January 25, 2011 by Lo
One thing I did manage to do during the last six weeks of general unproductivity was to read Parting the Waters, Taylor Branch’s wonderful first volume of his America in the King Years trilogy. I read the book slowly, enjoying every bit, and honestly it was as much a needed diversion from 1803 New Orleans as it was a learning exercise. I have an impression that Branch is taken pretty seriously by academic historians; more so than, say, Robert Caro or David McCullough, for instance. But not being a 20th century specialist, it’s hard to judge how important the King trilogy is from a scholarly perspective.
What reading Branch undoubtedly did do for me, in addition to teaching me an awful lot I never knew about the Civil Rights movement, was to remind me how important it is, no matter what one’s time period or type of history, to do work that matters; work whose relevance is not totally abstract or obscure; work whose meaning can be explained in a few sentences to an intelligent non-specialist. And another thing: it’s not just permissible to judiciously include a little passion, a little subjective emotion, in the course of a long narrative; it’s necessary, if you want to avoid falling into a dry-as-dust chronicler voice.
I do wish that Branch had done just a bit more of the social history of the movement. Again and again he makes the point that it was the rank-and-file, not the leaders, who really powered the movement; and the upswelling of fervor on the part of young black southerners around 1960 seems a fascinating story not fully explained; but the nature of the book, and the fact that it is continuously intertwined with a biography of King, always brings us back to a narrative of the leaders, their outlook, and their strategies.