Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963

Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963

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Parting the Waters was hailed as the most masterful story ever told of the American civil rights movement. 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 a 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 captures one of the nation's most crucial passages.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780671580728
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
Publication date: 02/28/1998
Edition description: Abridged, 4 cassettes, 6 hrs.
Product dimensions: 4.00(w) x 7.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Taylor Branch is the bestselling author of Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63; Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65; At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968; and The Clinton Tapes. He has won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.


Baltimore, Maryland

Date of Birth:

January 14, 1947

Place of Birth:

Atlanta, Georgia


A.B., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1968; M.P.A., Princeton University, 1970

Read an Excerpt

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 © 1988 by Taylor Branch

Table of Contents

What People are Saying About This

J. Anthony Lukas

Stunning…commands the attention of all who wish to understand the times in which they live.
—(J. Anthony Lukas, Pulitzer prize—winning author of Common Ground)

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Parting the Waters 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
darlenebarlow on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Volume one of Taylor Branch's masterful and highly detailed survey of the Civil Rights movement. This book opens the reader's eyes to the many many brave people who worked and sacrificed with Dr. King during this amazing time.Read this book in June, 2011
ALincolnNut on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It is difficult to adequately classify Taylor Branch's monumental Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63, the Pulitzer Prize-winning first volume in Branch's trilogy on the American Civil Rights era. The book is audacious in its scope, brimming with new insights from dozens of interviews with participants. It is epic, not just in narrative or research but in length. In attempting to sort out the religious, cultural, and political waters that propelled and buffeted the Civil Rights movement, Branch explicitly hypothesizes that "[Martin Luther] King's life is the best and most important metaphor for American history in the watershed postwar years." This has many significant consequences, beginning with the genre of the book, which is a mix of biography and narrative history. Branch balances these genres well in his detailed, but also deliberately focused, writing. And while a focus on King seems almost pedestrian from a Civil Rights perspective, Branch is arguing more broadly, I think, and arguing that King is the single most important figure of the age, period. Carefully, but emphatically, Branch is signaling a reassessment of other key figures in the 1960s, especially John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Robert Kennedy. He sees King's story as more central to the era than JFK's Camelot, LBJ's Vietnam, and RFK's populism borne out of social anxiety. Whether Branch entirely succeeds in this provocative thesis is a matter of some debate, particularly as it relates to the other over-arching issue of the period, the Cold War. Branch, through his detailed examination of King's close associate Stanley Levison, who was regarded as a Communist agent by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, seems to argue that the Communist threat to the United States, especially domestically, was sensationally overstated by the FBI. While this is true, it does not directly override the Communist threat globally to the US in the era. But this meta-argument is irrelevant to the other historical content of Branch's extremely fine book. He incorporates dozens of characters from the era in detail, emphasizing the multiple people beyond King who shaped and forwarded the Civil Rights movement. While mostly chronological, Branch is not handcuffed by the day-to-day timeline, which allows him to highlight the different perspective's of the people involved "in making history" through their day-to-day decisions and actions. Branch is at his best when dealing with King though, especially as he explores the relationships that King had with the other major participants of the era: government officials, allies, intellectuals, and religious leaders. In fact, it is these last participants who really benefit from Branch's careful analysis: even though Branch focuses extensive attention on the political aspects of the era, he never loses sight of the movement's roots in African-American Christianity (actually, almost entirely Baptist as opposed to African Methodist). And he demonstrates what an odd figure King was among the Baptist ministers of the time, which led to some strained relationships with King and other pastors, including some of those who worked closely with him. In summary, the book is highly recommended. It is elegantly written, and shows the fruits of Branch's significant research. It is informative, entertaining, and moving, and certainly stands as one of the best volumes about both the Civil Rights movement and the American decade chronicled.
mrkurtz on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The first volume of a three volume series of America in the King Years. It won the Pulitzer Prize for History. The trilogy will be the standard for all other histories of the civil rights movement to be judged as literature. The people who stirred the nation and changed the lives of all Americans during the years 1954-1963 are covered by Branch. In addition to King and his twelve disciples, we are presented with insights into the thinking of John and Robert Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover, and Lyndon Johnson.
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jpilonmd More than 1 year ago
Its been a few years since I read all three of Branch's books. Having served in Vietnam 1967-68 I was hugely disappointed in LBJ's performance. Branch documents the vanity of LBJ's effort superbly. The loss of US lives were completely unnecessary, in my opinion. I would love to have Branch develop the history recently brought to light by E. Howard Hunt that LBJ was behind the JFK assassination. He had motive (only way he would ever become president), opportunity (he set up the Texas mission), and tools (he had access to CIA operatives, particularly one who hated JFK for seducing his wife.) Wonderfully written almost like a novel. Could hardly put it down.
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farmers_wife More than 1 year ago
I am only about half way through this lofty book but it is very good and paints a picture as the plot(history) unfolds. I have recommended it to friends and family.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
An excellant history of a time and place. For some (like me), a 900 page book is a daunting commitment to make, but well worth it. I look forward to reading Pillar of Fire (vol. 2 of this work), and vol. 3, whenever it comes out.