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

Great story, but I don't like how it's written.  Before I speak to the things I learned, my criticisms:

  • The book is unnecessarily long.  It feels like a great 300 page book that took 900 pages.  A lot of this was random details that didn't seem pertinent to anything -- eg, a remark about MLK liking a particular type of car.  Another part of the length seemed to be a desire to catalogue every detail chronologically, even when those details are repetitive, rather than focusing on overall themes.  For instance, Hoover and the FBI are continual jerks to MLK and the civil rights movement, and the book details dozens of instances where Hoover is doing more or less the same things -- talking with Kennedy about how MLK and his friends are communists.  I already got the point after the first three or four times the issue came up, though, so the extra reminders didn't really add much for me.  
  • The author doesn't always paint things in their best light.  He's usually pretty good about presenting many sides of any issue, but there are a few times when he takes an event that was ambiguous -- it could have been selfish or could have been principled -- and only presents the selfish point of view.

While the book went a bit long, the insights in it were strong.

  • The book was humanizing.  I had always thought of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a mythic figure that stood up for a group of people and changed the world.  This book maintained that image of him, but also showed that he was a person.  He had ambitions and uncertainties, he dated and enjoyed food, he felt stress and joy, and he was the product of time and circumstance.
  • The civil rights movement was really complex, with a lot of different philosophies and internal conflicts.  I had never imagined that the NAACP would have been at odds with the rest of the civil rights movement, but in many cases, they were pushing for a more tempered pace than King took.  There were politics and some big personalities involved in all of the different camps.  Student protesters that led the sit ins and the freedom rides were often critical of King for taking a role of leadership and fundraising rather than putting himself on the line.  JFK cared about civil rights and helped out King at times, but he also thought of it as one issue among many, and he often didn't give it the urgency it was due, becoming frustrated with the civil rights movement for making America look bad during the Cold War.  And the movement had problems with gay people and seemed awkward with regards to women leaders.
  • There were a lot of different folks involved.  Each of the different parts of the civil rights movement had many different leaders.  For instance, I had never heard of Ella Baker, but she was incredibly important for making the movement's logistics work.  There were dozens more people like her.
  • There was a lot of violence.  I knew this before reading the book, but I don't think I appreciated it.  Before King died, he had nearly died many times before to mobs, bombings, stabbings, and pretty much everything else a racist society could throw at him, and he wasn't the only one who faced extreme violence.  If not for MLK's leadership in nonviolence, it seems like the civil rights movement would have been extremely bloody.  It also makes our current society seem very special -- we might not have the same scale of protest that was present in the civil rights movement, but it feels like even if we did, people would accept it and disagree rather than trying to kill each other.  Though, of course, violence in society is still hurting a lot of marginalized people.
  • There were a lot of logistical challenges, and the movements weren't necessarily very good at dealing with them.  For instance, MLK didn't set up a bank account for movement stuff until much later (he used his personal bank account), and state tax auditors pressed politically-motivated charges for tax evasion and perjury.  Thankfully, MLK kept a meticulous diary with receipts and such, so he could prove the funds were all movement related.
  • Gandhi was important.  I knew that there was a Gandhian influence on King and the civil rights movement, but I didn't realize that King read Gandhi in college or that he had folks who worked with Gandhi and had trained as nonviolent activists coaching him and others and running things.
  • King was an academic.  He was considering being a professor rather than a preacher.  He would often include references to ancient Greek philosophers in his talks.  And he had struggled with religion for a long period in his life.
  • There were a lot of interesting details that underscored just how powerful King was.  For instance, during the march on Washington, King gave his I Have a Dream speech.  However, the I Have a Dream part was him going off script.