‘Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63’

Review by Bill Doughty

Peace, justice and equality can be born from tension and conflict. Love, compassion and understanding can prevail in the face of hatred and violence.

Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer Prizewinning “Parting the Waters America in the King Years 195463” shows how Constitutional ideals were embodied and emboldened by the civil rights movement, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Last month, the United States marked the 48th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The march culminated with King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Branch leads us to that watershed moment in history, one that informed a nation and showcased the movement’s strength and determination, much like the expression on the face of the new Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial, to be dedicated Oct. 16. Organizers and sponsors note that the King Memorial is aligned visually with the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials on the National Mall and in sight of the Washington Monument.

In his life, King aligned with the ideals of freedom. Like Thomas Jefferson (and, contemporaneously, like John F. Kennedy Jr.) he didn’t always live up to the professed moral ideals in his personal life, as Branch shows.

Like Abraham Lincoln, King championed the Constitution and used reason, diplomacy, courage and compassion to achieve his goals, always trying to understand and make peace with others, especially his rivals.

In his preface, Branch writes: “My purpose is to write a history of the civil rights movement out of the conviction from which it was made, namely that truth requires a maximum effort to see through the eyes of strangers, foreigners and enemies.”

“Parting the Waters” actually begins at the end of the 19th century and gives us a fascinating look at the role of black churches and colleges and the effects of a then-new enlightened way of thinking a non-fundamentalist, unorthodox liberal theology.

At Crozier Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania King discovered, “There are moral laws of the universe that man can no more violate with impunity than he can violate its physical laws.”

Branch writes, “At Crozier, King expressed the belief that love and reason could bring out in all people a basic goodness that was deeper than racial hatreds or personal animosities.”

Out of conflict between competing ideas came compromise and creativity and a universal world view.

Branch writes eloquently about the murders of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers and unlikely martyrdom of independent marcher William Moore, murdered in Alabama.

He writes about the painful anger, hatred and violence in Birmingham, Montgomery, Albany and elsewhere that seethed in 1963. In the rising heat of that summer, King stood for cool, non-violent determination despite political in-fighting by other church leaders and a separatist movement by the Black Muslims and others.

Branch shows that the march on Washington was originally planned 70 years ago this year. In 1941, A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, threatened publicly to lead a massive march to D.C. unless President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an order banning racial discrimination in defense industries. Randolph was a key planner and leader for the 1963 march, like King, committed to nonviolence.

With his unscripted and inspired “I Have a Dream … rooted in the American dream” remarks, King rose to become “a national spokesman for a significant minority of whites as well as a vast majority of Negroes,” writes Branch. King speaks to the inalienable human rights outlined in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States.

In “Parting the Waters,” the author continually shows the tension and conflict that forged the nonviolent fight for civil rights.

King persevered in the face of home and church bombings and the jailing or imprisonment of students and civil rights leaders, including himself. He was stabbed in the chest by a would-be assassin.

King fought on, despite wiretapping investigations and communist-sympathizer allegations by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. Because of scandals, fear and Machiavellian palace intrigue, Hoover was only temporarily successful in slowing the civil rights movement through innuendoes and allegations.

According to Branch, “Most unforgivable was that a nation founded on Madisonian principles allowed secret police powers to accrue over forty years, until real and imagined heresies alike could be punished by methods less open to correction than the Salem witch trials.”

Conflict and tension between Dr. King and President Kennedy, called a “mysterious duel” by Branch, is a centerpiece of the latter part of “Parting the Waters.”

“Where the interpretations of freedom overlapped, they inspired the clear hope of the decade,” Branch writes. “Where incompatible, they produced conflict as gaping as the Vietnam War.”

“Parting the Waters” concludes shortly after Kennedy’s tragic assassination in 1963 and foretells the tragedy that would befall King in 1968. In the intervening years, he would become a “Pillar of Fire,” the last words of Branch’s epic study, and the title of the second book in his trilogy, “Pillar of Fire, America in the King Years 196365. The trilogy concludes with “At Canaans Edge, America in the King Years 1965-68.”

This book is recommended by the Navy Professional Reading Program.

(Bill Doughty writes reviews and commentary on weekends for the Navy Reads Blog, at http:/ / navyreads.blogspot.com)

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