Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954 – 63 by Taylor Branch

Parting the Waters

1988. Simon & Schuster. Hardcover. 924 pages (1064 pages including notes and index)

From: Borrowed from a friend


Parting the Waters is the first of a trilogy covering the Civil Rights era in the United States. After a couple of biographical chapters about Martin Luther King Jr.’s early life and influences, the book really kicks into gear with a vivid description of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. Later chapters cover the Freedom Rides, the sit-ins, and the voter registration campaigns. The book concludes with the famous March on Washington, followed by the bomb at Birmingham 16th Street Baptist that killed four young girls, and the assassination of JFK.

In an earlier post on this book, I wrote that this book has helped me better understand my own country. Echoing others’ reviews that I’ve read on Goodreads, I feel like my understanding of the Civil Rights era had been shallow until I read this book. In my previous understanding, the Civil Rights revolution had the air of inevitability. After reading Parting the Waters, I am stunned by what the Civil Rights activists were able to achieve. Many people told these activists that they were trying to enact change too fast, or that there could never be a desegregated America. I’m so glad they didn’t listen; I’m so glad people like Martin Luther King Jr., Bob Moses, Septima Clark, Diane Nash, John Lewis, John Doar, Bayard Rustin, and countless others persevered. They were ignored or misunderstood by the media; they faced internal divisons; they were persecuted financially and legally; some were beaten and some were killed.

Branch won the Pulitzer prize for History with this book. It’s indeed a marvelous work. Thanks to his extensive research and interviews, Branch is able to provide tremendous detail to this historical narrative. What people said and how they felt is recounted, and I was towed along emotionally through all of the outrage and discouragement, as well as the joy and the inspiration.

Some moments that flash to mind from this book that I did not include in my earlier posts:

Group of student strikers

Students named in the initial suit. Photo taken for Life by Hank Walker in 1953.

– At a school assembly in 1951 Virginia, 16-year-old Barbara Johns led her fellow students to walk out of their school to protest of its poor condition,  contacted NAACP lawyers, and shamed the adults into their cause. “When the skeptical lawyers said that the NAACP could not sue for better Negro schools – only for completely integrated ones – the students paused but briefly over this dizzying prospect before shouting their approval” (p. 20). Their case would eventually go to the U.S. Supreme Court as part of Brown v. Board of Education.

William Lewis Moore holding a sign that says "End Segregation in America. Black or White Eat at Joe's"

William Lewis Moore

– In 1963, a white postal worker named William Lewis Moore decided to walk from Chattanooga to Mississippi wearing signboards calling for an end to segregation. He was later found dead on the side of U.S. Highway 11 near Attala, Mississippi, with two gunshots to the head. There was “press discussion about whether the childlike postman had been crazier or saner than the accepted world” (p. 750). Several protest marches were undertaken in his name.

– During the Birmingham movement of 1963, the Ku Klux Klan bombed Reverend A.D. King’s home (younger brother of MLK) and the A.G. Gaston Motel where many civil rights leaders had rooms. A riot ensued in the aftermath. As leaders preached nonviolence and the police attempted to assert control, radio reporters captured a black man’s voice shouting, “How come we have to go home every time they start violence?” (p. 795).

– Similar theme: a week after the Birmingham church bombing that killed the four young girls, author James Baldwin expressed his impatience with nonviolence, saying that in all American history, “the only time that nonviolence has been admired is when the Negroes practice it” (p. 896).

Later in 1963, Assistant Director William Sullivan reported to J. Edgar Hoover that there was little or no Communist involvement in the March on Washington. Hoover refused to accept the report as true and Sullivan consequently scrambled to save his career by reversing that assessment. A short time later, Robert Kennedy approved the FBI’s request to set a wiretap on Martin Luther King Jr.’s home.


I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to gain a deeper insight into American history. If the size proves too daunting, you may want to consider Taylor Branch’s recently issued book The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement which is a compilation of excerpts from the America in the King Years trilogy but also apparently includes new passages. From reviews on Goodreads, it sounds like it is a decent book; at 224 pages, it constitutes a small taste of Branch’s epic history.

Links to my earlier posts:

Things I Didn’t Know about the Mongtomery Bus Boycott

“Baptism on Wheels” – reading about the Freedom Rides

The Albany Movement 1962: Much struggle, little justice


Excerpts from others’ reviews of Parting the Waters:

Alison from Goodreads – “ At times it feels overdone, until you’re recounting stories from the era like you were there.”

Clif from Goodreads – “From any perspective, Parting of the Waters is a masterpiece. Branch doesn’t let a person come into the story without a lively introduction including the character traits that will help the reader keep track of one person among so many that stand out during the years described.

David of Goodreads – “Branch also narrates events such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Freedom Rides with the you-are-there immediacy of an eyewitness reporter and the eye for detail of a novelist.


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4 responses to “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954 – 63 by Taylor Branch

  1. Learning about the way the FBI treated the civil rights movement always upsets me terribly. They were awful to the Black Panther Party as well, and I always want to think, the government couldn’t have done this!, but I always know that of course they could have. :/

    • I know! Thanks to TV shows and movies, I grew up with a generally good opinion of the FBI. And while the FBI of today must be a different beast today than it was under J. Edgar Hoover, it is still upsetting to find out things like how the FBI purposely leaked misinformation to the press in order to taint the civil rights movement with rumors of communist ties.

  2. piningforthewest

    I read just the other day in the Guardian I think, that things seem to be going backwards in parts of the US now with schools being segregated again, unofficially, I hope it isn’t true. There seem to have been so many ghastly incidents in the 50s though, I was interested to read Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck, at one point he describes going to Louisiana where things were particularly nasty for one wee schoolgirl.

    • Thanks for linking to your review of Steinbeck’s book (one that I plan on reading someday). From what I’ve seen, heard and read, I would have to say there is still race-based inequality in the US – it just doesn’t look exactly like it did fifty years ago, so some want to believe that therefore it’s not really happening.

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