Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63

I recently finished reading Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63. It’s a huge book with more than 900 pages of text plus about 78 pages of notes. It took me a long time to read, but it was worth it. The book is fascinating and Taylor Branch brings the civil rights era to life. I highly recommend it to everyone.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is about the Birmingham protests by children. The use of dogs and firehoses on those children is heart-wrenching. It’s somewhat unreal to read the comments of some leaders of the time feigning concern for black children.

Birmingham’s white leaders scrambled to head off a swell of public sympathy for King by denouncing his use of children. Mayor Boutwell told the city that “irresponsible and unthinking agitators” had made “tools” of children to threaten life and property. “The respectable people of Birmingham, white or colored, did not create this danger,” he declared. “We are not contributing to it. We are innocent victims.” […]Judge Talbot Ellis […] said that those who “misled these kids” into demonstrations “ought to be put under the jail.”

Another interesting bit was the difference in perception between whites and blacks, something that has not been eliminated (though is greatly reduced). It seems from the book that a lot of whites did not understand the conditions blacks lived under. It was as if they had turned a blind eye to the black population.

The role of the press is as usual not the best. They jump for stories when they get big, but then lose all interest after the climax. At times, they don’t understand the fundamental issues at all. It’s like that stupid “objectivity” thing. Here are the questions King and Wilkins (NAACP head) were asked on “Meet the Press” before the March on Washington:

Lawrence Spivak spoke of the numerous authorities who “believe it would be impossible to bring more than 100,000 militant Negroes into Washington without incidents and possibly rioting,” and he asked Wilkins sourly what the country could possibly learn about civil rights that could justify such risks. […] the next panelist promptly asked King three times how the march’s leadership could tolerate Bayard Rustin’s background of subversion and character defects. […] The fourth panelist pressed King to admit that the movement needed to eliminate extremism and “rowdyism,” such as the public booing of Mayor Daley and J. H. Jackson.

Here is King speaking at a mass meeting during the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955:

“And you know, my friends, thhere comes a time,” he cried, “when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression.” […] “There comes a time, my friends, when people get tired of being thrown across the abyss of humiliation, where they experience the bleakness of nagging despair,” he declared. “There comes a time when people get tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight of life’s July, and left standing amidst the piercing chill of an Alpine November.” […] “We are here —- we are here because we are tired now.”

Here are some excerpts from Martin Luther King’s letter from Birmingham jail replying to some white Alabama clergymen who had written a public letter opposing King’s marches in Birmingham:

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant ‘Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we stiff creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you no forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

[…]I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

And here is the text of King’s famous “I have a dream” speech at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963 and click here to listen to an audio version.

Finally, I want to note Kennedy’s hesitant role for civil rights. He was very mindful of politics and of losing support of Southern Whites who were all Democrats and generally in favor of segregation.

Mississippi must wait until I am finished with the second book Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65. That book covers the Freedon Summer of 1964. There is however a lot of material about Mississippi, including the assassination of Medgar Evers, in this book as well. To whet your appetite for civil rights in the worst state of the era, here is a post by Al-Muhajabah.

Categorized as Books

By Zack

Dad, gadget guy, bookworm, political animal, global nomad, cyclist, hiker, tennis player, photographer


  1. At Canaan’s Edge : America in the King Years, 1965-68

    This is the last book on the trilogy about Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement by Taylor Branch. The whole trilogy is a must-read.

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