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The Civil Rights Movement

It's only 30-40 years ago, but we've forgotten what life was like then: the violence, the fear, the inability to talk about progress without being attacked. These are a few sources that remind us.

Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63
Taylor Branch
Simon and Schuster, 1988, 1050 pages, 85 B&W photos.

Death squads roaming the American south, people killed for wanting to register to vote, the accusation that promoting equal rights for Blacks was communism. Branch, in a Pulitzer Prize winning book, gives an account that is literally "blow by blow" of these years. Any one who thinks we didn't have a problem, or that the abolition of our apartide system was achieved easily should read this. Branch introduces us to King before he was famous, and to the other leaders who - too often - gave their lives in this struggle. We also learn clearly of the FBI apathy to the problem, and that President Kennedy was, at best, an indifferent advocate for civil rights. Deserves the epithet "magisterial."

[Image coming later]

Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-54
Taylor Branch
Simon and Schuster, 1998, 750 pages, 68 B&W photos.

This is a less clear, more chaotic book than its predecessor, perhaps representing the tenor of these times. Branch extensively covers Malcom X, and shows him in his complexity and his development. King and other leaders are important as well.

As with the previous book, the record is enhanced by the availability of previously classified recordings of presidential conversations and King's FBI file. Why on earth did J. Edgar Hoover hold us in thrall for for so long? What a loon.

[Image coming later]



Montgomery: A White Preacher's Memoir
Robert S. Graetz
Augsburg Fortress, 1991, 132 pages.

Not on a historical par with Branch's work, but I want to give a plug to a fellow Lutheran. Robert Graetz, a white pastor, was called to a Black Lutheran church in Montgomery just before the bus boycott began in 1955. As outcast Northerners in a Southern town, and associating with outcast Blacks, they had an "interesting time." As he puts it "Just about everything we did was either illegal or contrary to southern customs." If you want the moment by moment absurdity and pain of segregation here it is. Their house was bombed, their car sabotaged. But Graetz never looses sight of the fact that he could leave and his Black parishioners could not.


At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King years 1965-68
Taylor Branch
Simon & Schuster 2006

This is the third volume of an epic history of King, the Civil Rights movement and America during a pivotal moment.

In this volume Branch traces the last years of King, the years post-March on Washington, the years when many in the movement decided that non-violence was not the correct line.  Our memory of King ends largely at the “I had a dream” speech and passes over these years when King, took the logical step of expanding his quest for justice to the North, against poverty and against Vietnam. 

Each step in that expansion cost King allies.  Whites who were courageously against southern racism, turned out not to be so courageous when it applied to their own states.  King’s opposition to Vietnam found opponents within the Black community.  And no one wants to talk about class.

Today it is common to contend that King ‘declined’ in these years, or became ‘irrelevant’, and we assume this is a judgment on King.  Reading this book, I became even more convinced that the judgment is on us.  King was faithful to his belief in God, in Christ and the non-violent way of the cross to the end, proving beyond any doubt his sincerity, his faith and his integrity.  America took a profound wrong turn in those years, or perhaps, failed to grasp the opportunity presented to it.

While this book is as meticulously researched, as detailed and as broad in vision as the previous two in the series, it suffers from occasional bouts of confused writing.  Every 50 pages or so you have to read some incident twice or three times before it becomes clear.  His account of the Memphis march and the final days of King curiously lack impact.

Still, the story itself is compelling, and King’s gradual abandonment as he journeys in faithfulness towards his Golgotha is epic and cosmic in its meanings for our time.
Last modified 8/4/06; posted 8/17/99. © 2006 John P. Nordin