Parting the Waters

By Taylor Branch,

Book cover of Parting the Waters

Book description

In Parting the Waters, the first volume of his essential America in the King Years series, Pulitzer Prize winner Taylor Branch gives a “compelling…masterfully told” (The Wall Street Journal) account of Martin Luther King’s early years and rise to greatness.

Hailed as the most masterful story ever told of the…

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Why read it?

8 authors picked Parting the Waters as one of their favorite books. Why do they recommend it?

As I drove through the South researching my guidebook to civil rights sites, my back seat was filled with books. Atop the pile was Taylor Branch’s magisterial three-volume history – America in the King Years 1954-1968: Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire, and At Canaan’s Edge.

Though encyclopedic, Branch’s story-telling is riveting—weaving together personalities, legalities, strategies, and geography in a way that made me feel as if I were there witnessing history as it was made. Taylor’s detail, reflecting a journalist’s quest for who, what, where, when, how, and why, showed me that these stories could best be told,…

Though I was only nine years old, I still remember when Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. Years later, I found inspiration for my own activism in the great Eyes on the Prize documentary. So, as I became more involved with ACT UP, it was only natural that I looked to the stories of the civil rights movement to help ground and navigate my activism. Parting the Waters blew my mind. It went beyond the well-known stories of Dr. King to give me a fuller understanding of the breadth of the civil rights movement—the failures and compromises, as well as…

From Ron's list on to inspire the activist in you.

There is no shortage of fine books out there about Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement. Branch’s book, however, does the best job of situating King’s activism at the center of the larger story of the entire United States during this time. Among much else, Branch’s sprawling, riveting narrative (this 1000+ page volume is merely the first in a series of three) helps us see how a nonviolent movement influences as it responds to traditional, institutional sites of power. A truly illuminating book.

From Todd's list on inspirational nonviolent leaders.

I was a young boy living in a small town in the North of England when I watched the new phenomenon of television news as it brought me the awful traumas of the fight for civil rights in America. The scenes shaped my attitudes and philosophy for the rest of my life. Branch’s account is a stunningly evocative analysis of an issue in America that, as I move into the twilight of my days, is still not resolved.

From Stewart's list on 20th century conflict.

In this trilogy, Taylor Branch does a masterful job of illuminating the long and hard post-war struggle for racial justice in America. He brings an immensely diverse cast of characters to life, most of them ordinary people called upon to do extraordinary things. He puts us right in the midst of the action: riding buses, crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, gathered in the Oval Office, standing on a motel balcony in Memphis. Gripping, personal, tragic, and heroic: a monumental account of the most important social movement of our time (Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire, At Canaan`s…

Taylor Branch’s classic of journalistic history immerses the reader in not just the life of King, but in the entire era, which he appropriately identifies as “the King years.” Scholars have taken issue with some details and interpretations, but for general readers, this is the place to start to understand the enormity of King’s impact, and also the world that King came from. The writing is spectacular and vivid, and the portraits of figures from that era are unforgettable.

From Paul's list on Martin Luther King, Jr..

I know, I know, this isn’t quite right. It’s not a biography of Martin Luther King – it’s a biography of the Movement, it’s a biography of an era – but it’s so full of telling detail, it’s so full of life, it incorporates so many facts and so much emotional truth into a flowing narrative style that it’s impossible to resist being drawn into what may be the most important story of our time. This book focuses on Vernon Johns, Martin Luther King’s predecessor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, to suggest a world of greater dimensionality. 

This epic work (part 1 of a three-part trilogy) is more than just a biography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a history of the civil rights movement. It’s no less than a biblical narrative of heroes, villains and martyrs and the scores of ordinary people who sacrificed their bodies, livelihoods and lives to bring a measure of freedom to black Americans in the Jim Crow South.

From Ian's list on understanding Black history.

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