Parting the Waters
The year 1968 was one of the most tumultuous in United States history. Student demonstrations on college campuses, protests against the war in Vietnam, civil rights demonstrations north and south, and the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., were all crowded within that critical year. With King’s death and the riots and destruction that followed, the decade of the 1960’s came to a fiery demise. Twenty years later, a number of scholarly writings appeared reevaluating the 1960’s and, most notably, King’s significance to the civil rights movement. The fine biography Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1986) by David J. Garrow, for example, gives new insights into the man, but Garrow’s emphasis on King’s personal life exaggerates the significance of the individual, thereby diminishing the essential role of ordinary people. Historians for the most part have sustained Garrow’s approach of viewing the civil rights movement through the life of King. At a meeting sponsored by the United States Capital Historical Society, however, Clayborne Carson argued that this image of King “as the only significant leader of the civil rights movement” and “the initiator and sole [indispensable] element in the southern black struggles of the 1950s and 1960s” detracts from the deeds that ordinary people working collectively accomplished.
It is in the context of Carson’s insight that Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963 can best be understood. For Branch, King grew in stature in the Eisenhower and Kennedy years from a committed Negro minister (Branch uses the word Negro “to recreate the feeling of the times”) to the dynamic civil rights leader addressing a crowd of more than 200,000 persons in Washington, D.C., with his “I Have a Dream” oration, not because of his activities as an individual but because of the social forces driving the nation. King’s role is not diminished thereby, but placed within the larger maelstrom of realpolitik. King still holds center stage; persons and events peripheral to him—the Emmett Till case, Little Rock, Fannie Lou Hamer, desegregation demonstrations in the North and West, the student revolt of the 1960’s, and Malcom X—while mentioned, are given so little space that their significance is diminished. Branch’s skill as a writer and the almost encyclopedic detail of his text create the somewhat misleading impression that the volume does indeed cover “America in the King years” in its totality. Given this single caveat, there is no denying the value of the book. It won both the Pulitzer Prize for history and the National Book Critics Circle award for general nonfiction.
King’s sudden emergence from minister at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, to the leader of the Montgomery Improvement Association at the age of twenty-six is a well-known tale. In only eight years—from December 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white man, to the August 28, 1963, March on Washington—the civil rights struggle doomed legal segregation in the United States to its eventual extinction. In the process, King became the recognized spiritual leader of the movement. It is this story that underpins Parting of the Waters. Yet in line with Carson’s observation that the black struggle was very much “a locally based mass movement,” much of the book relates events independent of King’s leadership. The early sit-ins at Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960 (and even some prior to that which failed to ignite a movement), the Freedom Rides of 1961, Bob Moses’ isolated effort to register black voters in McComb, Mississippi, and the more successful voter registration drive of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)—all these were student-led and were backed by King only after they had been initiated by others. As Branch unravels the complexity of these events, it is clear that King’s energies were spread over too many projects. At the same time that he was traveling throughout the nation to participate in civil rights demonstrations, and when he was not in jail, he was constantly speaking, raising funds, developing his own organizations, maintaining his pulpit, fighting legal battles, and attempting to win over the National Baptist Convention to his cause.
Branch’s discussion of King’s bitter conflict within the Baptist hierarchy runs throughout the book. King’s position as a Baptist minister in the pulpit that once belonged to the irascible Vernon Jones both gave him prestige within the black community and financial independence and shackled him to an organization that restricted what he could say and do. His own father, the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, frequently opposed his ideas. At the head of the National Baptist Convention was the uncompromising J. H. Jackson, a conservative opposed to the sit-ins and the movement in general. Within the black community, and almost completely ignored by the white population then and later, this convention established policies for the extremely influential Baptist ministry. As its president, the Reverend Jackson had more power than almost any other black man in the country. Pushed by the progressive forces in the convention to replace...
(The entire section is 2199 words.)