The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement
Simon & Schuster, 2013
224 pp., $26.00
The King Years
Readers perhaps daunted by the 2,306 pages of Taylor Branch's massive trilogy of America during the King Years (Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire, and At Canaan's Edge) will surely relish this opportunity to dip into some of the "greatest hits" from Branch's writing career through these three massive volumes. Teachers should enjoy this volume as well, as it provides a classroom-friendly (read: pretty short) way to get some of Branch's writing into the hands of students. And some, I hope, will use this sampler and quickly resolve to become "completists," as if a sampler of John Coltrane persuaded a music listener to go search out the entire oeuvre. If that happens with this book, more power to it.
Readers may sample here Branch's narrative powers on display as he describes King's first address at the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott; as he narrates the saga of King and the Kennedys during the Freedom rides and during Birmingham; as King eulogizes the slain of the Birmingham church bombing; as J. Edgar Hoover fulminates about King's popularity and tries to take him down; as King and LBJ banter, first amiably over their shared political aims and later with bitterness as King splits with the liberal Democrat over the Vietnam War; and as King eventually and fatefully finds his way to the garbage worker's strike in Memphis in the spring of 1968.
Branch long ago concluded to "present my findings in storytelling form rather than the analytical synthesis common to history." This strikes at a major debate within the historical community, for some "analytical" histories have considerably complicated (and, on occasion, undermined) the story Branch relates here. General readers will not much care, for Branch carries his stories with a majestic narrative power that is irresistible.
Paul Harvey is professor of history and Presidential Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado. With Edward J. Blum, he is the author of The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in American History (Univ. of North Carolina Press).
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