Review: The “America In The King Years” Trilogy By Taylor Branch

1 Apr

Taylor Branch’s America in the King Years Trilogy: Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire, At Canaan’s Edge

In the few short minutes of his first political address, a power of communion emerged from him that would speak inexorably to strangers who would both love and revile him, like all prophets. He was twenty-six, and had not quite twelve years and four months to live.
Parting the Waters, p 142

It was difficult for me to finish this series. I struggled to read the last book because I didn’t want to know what happened, though, of course, I already know what happened.

This book succeeded on several levels: in being detailed without being bogged down in minutia, in covering the breadth of its subject without resorting to broadness, in humanizing the people of The Movement, in recounting the terror and hardship that they faced. It was certainly a towering achievement of popular history. I learned more than I ever realized I didn’t know.

But what this book did, above all else, was it made me care. The people of this history are people. They are not historical actors or names that I write on notecards and dutifully memorize. They are fully realized people who I root for and mourn for. Branch creates a sense of immediacy that makes this book much closer to a story of The Movement than a more conventional historiography. This book isn’t a study, it’s a story.

My only criticism of this series would be the way it boarders on a hagiography of King. This does detract from the strength of the book. King becomes a character. There is a veneration of him that interferes with the author’s attempts to humanize him and creates a certain flatness to his presence in the book. The series, especially the final book, venerates King to the detriment of the series. This hagiography is even more noticeable when compared to the books treatment of the other participants in the Civil Rights Moment and those who intersected with the Movement.

Even with that reservation, I would never hesitate to suggest this book to anyone with an interest in history.

Taylor Branch @ Goodreads

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