Monday, February 06, 2006

America in the King Years

Friday night, I started reading the first volume, Parting the Waters, of Taylor Branch's enormous three-volume life-and-times biography of Martin Luther King, American in the King Years. After reading the 26-page introductory chapter about King's predecessor at Dexter Baptist Church in Montgomery, I called Bob, ecstatic, and told him that if he never read another word of the biography, he needed to at least read that part.

After a weekend of almost nothing but reading, I'm 600 pages into the book—two-thirds of the way through volume one, in other words—and my enthusiasm hasn't flagged a bit. This is some of the best history I've read. Branch manages to tell a compelling story that doesn't just focus on King, but, rather, manages to encompass seemingly all civil rights activity in the entire United States. He juggles hundreds of characters and dozens of locations while still keeping everything clear and compelling. He explores the ideas and forces that shaped King's thought and his life, and he shows both the strong, eloquent public King and the care-worn, questioning private King.

But despite King's centrality to the story, the progress of civil rights in the period encompassed far more than just King, and Branch gives everyone his due. He brings the reader right into the thoughts and words and actions of everyone from Bayard Rustin to Harry Belafonte to Bobby Kennedy. The nuanced portrait he draws of Kennedy alone would be worth reading the book. King leaves the scene for dozens of pages at a time, and his absence does nothing to slow the book's momentum. The movement was too big for one man, and Branch presents facet after facet, event after event, and he makes us understand how the pieces fit, pushing and pulling with and against one another, making up a whole.

In the midst of all this, there's horror and drama, honor and dishonor. Reading about the all-night meetings of black activists in Montgomery after Rosa Parks was arrested, I could feel the energy and fearful excitement. And reading later about the firebombing of King's house, I felt the astonishing calming power of the words he spoke from his porch to a worried, angry crowd:
Holding up his hand for silence, he tried to still the anger by speaking with an exaggerated peacefulness in his voice. Everything was all right, he said. "Don't get panicky. Don't do anything panicky. Don't get your weapons. If you have weapons, take them home. He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword. Remember that is what Jesus said. We are not advocating violence. We want to love our enemies. I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them. This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love." By then the crowd of several hundred people had quieted to silence, and feeling welled up in King to an oration. "I did not start this boycott," he said. "I was asked by you to serve as your spokesman. I want it to be known the length and breadth of this land that if I am stopped, this movement will not stop. I f I am stopped, our work will not stop. For what we are doing is right. What we are doing is just. And God is with us."

Branch reveals people engaging in repeated acts of bravery and integrity in situations where none of us should be confident we'd be willing and able to do the same. Over and over, people acted on their beliefs in the face of hardened, violent opposition. That staggering courage means that, despite all the depravity and hatred on display, the overwhelming effect of the book is one of awe at human capacity to persevere and struggle towards the good. I don't expect I'll read a more astonishing or inspiring book this year.

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