Taylor Branch, “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963” (1988) – I might eat this assessment, but from where I sit it looks like the eighties and nineties were the prime era of what I think of as “bow wow popular histories” — big, sweeping, chonky books of (usually American) history, aimed at a popular (but educated) audience, roughly centrist-liberal in politics, often taking the form of “life and times” biographies, heavy on the “times,” often written by non-historians. I’m thinking of Robert Caro’s biographies of Robert Moses and of LBJ, Anthony Lukas’s “Common Ground” on the Boston bussing crisis, Edwin Burrows’ and Mike Wallace’s “Gotham” on the early history of New York City, Jack Beatty’s “The Rascal King,” about legendary Boston politico James Curley, Richard Rhodes’s “The Making of the Atomic Bomb”… I feel like there are more examples, provided I didn’t make this genre up out of whole cloth. I’m rather partial to these sort of books. They’re fun.
Taylor Branch’s triple-decker history of the civil rights movement, of which “Parting the Waters” is the first volume, fits right in. It is a bow-wow, bells-and-whistles, life-and-times look at Martin Luther King Jr. and the movement he symbolized, weighing in at over nine hundred pages. The book begins with a lengthy discussion of King’s predecessor at the Dexter Street Church, Vernon Johns, a peripatetic Christian intellectual who waged his own nonviolent battle against the oppression of black people. This establishes Branch’s interest in bringing out the unsung heroes of the black freedom struggle, those who preceded King, fighting hard during much less congenial times, and those who worked alongside him. Many of those figures, like Ella Baker and Bayard Rustin, are now better-known than they were in the late eighties when this was written, with major biographies of their own. It’s admirable that Branch sought to make King share the stage with others, something King seemed more comfortable with than those (mostly white) image-makers who would render him the sole symbol of the acceptable face of civil rights…
All that is in the future, and presumably comes up in the next two volumes. What we have now are your classic “humble beginnings.” Admittedly, they are a little less humble than the quasi-christological mythology of the civil rights movement might suggest. Rosa Parks wasn’t (just) a tired woman who wanted to sit on a bus- she was a longtime activist who know what she was doing, if not the scale of what she would kick off. Branch takes us from MLK’s upbringing and education to the Montgomery bus boycott, to King’s rise to fame, to the partial defeat in Albany, Georgia, back to Alabama for the protracted struggle in Birmingham, ending with the ghastly bombing of the 16th Street Church, to the March on Washington. We learn of MLK’s intellectual development and influences. We follow other campaigns, like the Freedom Rides and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s voter registration drives in the depths of Mississippi. There’s plenty of back and forth and competition between the organizations — King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the student radicals at SNCC, the older establishment figures at NAACP, CORE, and so on. Branch describes riots (including one at a black Baptist conference) and meetings with politicians with equal aplomb. Like a good Bollywood picture, you get your money and time’s worth of interesting stuff, well-conveyed.
I’ll illuminate two themes of interest to me. The first is one Branch makes explicit, King’s relationship to the Kennedys. Being a Masshole, it’s inevitable that I’d either love or hate the Kennedy clan- I have family in both camps. Being a pedant, I split the difference. Teddy did some good in this world (after killing a woman), and Bobby tried (after an early career as a red-baiter). I have little time for Jack. I wish fewer Kennedys would be like the Joe who ate shit last year running for Senate, and more like his dad (also Joe) who quit politics to use his money to help people with their heating costs. Branch inadvertently makes the case for crime writer James Ellroy’s assessment of John Kennedy: he was “all about looking good and kicking ass.” He cared less about civil rights than he did about a whole range of things: the Cold War, his image, his electability, keeping segregationists in his party happy. His brother/Attorney General Bobby cared a little more, but had his notional employee and guy who arguably ran the country, the Hoosier Gollum J. Edgar Hoover, to worry about. When either Kennedy helped civil rights, it was out of a combination of electoral calculation and irked pride- “were these crackers really going to defy — a Kennedy — because they didn’t want black people at their lunch counters?” seemed to be the attitude. Lyndon Johnson, far from perfect, did far more for civil rights, and his predecessor arguably helped the cause more dead than alive.
The other theme is not something Branch really dwells on, but I thought about it throughout the book. In my childhood, King and the civil rights movement were enshrined in American civil religion and taught to me as unquestionable avatars of good. This has had staying power, so much that conservatives have basically seized King (on the strength of one line of one speech, mostly). To the extent the black power phase of the black freedom struggle was discussed at all when I was a kid, it was as a decline- recall the sinister Black Panthers in “Forrest Gump,” that “Birth of a Nation” for centrist baby boomers. Then, in college and especially in grad school, I learned a lot more about black power and more radical manifestations of the midcentury black freedom struggle. This was mostly a good thing. Sometimes it gets into a kind of “radical chic” that threatens the project with superficiality.
But more to the point here, I’ve seen a fair amount of pooh-poohing of the civil rights movement, nonviolence, and King. All three warrant criticism. Every movement makes mistakes, King was far from perfect, as Branch shows- he could be domineering, over-sensitive, fascinated by power, and was a womanizer. I see nonviolence as a tool, not a principle, and the religious attachment to it on the part of some civil rights leaders was/is unhelpful. All that said, many of the critiques I hear, especially in some more pop-ier precincts, are unfair. The idea that integration was an unworthy goal, a psychological game between white liberals and self-hating black bourgeoisie… I’ve seen that bandied about, on podcasts and social media and even figures like Ibram Kendi flirt with the position. Truth be told, I see it more as a manifestation of the sicknesses of social-media-driven discourse — the glibness, the psychologizing of opposition, the black-and-white friend-enemy distinctions — than a serious position, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an effect.
It’s possible to think integration in and of itself was a less worthwhile goal than others that could have advanced black freedom (though you’d be hard-pressed to say that getting hauled off to jail for sitting at the wrong seat of a bus is anything other than a serious violation). But the idea that all of the people who fought integration, put their bodies on the line in these dangerous actions, were all self-hating weaklings acting out of a sick love for whites… I’m sorry, but no. That doesn’t hold, and Branch’s work shows that. To use a term that has been sadly diluted, the civil rights movement empowered everyday black people the country over- maybe not as much or as quickly as it could have with different strategies, but still. And who knows what the latter stages of the black freedom struggle would have looked like had the civil rights pioneers not paved the way? History gives us our shots at times and with instruments not of our choosing. The civil rights movement concatenated context, individuals, masses, and ideas to make history- indeed, can a movement make history any other way? ****’