The King Years Chronicled

Against the Current, No. 84, January/February 2000

Mark Higbee

Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 by Taylor Branch (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988) 1062 pages, $16 paperback. Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65 by Taylor Branch (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998) 746 pages, $17 paperback.

IN TWENTIETH CENTURY U.S. history, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s has few rivals for compelling national drama. Yet its history, like all stories, can be told in a variety of ways. In recent years, accounts of the civil rights movement and its fast receding historical epoch have generally been told with either the dry analysis of academic specialists or, far worse, with a triumphal tone celebrating yet another great American achievement—as if the movement had won a final victory over racial injustice.

While both styles tend to render the movement remote from present-day concerns, triumphant accounts of how the U.S. “overcame” segregation and racial prejudice are especially objectionable. Such rhetoric fills the airwaves each January when Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is celebrated, even dominating some campus forums, and shapes the speech of the political elite. Indeed, the name of the movement’s most famous leader is routinely invoked by modern-day foes of King’s unfulfilled agenda.

This pernicious coopting of the memory of the movement and of Dr. King by forces which oppose what King and the movement stood for must be combated by a deeper and more popular knowledge of the movement’s actual history: Its methods and its goals were far too radical to be fully supported even by most liberals of the 1950s and 1960s.

The movement’s vision of a just society, and its real strides toward that goal, are potentially quite inspiring today—but only if the movement is not neutered or made dull or its activists excessively valorized, as if they were not ordinary human beings who willfully took extraordinary risks in pursuit of justice.

Yet many writings on the movement lack strong narrative appeal. To date, few if any truly great novels on the movement exist (many “civil rights novels” are actually set after the mass movement’s dissolution in the late 1960s). Perhaps only in memoir and autobiography do writings on the movement come close to equaling the power that one senses in so many documents and speeches produced by the movement.

In the great tradition of African-American autobiography, movement memoirs constitute a rich and human literature: For two centuries Black people in the United States have used their life stories as a way of telling their people’s story and advancing their collective struggle. But autobiography, even at its best, cannot fill the need for an overall history of the movement.

Most scholarly works on the movement, while often rich in analysis and interpretation, are rather dry. Still, countless important studies by professional historians have been produced, covering a wide array of subjects. They comprise a complex historiography that has fundamentally expanded and deepened what is known about the movement.

For instance, no longer do serious historians speak of the movement arising from the Brown decision of 1954 or even from the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56; instead historians have rediscovered the “early civil rights movement” of the 1930s and 1940s. This dynamic “early” movement, more labor- than church-oriented, was dedicated to economic as well as legal equality, and it had a strong internationalist, anti-colonial focus, but was wiped out by early Cold War political repression.

Scholars have also examined many local freedom movements, showing that grassroots activists really were—as members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee famously, and Dr. King less famously, both insisted—the core of the movement. These studies also show that local activists possessed their own complex and differing political views on many subjects.

Historians have also started exploring the too long neglected but crucial role of women in the movement. This contribution is especially valuable, since it cuts against the sexism of both many earlier studies and of most movement organizations, in which women leaders rarely held formal leadership positions, no matter their actual importance in the movement.

These are just a few of the areas in which civil rights historiography has provided new information and interpretations. Still, despite this historiography’s vitality and important findings, I would be hard pressed to name more than a handful of books by professional historians that are indispensable for nonspecialists seeking a broad understanding of the movement—and few works on that select list would meet most readers’ idea of lively, compelling reading.

That so little of what’s been written on the movement makes readers eager to get to the next page is no small problem, pedagogically and politically, since it contributes to the tendency to ignore the movement or to see it as part of a long-ago past.

Taylor Branch is the exception to the rule. His monumental work stands as both a synthesis of civil rights studies and a beautiful, grand narrative of the movement. His two volumes manage to be both real page-turners and serious history, his major themes and interpretations generally quite convincing and reliable.

Significantly, Branch is neither a movement veteran nor an academic, but a professional journalist. He writes beautifully and stays focused on both the big picture and revealing details. Drawing on his own vast research into the sources—including almost 2,000 oral history interviews and a wide reading of newspaper and magazine stories—and from the large scholarship on the movement, Branch has published two volumes, the first, Parting the Waters, in 1988, the second, Pillar of Fire, in 1998.

These two volumes go up through early 1965. A third, to be called At Canaan’s Edge, will go through the assignation of Martin Luther King in 1968 (and, I hope, into our own contemporary “post-civil rights” era). Branch’s subtitle, “America in the King Years,” used for each volume, is telling: While writing a King biography and a movement history, Branch brilliantly defines his subject as not just King and the movement, but the nation itself during its mid-twentieth century collision with the legacy of its racist past.

The range of topics discussed is sweeping, and for each one Branch usually presents little-known details that crystallize key issues at crucial moments in history. One example: During the 1960 elections the television networks refused to show “Negro speakers at both [national party] conventions for fear of offending Southern stations,” writes Branch. “Although the race issue was bubbling up strongly enough to make both political parties take platform stands of unprecedented clarity, it was still too sensitive for television.”

By eschewing a purely biographical approach, Branch has written the best King biography yet produced: By not being wholly King-centric, Branch is free to demonstrate the extent of local civil rights activism, to document how SNCC and other local activists in the South (as well as other actors in the urban North after about 1963) moved King and the movement, to explore the crucial and complex politics of the Black church, and to explain how such centers of national power as the White House and the New York Times were, and were not, affected by the movement.

Only in such contexts can King and the movement be understood. King alone stood in the vortex where the movement, the African American community as a whole, the federal government, the courts, and the rest of American society all intersected.

One way that Branch dramatizes the complexity of this period is by highlighting historical simultaneities of many events that we tend to regard as unrelated, even if we realize they occurred simultaneously.

Two examples: first, the “life-shaping trips” of President Kennedy to Berlin in June 1963, where he gave his famous Cold War speech, and of King to Detroit for the civil rights march of 100,000 down Woodward Avenue, where King essentially previewed his “I Have a Dream” speech of the March on Washington two months later.

Though rarely thought about together, these two trips took place simultaneously, right after King and Kennedy had met at the White House in the wake of the watershed Birmingham protests. In fact, Kennedy regarded his Berlin trip as vital, despite its slim diplomatic prospects, “precisely because it was a diversion from the intractable problems” of the domestic race crisis.

The second is that, as Branch reports, the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the discovery of the bodies of three murdered civil rights workers in Mississippi occurred during the same days in August 1964—an historical coincidence of real importance, given competing demands for the attention of the White House and the press.

Although in these volumes Branch does not go into depth on how Cold War pressures shaped the civil rights struggle, such vignettes abound in his work (and by the end of Pillar of Fire the Vietnam War gets a lot of space).

Some overlap occurs between the last chapters of Parting the Waters and the first in Pillar of Fire: Both analyze the Birmingham protests of spring 1963, the March on Washington, and John Kennedy’s death, among other things. But for the most part this overlap lets each book stand on its own, and both volumes include information on these three subjects that is not repeated in the other.

More significantly, the two books differ a bit in organization. Pillar of Fire is tighter in structure and focus, due in part no doubt to its much more constricted time period—just two years, albeit the two fattest years of the civil rights revolution.

But Pillar is tighter mainly because Parting the Waters, whose text is 200 pages longer than the second book, has just twenty-three chapters, compared to forty in Pillar of Fire. No surprise, then, that chapters in Pillar proceed with a clear, dramatic focus on their themes, while in Parting‘s overly long chapters some of the narrative treads can be somewhat hard to track.

Parting the Waters, taking its title from Exodus and the parting of the Red Sea, ends with a discussion of the impact of JFK’s death on the cause of civil rights. Branch concurs with King’s judgment, made privately after Kennedy’s funeral, that JFK’s death would help civil rights more than Kennedy would or could have done if he had lived. While he seems to respect Kennedy more than I believe is warranted, Branch implicitly undermines the Camelot myth; JFK and RFK do little more for racial equality than the movement compelled them to do. Ironically, however, much of the Kennedy mythology was built on the movement’s historic accomplishments; as Branch writes, “In death, the late President gained credit for much of the purpose that King’s movement had forced upon him in life.”

Chronologically, Pillar of Fire is mostly confined to the period from the spring of 1963 to early spring 1965. It ends on the eve of the historic march from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965, after discussing the Selma voting rights campaign in detail.

In contrast, Parting the Waters actually starts long before the 1954 date indicated in its title and runs through November 1963. The pre-1954 topics covered in Parting include solid histories of the pre-Brown twentieth century civil rights tradition and southern racial practices, as well as wonderfully evocative histories of two churches, Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta and Dexter Avenue Baptist in Montgomery, which shaped King’s childhood and career.

Branch’s histories of these two very different Black Baptist southern congregations is a fine introduction to twentieth century African-American religious history and its connections to the Black freedom movement. To understand the movement of the 1950s and `60s, one must first grasp these subjects—yet no writer before Branch ever pulled them all together so well in a work that primarily deals with the freedom struggle after 1954.

The Black church has never been the homogeneous institution so often depicted by outsiders. While the church was essential to the movement, not all Black clergy or church members favored taking risks for the struggle. Parting the Waters broke new ground in its discussion of a crucial but almost entirely unknown episode of the civil rights movement: King’s effort to take over the National Baptist Convention.

“With five million members and more than twenty thousand preachers, it dwarfed the NAACP and made the hundred or so founding preachers of the SCLC seem numerically insignificant,” writes Branch. “King’s goal—to turn the mammoth, unwieldy, politically inert National Baptist Convention into a reform vehicle—was a challenge to the most astute preacher politicians.”

King lost that struggle. Even within King’s own Southern Christian Leadership Conference, most members were far more gradualist than he was.

Significantly, Branch sees the Black church’s role in the southern civil rights struggle as crucial not just for its organizational and leadership roles but also for the faith that sustained so many movement activists. Likewise Parting the Waters does an outstanding job of explaining the legal, historical and religious contexts in which King wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Here and elsewhere Branch demonstrates the extent to which political goals, for many in the movement and for many of its foes too, reflected deep religious convictions. Thus Branch, like Marx, analyzes religion as a complex manifestation of human struggles and aspirations, not a mere organization or ideology.

In both volumes, Branch sketches vivid portraits of dozens of people, the famous and the obscure: from Vernon Johns to Ella Baker, from Bayard Rustin to Diane Nash, from Septima Clark to Abraham Heschel, from Curtis Hayes to Robert Hayling, and countless others, Branch makes his subjects human and their actions comprehensible. In doing so, he honors countless heroes and martyrs.

Take Pillar‘s discussion of Vernon Dahmer, a Black farmer and store owner who was a pillar of the movement around Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Other King biographers, being so King-centric they neglect the movement, never mention Dahmer; and while Dahmer is discussed in histories of the Mississippi movement, Branch provides as much or more information on Dahmer and does a better job of situating Dahmer’s life in its local and historical context than do two recent outstanding studies of the state’s movement.

Dahmer was at the forefront of voter registration efforts. Because Branch shows us so vividly how Dahmer’s efforts mattered, we can understand the gruesome logic behind the Ku Klux Klan’s murder of him in January 1966. Racist violence was no simple result of racial prejudice. Dahmer’s organizing, like that of so many others, posed a real and deadly threat to white supremacy as it was then constituted.

But Branch, for all his attention to the courageous efforts of so many activists, does not systematically examine why some people became activists and others did not, or why some areas in the South generated so much more movement activity than others. Aldon Morris and Charles Payne are among the historians who have focused on these problems. Regrettably, Branch seems to have ignored Payne’s major and crucial 1995 study (unlisted in the bibliography of Pillar). Payne does much to explain the rise—and later demise—of “the organizing tradition” from which, he argues, the Mississippi movement arose at the grassroots.

Similarly, Branch’s narrative is too rarely focused on an analysis of underlying long-term changes in the political economy, which crucially influenced the movement’s timing and development. Such impersonal, macro-historical forces do not engage Branch’s very human narrative. And I wish Branch did more with the movement’s music, the freedom songs, than he does.

Payne rightly criticizes Branch for getting some facts wrong, notably the claim in Parting that the Greenwood, Mississippi movement had collapsed after April 1963. Payne notes that at the next election, in August 1963, hundreds of Greenwood Blacks came out on election day, making it “the most visible Greenwood Negroes had been in an election since Reconstruction”—hardly a sign of a collapsed movement!

Branch’s attempt to focus on developments at both the national level and in many locales inevitably results in a less than complete mastery of all local details. Thus Branch’s reliance on national news stories on Greenwood lead him to underestimate the ongoing vitality of local organizing.

While Branch at times relies too much on press coverage of the movement for a source, he also treats such coverage as a subject for historical analysis. This is quite important, and there’s considerable virtue in having such scrutiny of the press in a history of the movement, rather than in separate works on the media.

Branch emphasizes, for example, the explosion of stories on the movement after the Birmingham protests, and the point is more telling if you’re reading his account of that historic turning point. Never again after Birmingham has race been invisible in the mainstream press.

While I am much impressed by Branch’s work, I think that we also need a different grand overview—what historians call a synthesis—of movement history, one even less centered on King and more targeted at the full scope of local organizing.

Such a synthesis would be a great contribution to popular and scholarly understandings of the movement, but it might have to await further local studies. Still, I believe that Branch on the whole strikes a reasonable, if at points debatable, balance between a “top-down” national focus and a “bottom-up” local focus, credibly explaining how local and national actors interacted.

Unlike many movement studies, Branch both devotes a lot of attention to Malcolm X and treats the ideas and movements he represented seriously. Pillar of Fire incisively shows why Malcolm mattered and where he fit into the 1960s. Indeed, its first chapter is devoted to Malcolm’s place in both America’s emerging urban racial crisis and in the Nation of Islam.

Branch describes the organizational strength, the racial militancy, and the ideological conservatism of the Nation of Islam, as well as how Malcolm’s growing public audiences (and his increasing willingness to state his own ideas) threatened Elijah Muhammad. And all this was happening at the very moment when the southern movement, which Malcolm had so vehemently denounced, was reaching its peak.

By starting a volume of “America in the King years” with a chapter highlighting the unique ways in which Malcolm and the Nation of Islam stood apart from the movement, Branch aptly demonstrates that neither King nor the movement itself were always at center stage in racial issues during the 1960s.

In fact, the emerging racial crisis of America’s cities (especially in the North) in the 1960s was little touched by the mainly southern-centered civil rights movement, yet this crisis greatly shaped all forms of Black nationalism, including the many meanings projected on to Malcolm X after his death in February 1965.

Pillar of Fire depicts Malcolm, after his break with the Nation of Islam, as outgunned—both literally and organizationally—by the organization he had devoted years to building. Most of his energies in the last year of his life were spent defensively fighting Elijah Muhammad and his followers. For example, in his last month of life, Malcolm desperately maneuvered to get a court, any court, to hear his criticisms of Elijah Muhammad (he was apparently even willing to testify that the Nation was a “bogus religion”) and was repeatedly forced to flee gangs of Muhammad’s followers.

Thus Branch implicitly argues that Malcolm could not establish a real organizational vehicle for a progressive Black nationalist politics in the last year of his life because he remained too ensnared in its insular politics, which ultimately proved (as Malcolm feared it would) fatal to him. Branch’s Malcolm is very sympathetic, but desperate for allies, seeking escape from the reach of a sect to which he had given so much of his life, a man unable, too harried and harassed, to develop cohesive and coherent ideas, a figure of immense but largely wasted talent.

Significantly, Branch documents differences and disputes within the movement, and between it and outsiders like Malcolm, without vilifying or heroizing one group over another. Instead, he concentrates on the more important task of identifying what concerns and constraints each confronted.

King was unique in that he dealt regularly with Northern whites, local Black activists, all the national civil rights organizations, the national press, the federal government, celebrities, funders, and the courts. Consequently, King and his closest advisors had to consider a broader array of strategic problems and alliances than did anyone else in the movement.

Malcolm, on the other hand, while paying careful attention to political developments and being drawn to the movement because it expressed Black aspirations, was unable to escape the obligations and burdens of the seemingly militant yet politically conservative Nation of Islam, which tolerated no independence.

Branch shows that the strategy of forcing “a confrontation between state and federal authority, in order to compel the states to give ground toward equal rights” was devised and pursued by the southern movement as a whole, not by King alone or even by him primarily.

Some New Leftists in the 1960s attacked the movement for relying too much on federal power (and even today King is sometimes dismissed as a tool of the state). Such arguments ignored how difficult it was to secure even limited federal intervention and incorrectly assumed that an alternative strategy existed that could have transformed the southern racial system.

The “founding father” of the civil rights movement, W.E.B. Du Bois, commented in 1931 that “Negroes know perfectly well that whenever they try to lead revolution in America, the nation will unite as one fist to crush them alone,” an insight that escaped those who faulted the movement for its strategy of seeking federal intervention in the South.

One of Branch’s most salient findings is his analysis of the “white backlash” against Blacks and the civil rights movement. Branch shows that the extent of white support for full racial equality has been widely exaggerated, both in the early 1960s and by many commentators since then. Hence the “backlash” must be seen as being less a response to the urban race riots of 1964-68 (as commonly viewed) and more as a deeply rooted expression of most whites’ desire to protect their racial privileges.

In other words, most whites were devoted to continuing some form of white supremacy even as the Jim Crow system was being dismantled and even if they favored an end to Jim Crow. A 1964 survey found that “three percent of Negroes but 74 percent of whites said, `Negroes are moving too fast’” toward integration.

Similarly, Branch describes how the politics of race in the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 transformed the two party system; that year King advisor Lawrence Reddick prophetically warned that a voting majority “can be mobilized by the anti-Negro camp on an appeal that is reasonable and correlated with other deep-seated desires and irritations.” Such a voting majority, it would seem, has dominated American politics ever since 1968.

For Branch, Martin Luther King was the most historically significant American of the postwar generation. To put a Black pastor, a civil rights jailbird, not JFK or some other white icon, on that center stage is a pointed challenge to how the country’s past is typically taught.

Because Branch and others have established that the Kennedys, LBJ, the Congress and the national media were so often forced to respond to movement initiatives, and given the importance of the civil rights revolution, Branch’s case for King’s historical preeminence is convincing. But Branch goes further, seeing in King a figure of biblical proportions:

Nonviolence had come over him for a purpose that far transcended segregation. It touched evils beyond color and addressed needs more human than status or possessions. Having lifted him up among rulers, it would drive him back down to die among garbage workers in Memphis. King had crossed over as a patriarch like Moses into a land less bounded by race. To keep going, he became a pillar of fire.

Such passages underscore how dramatically the movement opened up a new epoch of American history. And while Branch’s “thesis that King’s life is the best and most important metaphor for American history in the watershed postwar years” can hardly be proven or disproven, it works beautifully for shaping a narrative.

Yet an important but unanticipated problem, both interpretative and political, arises from Branch’s dramatic prose and from the way he renders history as an epic tale. The very strength of Branch’s metaphor, and of his case that King was the defining figure of the age, could easily (but mistakenly) be taken as a sign that King’s goals were realized, his program enacted, his Dream made good.

In his final volume At Canaan’s Edge Branch will face the challenge of how to close his history of “America in the King years.” There is a danger of ending too abruptly with King’s death: That terrible moment is too often presented as a great tragedy that is somehow offset by the supposed realization of King’s dream of a colorblind America. Of course, Branch knows better than that: Nothing in his work suggests that racism is a problem of the past. But it is unclear whether or how Branch will analyze the racism that exists in the very structure of the American political economy, the legal system, and our popular culture, more than three decades after the mass civil rights movement.

Thus much depends on how Taylor Branch concludes his trilogy, lest his readers be left impressed too much by the progress and the very real achievements of the civil rights revolution, and not enough by the national failure, during and since the King years, to produce racial justice and equality.

American race relations today hardly qualify even for what King in 1963 called “a negative peace which is the absence of tension,” and our society is light years away from possessing King’s “positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Indeed, race relations in the United States today more closely mirror the nightmare King feared than the dream of a color-blind society that his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech demanded.

Of course, Branch’s final volume has yet to be completed, and the first two volumes give us every reason to think the third one will powerfully discredit all who engage in shameless exploitation of King and the movement. By demonstrating that the new racism of America at the dawn of the new century is tied to how the 1960s ended, Taylor Branch can add much value to his wonderful and evocative history of “America in the King Years.”

ATC 84, January-February 2000