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In the Churches, in the Streets: Taylor Branch on ‘the King Years’

by Robert Westbrook

Robert Westbrook’s book John Dewey and American Democracy is published by Cornell University Press. This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 5, 1989 p. 351. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


At the height of the watershed civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, in the spring of 1963, as the battle in the streets turned in favor of the demonstrators, a jubilant Martin Luther King, Jr., addressed an overflow crowd at St. Luke’s Baptist Church and saluted those who had braved police dogs and filled the city’s jails. "There are those who write history," he said. "There are those who make history. There are those who experience history. I don’t know how many of you would be able to write a history book. But you are certainly making history, and you are experiencing history. And you will make it possible for the historians of the future to write a marvelous chapter."

Taylor Branch provides that marvelous chapter, and many more besides, in Parting the Waters (Simon & Schuster, 1062 pp., $24.95) , a massive chronicle of the civil rights movement from the Montgomery bus boycott to the March on Washington and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Building on the important work of Clayborne Carson, David Garrow, Aldon Morris and other historians who have preceded him, Branch has mined archives, newspaper files, and the records of FBI surveillance (which is an important part of his story) to produce the fullest and most compelling narrative we have of the early years of the struggle for black equality in the 1950s and 1960s. He leaves us -- a thousand pages into the story -- in mid-course, on the eve of the epochal triumphs and tragedies of 1964 and 1965, but, happily, he promises a second volume.

Branch subtitles his book America in the King Years, and Martin Luther King’s rise to ascendancy in the movement is at the heart of the story he tells. He begins with a finely drawn portrait of Vernon Johns. the charismatic minister who preceded King as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. A learned scholar, gifted orator, and irascible iconoclast, Johns worried white authorities by preaching sermons on topics like "Segregation After Death" and offended the sensibilities of the black bourgeoisie that filled his pews by upbraiding them publicly for their pretensions and by selling produce from his truck gardens on the streets in front of the church. When Johns began to market his wares from the church basement and hawk watermelons on the campus of Alabama State College where many of his stuffier parishioners were employed, the church deacons decided it was time to find another minister.

Eventually, they settled on King, a young preacher from Atlanta. Branch carefully follows King’s path to the Dexter Avenue pulpit, describing his often tempestuous relationship with his father and tracing his maturation from a dandyish Morehouse College undergraduate to a thoughtful scholar-minister with advanced degrees from Crozer Theological Seminary and Boston University (where he met Coretta Scott, whom he married against the wishes of "Daddy" King) In one of his all-too-rare explorations of the intellectual underpinnings of the civil rights movement, Branch makes a solid case in these early chapters for the decisive influence of Reinhold Niebuhr on the development of King’s moral philosophy. King first read Niebuhr in his final year at Crozer, and Moral Man and Immoral Society shook him out of the ‘‘false optimism" of the sentimental liberalism that was the bill of fare at the seminary, one of the last outposts of the Social Gospel. Niebuhr, Branch says, touched King "on all his tender points from pacifism and race to sin," and, though the two men apparently never met, King took from Niebuhr an appreciation of a creative tension between love and justice that would henceforth inform his politics. In Niebuhr’s books he also found a compelling justification of Gandhian nonviolence not as a way of avoiding the dirty hands of power but as "a type of coercion which offers the largest opportunities for a harmonious relationship with the moral and rational factors in social life" -- the sort of coercion, Niebuhr advised, best suited to the needs of oppressed groups like the American Negro. In later years King would describe Gandhian nonviolence as "merely a Niebuhrian stratagem of power."

With the beginnings of King’s political activism as a leader of the Montgomery bus boycott in the winter of 1955-56, Branch’s narrative spreads out, and King becomes but the central character in a large cast of actors. Seeking to knit together "a number of personal stories along the main seam of an American epoch," Branch integrates into his chronicle brief biographies of movement luminaries like A. Philip Randolph, Harry Belafonte, Bayard Rustin, Roy Wilkins. Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, James Farmer, Robert Moses, James Forman and John Lewis with those of lesser-known figures like E. D. Nixon, James Lawson, Fred Shuttlesworth, Jack O’Dell, James Bevel, Wyatt Tee Walker, Charles Sherrod and others.

Nonetheless, Branch succeeds remarkably well in the difficult task of telling the story of a diverse, often conflict-ridden movement. He decenters King when the story demands it, making it clear, for example, that it was not King but the young sit-in activists of 1960 and later the SNCC volunteers in Nashville and rural North and South Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi who developed the strategy of seeking out nonviolent confrontations with white segregationists. Not until Birmingham did King abandon his role as the "fireman" called in to lend support to other people’s demonstrations and launch a direct action campaign of his own. And even in Birmingham -- King’s finest hour in these years -- the successes that the movement achieved owed less to King’s leadership than to the audacious mobilization of hundreds of children by "wildman" James Bevel and to the extraordinary courage of these children, who marched to jail and into the blasts of high-powered fire hoses renowned for their capacity to strip the bark from trees and rip bricks from burning buildings.

In his vivid descriptions of meetings, marches, mayhem and murder Branch makes the civil rights movement palpable as few have done before. As much as any writer can, he puts us on the bus, in the church, on the telephone, in the streets, on the podium, in the driveway:

In Jackson, all three Evers children, including toddler Van Dyke, tumbled in their parents’ bed, arguing over which television program to watch. Their mother had allowed them to stay up past midnight to find out what their father thought of the President’s wonderful speech, and they all rushed for the door when they heard his car. Medgar Evers was returning from a glum strategy session. All but nine of the seven hundred Jackson demonstrators were out of jail. Local white officials were claiming victory untainted by concession. Both the white and Negro press portrayed the Jackson movement as shrunken, listless, riddled by dissension. Privately, Evers had asked for permission to invite Martin Luther King to join forces, but his NAACP bosses ignored the heretical idea. Finally home, Evers stepped out of his Oldsmobile carrying a stack of NAACP sweatshirts stenciled "Jim Crow Must Go," which had made poor sales items in Mississippi’s sweltering June. His own white dress shirt made a perfect target for the killer waiting in the fragrant stand of honeysuckle across the street. One loud crack sent a bullet from a .30-’06 deer rifle exploding through his back, out the front of his chest, and on through his living room window to spend itself against the kitchen refrigerator. True to their rigorous training in civil rights preparedness, the four people inside dived to the floor, like soldiers in a foxhole, but when no more shots came, they all ran outside to find him lying facedown near the door. "Please, Daddy, please get up!" cried the children, and then everything fell away to bloodsmeared, primal hysteria.

Parting the Waters is, as was the movement it describes, a roller coaster ride through hope, fear, exhilaration, despair, courage, cowardice, conviction, doubt, envy and solidarity.

The fate of the civil rights movement, its leaders recognized, lay in its ability to convince politicians and administrators in the federal government that it was in their interest to enforce the law and defend the Constitution in the South in the face of the massive resistance by politically potent segregationists. Throughout his account of the struggle of the movement in the South, Branch effectively weaves the story of its efforts to win the support of northern liberals like John and Robert Kennedy. In a year that has witnessed a vigorous refurbishing of the aura of sainthood surrounding the Kennedys, it is useful to be reminded how equivocal they and most of their minions were in the face of the demand for black equality. Constantly concerned about alienating the southern wing of the Democratic Party, the Kennedys sought to channel the movement away from attacks on state segregation statutes, which, they claimed, were local conflicts in which federal authorities were powerless to intervene, and into voter registration efforts in which the national state could be of assistance. Yet after covertly helping civil rights groups set up a well-funded Voter Education Project in 1961, the administration failed to provide the protection that activists required if they were to survive the intimidation of segregationists and what passed for justice in southern courts.

Often, the Kennedys seemed to those in the, movement to be actively working for the other side. John Kennedy repeatedly appointed segregationist judges to the federal bench in the South, and the civil rights case that Robert Kennedy most vigorously prosecuted involved charges brought against Albany, Georgia, activists for violating the rights of a white storeowner by boycotting his business because he had served on a jury that cleared the sheriff who had shot a black man three times in the neck at point-blank range. This, the attorney general’s office contended, showed that the federal government was evenhanded -- and, moreover, because the defendants were black and the plaintiffs white, here was a case it could win in the South. King and others in the movement found themselves turning to judges appointed by Eisenhower for justice and to liberal Republicans (remember them?) like Nelson Rockefeller for aid. Against the prudent, realistic, hard-boiled legalists in the Kennedy administration like Byron White and Burke Marshall, a federal official of conscience and egalitarian conviction like John Doar (an Eisenhower holdover) emerges from Branch’s account as a lonely, embattled and courageous figure: a "man who talked like Gary Cooper" and acted like Gary Cooper in the streets of Jackson, Mississippi, where he calmed an angry mob following the murder of Medgar Evers.

Of course, King’s most steadfast and powerful enemy in Washington was J. Edgar Hoover, and Branch carefully retells the story of Hoover’s vendetta against King. The FBI chief regarded King as a dangerous subversive cleverly manipulated by his closest adviser, Stanley Levison. who Hoover contended was a Soviet agent. Without ever proving this charge, Hoover obtained Justice Department authorization for extensive electronic surveillance on Levison (and thereby indirectly on King). Far more worried about communism than racial inequality, the Kennedys forced King to break his ties with his closest white friend in the summer of 1963 as a condition for their continued lukewarm support of the movement. That fall Robert Kennedy, still eager for intelligence on King and now fearful that Hoover would reveal that the president’s wayward lust had led him to the bed of an East German woman who surfaced in the Bobby Baker scandal, authorized the wiretaps on King that uncovered evidence of King’s sexual infidelities, which Hoover then tried to use to blackmail and discredit him.

This lack of an interpretative sharpness to match the power of his descriptive accounts is most unfortunate when Branch fails to marshal some of his richest anecdotes in the service of arguments that might draw things together. For example, he tells the story of the early days of the Birmingham demonstrations when things were going badly for the SCLC, and King and his advisers were debating in their motel whether or not King should himself go to jail. When the voices of those around him died out, King withdrew into his bedroom and then reappeared:

When King stepped back into the other room a few minutes later, he wore a work shirt, blue jeans that were crisply new and rolled up at the cuffs, and a new pair of ‘clodhopper" walking shoes. It was a startling sight, as some of those in the room had never seen King wear anything but a dark business suit. This first glimpse of him announced that he would go to jail, which hushed the room.

What this change of clothing might mean Branch does not say, even though it cries out for explanation. It seems to me a very symbolic moment, for what King had done was exchange the uniform of the preachers who dominated the SCLC for the uniform of the young activists in SNCC, and in so doing he was arguably giving evidence of his sensitivity to the charge of the latter that the former were insufficiently attentive to the class divisions within the civil rights movement.

As Branch shows, the movement culture of the civil rights movement in these years was rooted in the black church, especially the black Baptist church, which meant that a movement for democratic rights was linked tightly to what was in many respects an undemocratic institution ruled by often authoritarian preachers, who delighted in the material and psychic rewards of their power and elite status. This was a point of attack for those in SNCC who contended that a movement for racial democracy must itself be radically democratic. King was very sensitive to this issue, torn between those he admired on both sides, and divided within himself. Branch presents an abundance of useful evidence suggesting a conflict within the movement (and within King) over its internal politics, but he rarely pulls this material together in summary fashion, and this is but one of several themes that are left largely bereft of sustained analysis and critical judgment. In the end his is a book held together by little more than chronology.

But despite its shortcomings, Parting the Waters is a moving and accurate narrative: the first if not the last book one should read on the civil rights movement. It is, as well, an antidote to Mississippi Burning, a dishonest, award-winning new film in which blacks wait patiently and fearfully in the background for deliverance by two white FBI agents, played by Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe, who zealously bend the law in the interest of justice -- a film one fears will have a profound effect on the way many Americans view their nation in the King Years ("The Dream Dafoed," as the Village Voice put it). Yet, because it is doubtful that many of those fans of Mississippi Burning will read a thousand page antidote, we may hope not only that the second volume of Branch’s history will surpass the first, but also that someone will have the guts to make a movie that tells the truths of any of his marvelous chapters.


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