Hailed as the most masterful story ever told of the American civil rights movement, Parting the Waters is destined to endure for generations.
Moving from the fiery political baptism of Martin Luther King, Jr., to the corridors of Camelot where the Kennedy brothers weighed demands for justice against the deceptions of J. Edgar Hoover, here is a vivid tapestry of America, torn and finally transformed by a revolutionary struggle unequaled since the Civil War.
Taylor Branch provides an unsurpassed portrait of King's rise to greatness and illuminates the stunning courage and private conflict, the deals, maneuvers, betrayals, and rivalries that determined history behind closed doors, at boycotts and sit-ins, on bloody freedom rides, and through siege and murder.
Epic in scope and impact, Branch's chronicle definitively captures one of the nation's most crucial passages.
- Pulitzer Prize
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Simon & Schuster
November 14, 1989
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Excerpt from Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch
Tremors: L.A. to Selma
James Bevel was in Birmingham by then, summoned by Martin Luther King. With Diane Nash and their eight-month-old daughter, Bevel arrived from Greenwood just in time to preach at the April 12 mass meeting in place of King, who had submitted to solitary confinement that afternoon. The carefully planned Birmingham campaign was in crisis. Over the next week, Bevel and Nash pitched in behind King's exacting administrator, Wyatt Walker, who labored to keep pace with chaos on many fronts -- lobbying for some hint of public support from the Kennedys, cultivating reporters and distant celebrities, coaxing forward new jail volunteers, weeding out laggards and training the rest in nonviolence for the daily marches toward the forbidden landmarks of segregated commerce.
One of Walker's tactical innovations presented an opportunity uniquely suited to Bevel. Walker demanded punctuality in the daily demonstrations until he noticed while fuming through the inevitable delays that news reporters often lumped Negro bystanders together with actual jail marchers in their crowd estimates. After that, Walker went against his nature to hold up the marches with deliberate tardiness, so that daily stories of growing crowds could disguise the dwindling number willing to accept jail. As the delays stretched past school hours, crowds began to fill with Bevel's preferred recruits -- Negro students.
To Bevel, looking past the arrests to the teenagers in the background, the flagging demonstrations already had accomplished the work of many months in the Mississippi Delta, where the bulk of the Negro population was widely dispersed on rural plantations: they had gathered a crowd. With Nash and student volunteers, he distributed handbills advertising a daily youth meeting at five o'clock, two hours before the regular seven o'clock mass meeting. There he preached on the meaning of the primal events downtown. His crowds grew so rapidly that Andrew Young helped run the youth meetings, and Dorothy Cotton, Young's assistant in the SCLC citizenship program, led the singing. Following his practice in Mississippi, Bevel showed a film -- an NBC White Paper on the Nashville student movement of 1960, which featured the stirring, climactic march of four thousand students that had desegregated Nashville's libraries and lunch counters. By April 20, when King and Abernathy bonded out of the Birmingham jail, the youth meeting already surpassed the adult meeting in numbers. By April 23, when reporters again failed to ask President Kennedy about Birmingham at his press conference, the adult mass meeting first packed St. James Baptist Church because the students in a mass stayed over from their own session. By April 26, when the jail march was reduced to a handful, forcing Fred Shuttlesworth to play for time by announcing a massive new phase to begin on May 2, most of the jail volunteers who rose in the mass meeting came from the youth workshops.
King praised the children for their courage but told them to sit down. The Birmingham jail was no place for them. At the nightly strategy sessions, King and the other leaders flailed among themselves to devise a master stroke for May 2 that might hold off the movement's extinction -- a hunger strike or perhaps a jail march by Negro preachers in robes. No idea promised to crack the reserve of the outside world. Sensing their exhaustion from the other side, Birmingham's white leaders rallied to the "velvet hammer" policy of firm but nonsensational resistance, and the local newspaper published an article of encouragement entitled "Greenwood Rolled with the Punch -- And Won." King's sessions grew more rancorous. They were promising their followers and the national press nothing less than "a nonviolent D-Day" on May 2, but all the thunder of preachers and the honey of massed choirs pulled no more than forty or fifty volunteers from the pews, Wyatt Walker admitted. He bristled at Bevel's claims that the youth meetings were spilling over into another church almost every day. Walker resented Bevel as an upstart, an intruder, and a free spirit who played loose with the chain of command.
Still, Walker was a man of results. Having come into Birmingham with only minority support from the Negro adults of Birmingham, and having delivered mostly suffering and disappointment since then, King and Shuttlesworth already were fending off internal pressures to evacuate gracefully. Backbiters predicted that the outsiders would leave Birmingham Negroes worse off than ever, with segregation hardened by the besieged anger of whites. Worse, Bevel's proposal would leave the best of the next generation with criminal records, not to mention the psychological scars of wide-eyed children dragged into the inferno of a segregated jail.