250 for a lot and a building that stood proudly in the center of town on Dexter Avenue, little more than a stone's throw from the grand entrance of the Alabama state capitol. The all-Negro congregation renamed itself Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Its first minister, a former slave named Charles Octavius Boothe, wrote that the members were "people of money and refinement" and boasted that one of the members, a barber named Billingslea, owned property worth $300,000. This claim, though widely doubted, entered the official church history. From the beginning, Dexter Avenue operated as a "deacons' church," meaning that the lay officers took advantage of the full sovereignty claimed by each Baptist congregation. They were free to hire any preacher they wanted-trained or untrained, fit or unfit-without regard to bishops or other church hierarchy. The Baptists had no such hierarchy at all, nor any educational requirements for the pulpit, and this fact had contributed mightily to the spread of the denomination among unlettered whites and Negroes alike. Anyone with lungs and a claim of faith could become a preacher. And as the ministry was the only white-collar trade open to Negroes during slavery-when it was a crime in all the Southern states to teach Negroes to read or allow them to engage in any business requiring the slightest literacy-preachers and would-be preachers competed fiercely for recognition. Religious oratory became the only safe marketable skill, and a reputation for oratory substituted for diplomas and all other credentials. For most of the next century, a man with a burning desire to be a saint might well find himself competing with another preacher intent only on making a fortune, as all roads converged at the Negro church. It served not only as a place of worship but also as a bulletin board to a people who owned no organs of communication, a credit union to those without banks, and even a kind of people's court. These and a hundred extra functions further enhanced the importance of the minister, creating opportunities and pressures that forged what amounted to a new creature and caused the learned skeptic W.E.B. Du Bois to declare at the turn of the twentieth century that "the preacher is the most unique personality developed by the Negro on American soil." Not surprisingly, these powerful characters sorely tested the ability of congregations to exercise the authority guaranteed them in Baptist doctrine. As a rule, the preachers had no use for church democracy. They considered themselves called by God to the role of Moses, a combination of ruler and prophet, and they believed that the congregation behaved best when its members, like the children of Israel, obeyed as children. The board of deacons at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was one of the few to defend itself effectively against preachers who regularly tried to subdue the membership. Indeed, the board's very identity seemed rooted in the conviction that the church's quality lay as much in the membership as in the pastor. And because those same deacons also made it a tradition to choose the best trained, most ambitious ministers, titanic struggles after the fashion of those between European monarchs and nobles became almost a routine of church life at Dexter. Nearly a dozen preachers came and went in the first decade. By contrast, the First Baptist Church (Colored) remained a "preacher's church," with only three pastors during its first fifty-seven years of existence. The exalted preachers tended to reign in a manner that provoked another mass exodus in 1910, not long after the church burned to the ground. The minister at that time, Andrew Stokes, was a great orator and organizer who had baptized an astonishing total of 1,100 new members during his first year in the pulpit. Stokes made First Baptist the largest Negro church in the United States until the great migration of 1917 created larger congregations in Chicago. He was also a money-maker. If white realtors had trouble selling a house, they often advanced Stokes the down payment, letting him keep his "refund" when white buyers mobilized to keep him out of their neighborhood. Stokes would joke with his deacons about the justice of making the whites pay for their prejudice, and he donated a portion of the proceeds to the church. This was fine, but a controversy erupted when Stokes proposed to rebuild the burned church a few hundred feet to the northeast on a corner lot that he owned and to take title to the parsonage in exchange for the property. Many irreparable wounds were inflicted in the debate that followed. Stokes went so far as to promise to make the new church entrance face Ripley Street, as the wealthier members had demanded more than thirty years earlier, but the unmollified elite among the deacons led a fresh secession down to Dexter Avenue Baptist. It was said that Dexter actually discouraged new members, fearing that additions above the peak of seven hundred would reduce the quality of the whole, and several Dexter deacons predicted in public that Stokes would never be able to rebuild First Baptist without their money and influence. Undaunted, Stokes continued preaching to the impoverished masses who stayed with him, meeting outdoors when he could not borrow a church, and he laid down his law: those who were too poor to meet the demands of the building fund must bring one brick each day to the new site, whether that brick was bought, stolen, or unearthed from Civil War ruins. At the dedication ceremony five years later, Stokes led the great cry of thanks that went up for what became known as the "Bricka-Day Church." Copyright (c) 1988 by Taylor Branch Excerpted from Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963 by Taylor Branch All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. xi
1. Forerunner: Vernon Johnsp. 1
2. Rockefeller and Ebenezerp. 27
3. Niebuhr and the Pool Tablesp. 69
4. First Trombonep. 105
5. The Montgomery Bus Boycottp. 143
6. A Taste of the Worldp. 206
7. The Quickeningp. 272
8. Shades of Politicsp. 312
9. A Pawn of Historyp. 351
10. The Kennedy Transitionp. 379
11. Baptism on Wheelsp. 412
12. The Summer of Freedom Ridesp. 451
13. Moses in McComb, King in Kansas Cityp. 492
14. Almost Christmas in Albanyp. 524
15. Hoover's Triangle and King's Machinep. 562
16. The Fireman's Last Reprievep. 601
17. The Fall of Ole Missp. 633
18. To Birminghamp. 673
19. Greenwood and Birmingham Jailp. 708
20. The Children's Miraclep. 756
21. Firestormp. 803
22. The March on Washingtonp. 846
23. Crossing Over: Nightmares and Dreamsp. 888
Acknowledgmentsp. 923
Abbreviations used in Source Notesp. 925
Notesp. 927
Major Works Cited in Notesp. 1005
Indexp. 1011
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