Reading: How the South Was Won | Essay | Chicago Reader

Reading: How the South Was Won 

Taylor Branch's 900-page chronicle of the civil rights movement makes the rest of the "tumultuous 60s" seem pale and insignificant.

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As the mostly mournful parade of 60s anniversaries continues down our nation's broad media avenues, 25-year commemorations are beginning to bump into the remaining 20-year observances. We seem to be cursed to relive those years forever--a generation doomed to slip into senescence while arguing about the real meaning of Woodstock. Will the rehashing ever end? Is there really anything new to be mined from that exhausted lode of cultural memory we call "the 60s"?

The answer provided by Taylor Branch's magnificent new biography of Martin Luther King Jr. and narrative history of the early years of the civil rights movement is a ringing "yes." Although Branch's book Parting the Waters: America in the King Years begins in 1954, with the events leading up to the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott and King's emergence as its most prominent spokesperson, most of the story it tells falls within the hallowed brackets of "the 60s." And after a 900-page immersion in this chronicle of the shocking and often violent events that led up to the march on Washington in 1963, the rest of that tumultuous decade begins to pale by comparison.

By the time King ascended the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to tell the nation about his dreams, the civil rights movement had already concluded as massive and thoroughgoing a revolution in American culture as had been seen since the Civil War--or has been seen since. That revolution involved much more than just the dilution and elimination of jim crow laws and the desegregation of public schools, universities, and public facilities throughout the south. And it involved more than the successful effort to bring the federal government--kicking and screaming--into the fight for integration and voting rights (beginning a process that would eventually result in the fracturing of the Democratic Party into northern and southern wings, a rift that continues to plague it to this day). Most important, in just a few short years, the civil rights movement had managed to strip away the veil of routine and everydayness that for so long had shrouded the casual cruelties of formal, legally sanctioned racism. It's hard to remember, for instance, that it once seemed reasonable to the good, law-abiding white citizens of Montgomery, Alabama, that a black patron should pay a fare at the front of a city bus and then be required to disembark and enter through the rear doors in order to avoid walking through a "whites only" section. The amount of racism that still remains in our society should not blind us to how fundamental a victory it was when that sense of reasonable bigotry--in Montgomery, and everywhere else--was demolished.

"The antiwar movement and others would be child's play compared with the politics of lifting a despised minority from oblivion," Branch concludes near the end of his book. "Newcomers to derivative freedom movements programmed themselves to run amok, because they grossly underestimated the complexity, the restraint, and the grounding respect for opponents that had sustained King . . . and countless others through those difficult years."

Everything else that was accomplished in the 60s may well have been child's play, but those doing the playing have not exactly noticed. Take Todd Gitlin. In his recently reissued (by Bantam) reprise and analysis of the decade, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, Gitlin devotes only 10 of his book's more than 400 pages to the events Branch requires nearly 1,000 pages to detail. Though his brief section is cogently presented, it is clear that Gitlin regards the early civil rights movement as being little more important to what he calls the "zeitgeist" of the 60s than, say, the beat movement in literature (to which he devotes a roughly equal amount of space). A check of the name Rosa Parks in the index of Gitlin's book, for instance, leads one to an early passage in which he notes that the year Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus (1955) was the same year that saw the arrival of such rock 'n' roll hits as Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" and Chuck Berry's "Maybelline." "The parallels between rock and civil rights were far from exact," Gitlin writes, "but imperfect coincidences are the updrafts on which the zeitgeist spreads its wings." Perhaps so, but the Montgomery bus boycott unleashed far more powerful winds. It was the boycott that introduced the nation to the novel and vaguely eastern idea that a "movement" of people could come together dedicated to a strategy of nonviolent direct action as a means of achieving fundamental social change. In the mass meetings that night after night sustained the Montgomery boycotters' resolve we can, perhaps, see the whole idea of a resistance-based counterculture taking shape. There were, as Gitlin points out, many events that can be seen as precursors to the 60s, but it is hard to imagine--especially after reading Branch's harrowing account--any that were more important than those that took place in Montgomery in 1955 and 1956. Yet with the exception of the passage quoted above, the boycott is not mentioned in Gitlin's account.

My point is not to denigrate Gitlin's often interesting book, but to demonstrate what for me was probably the most powerful realization that came from reading Parting the Waters: this is still largely hidden history. It remains hidden from the white community in all but its broadest outlines, because in these early years the civil rights movement was almost entirely made up of black people. The whites who figure prominently in Branch's book are, with few exceptions, either those who are outright opponents of the movement or those who were fervently hoping that it would just go away.

"Almost as color defines vision itself," writes Branch at the very beginning of his book, "race shapes the cultural eye--what we do and do not notice, the reach of empathy and the alignment of response." History, in other words, is not written by the oppressed. (We can surmise that Branch himself was surprised by the size of the task he had set for himself in dealing with the King years; this volume, covering the years 1954 to 1963, is only one half of the project he hopes to complete.)

Thousands of whites were eventually present to hear King's "I have a dream" speech on the Washington Mall, and in the years that followed hundreds of white students, clergy, and other volunteers were to head south to take part in voter registration drives and other movement activities. And with the arrival of white volunteers came increased consciousness within the white community of the nature of the movement. But in the years depicted here, as Branch notes, "the notion of drastic change for the benefit of Negroes struck the average American as about on a par with creating a world government, which is to say visionary, slightly dangerous, and extremely remote. The race issue was little more than a human interest story in the mass public consciousness."

In black America, it was--and is--a different story, of course, and in significant measure Branch's book is an unforgettable rendering of how far apart the races in the U.S. are. Martin Luther King Jr. sprang from the midst of a black elite that most white Americans at the time would have been surprised to know existed at all. Branch deals at length with the class sensitivity that segmented the black community. Dexter Avenue Baptist Church--King's first parish--was the product of a schism within Montgomery's First Baptist Church (Colored) that resulted in "the higher elements" among the membership leaving to form their own congregation. When King finally joined his preacher father at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, he was joining a powerful local institution that had been in the control of his family for three generations.

Branch spends a lot of time documenting the peculiarly influential position held by black preachers--the only white-collar occupation open to blacks during slavery and one of the very few available to them even by the middle of this century. "The black preacher," wrote W.E.B. Du Bois, "is the most unique personality developed by the Negro on American soil." He was a teacher, politician, ruler, prophet--even, on occasion, judge and jury. It was no accident, then, that when the civil rights movement needed a leader, it chose a preacher.

Albeit a reluctant one. A serious scholar, King was tempted by the academic life. Though he knew he was a talented orator, he still worried that he would be an ineffective preacher. Writes Branch: "[King] could not ignore the possibility that any religion vague and secular enough to satisfy him would be too mushy to sustain a church." After fashioning from the writings of Gandhi and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr a religious vision he could find philosophically and emotionally stirring, he made his decision to take a church, the high-bred congregation at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.

Rosa Parks's arrest came one year later, and one week after that King stood to deliver his first speech to a movement mass meeting: "There comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression . . ." Within months Martin Luther King Jr. had become the most famous black figure in America, and the fledgling civil rights movement had found its spiritual and political leader.

Not that King would be central to, or even present at, all of the important events in the movement's early days. Branch works hard to detail the fact that the movement was far, far more than one preacher and his middle-class clerical cronies. The civil rights movement was a mass movement in every sense of the phrase. A succcessful sit-in protest by four black college freshmen at a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, prompted similar actions by other students in cities all across the south. The savage beatings inflicted on the freedom riders who first tested the Supreme Court's desegregation order for interstate transportation facilities only brought more volunteers to take their place. So many people were prepared to go to jail for the cause--this despite the central place that southern jailers occupied in the machinery of official white terrorism--that mass arrests became a routine tactic for movement organizers.

There is much in Parting the Waters that would give fuel to a fashionably revisionist view of King. One quickly notices that during many of the tensest and most violent incidents described in this book--incidents that Branch dramatizes, it must be added, with the page-turning urgency of an airport bookshop thriller--King is either not present or appears to be a largely distracting and indecisive annoyance. Again and again Branch recounts scenes in which young activists, many of whom had absorbed brutal physical and emotional abuse, have their patience finally flayed by King. Nor was he immune from self-pity and grandiosity. ("I think I should choose the time and place of my Golgotha," he once responded tersely to the student activists who were trying to recruit him as a freedom rider.) Still, as the narrative proceeds, it becomes impossible to imagine how the movement would have progressed without him. He was a scion of the black elite whose presence symbolized the anger and dedication of the black middle class, and he was a master of the religious imagery that represented the movement's best chance of recruiting the white middle class as well. Even at his most annoying, King was the public face of the movement, and his presence--in this narrative as it was in the movement--is always palpable.

Unfortunately, it must also be said that the King at the center of events is the only King we get to know in this book. As fascinated as Branch is with the public man, the private King does not seem to interest him much. His family appears only rarely in the text. There's a description of King's courtship of Coretta Scott, and an account of presidential candidate John Kennedy's famous phone call to her when her husband was remanded to the DeKalb County Jail (Branch convincingly argues that the flood of black votes this phone call generated probably won Kennedy the election); but otherwise we hear almost nothing of King's wife or--aside from occasional notations of their births--his children. Branch has some fun with King's elitist pretensions, the silk pajamas he wore even in jail, the Caribbean vacations he was always trying to make time for. He makes reference to King's extramarital affairs--which were so exhaustively investigated by that tireless watchdog J. Edgar Hoover--but the reference is brief and obligatory, shedding no light on King's motives or on the painful cost his public stature must have had on his private life.

Nor is Branch entirely immune from the charms of hagiography. Describing the moments following King's address to that first mass meeting in Montgomery, Branch writes: "In the first few short moments of his first political address, a power of communion emerged from him that would speak inexorably to strangers that would both love and revile him, like all prophets." After describing King's triumphant visit to Detroit in 1963, which happened to coincide with John Kennedy's visit to West Berlin, Branch sails off into the hyperbolic ozone: "In these few days," he writes, "a president of Irish descent went abroad to Germany while a preacher of African descent went inland to Detroit, both to stir the divided core of American identity. The proconsul defended the empire of freedom while the prophet proclaimed its soul. Together they traced a sharp line of history."

Happily, however, these flights of rhetorical excess are few and far between--there is, after all, little need for overdramatization in this story. The events were dramatic enough; the courage of the participants almost unimaginable. And time after time, against astounding odds, the movement was successful.

This perhaps was the most important contribution the early movement made to the 60s zeitgeist: the notion that radical change was possible. If the revolutionary rhetoric of the 60s seems quaint and naive to us now, maybe it's because we have moved so far from these days when a determined people were fighting decisive battles for freedom--and, as often as not, winning.

During an account of the struggle to integrate the train station in Albany, Georgia, late in 1961, Branch writes of the arrival and arrest of a young white student activist named Tom Hayden, who had been on a tour of movement projects in the south. After spending several days in the Albany jail, Hayden bailed out and went back north. At this point he disappears from Branch's story, but Gitlin's book records some of the reactions that Hayden wrote to other SDS organizers. "Those Negroes down there," Hayden wrote, "are digging in and in more danger than any student in this American generation has faced. . . . When do we begin to see it all not as remote but as breathing urgency into our beings and meaning into our ideals?"

"[The southern movement has] turned itself into the revolution we hoped for," he added wonderingly, "and we didn't have much to do with its turning at all."

Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch, Simon and Schuster, $24.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tom Herzberg.

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