Parting the Waters, by Taylor Branch
Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63.
by Taylor Branch.
Simon & Schuster. 1062 pp. $24.95.
The United States is probably the most successful political experiment of all time, but it is not utopia. The greatest of its flaws and failings have been in the area of race. Ninety years of slavery followed by a century of Jim Crow mocked the principles on which the nation was founded. Slavery came close to bringing down the Republic, and the war to end slavery was the nation’s most costly. As for Jim Crow, it damaged the spirit and harmed millions of citizens, but the costs of abolishing it were mercifully small.
For that we owe thanks to the civil-rights movement, one of history’s great movements of social reform. It was a genuine “grassroots” movement of the oppressed, consisting in the main of poor, and poorly educated, Southern black churchgoers. The movement displayed exemplary courage in the face of murderous mobs and brutal police officers, and exemplary fidelity to its self-imposed discipline of nonviolence. For its leaders, nonviolence was a matter of philosophical or religious conviction, but nonviolence also proved to be a brilliant tactic—so brilliant, in fact, that only a decade passed from the movement’s first emergence in the Montgomery (Alabama) bus boycott that began in late 1955 until its ultimate triumph in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
That triumph is all the more striking for the multiple disabilities against which blacks struggled. Around the world, there are numerous examples of racial or national minorities that suffer political oppression but wield leverage in the form of economic power or cultural position. In contrast, American blacks suffered simultaneous political disfranchisement, economic impoverishment, and cultural deprivation. They held few levers of social influence. Their struggle depended entirely on awakening the conscience of white America to the contradiction between racial discrimination and the American ethos.
Through nonviolent protest they put to rest the illusion that the injuries they had suffered in silence were lightly felt, and answered the doubts in their own minds and those of their fellow citizens that they were of equal civic merit. Indeed, the civil-rights confrontations showed blacks to be a great deal more civilized than their oppressors. Their victory is testimony both to the quality of their struggle and to the underlying strength of American principles. It has put their country well along the path to becoming that rare if not unheard-of thing, a multiracial society of genuine civic equality.
This important and stirring piece of our national history has, however, been talked and written about far less than it deserves, either in popular culture or in historiography. Why? In part it may be because once the nation’s conscience was belatedly aroused to the evil it had tolerated, race became the new litmus test of public morality; to acknowledge and record the triumph of the civil-rights movement might therefore suggest complacency, might mark one as insufficiently determined to root out whatever remnants of racism still survived. Then, too, the movement’s triumph in some degree disappointed the millenarian images which its nonviolent warriors had invoked to spur the struggle on. The end of Jim Crow did not spell the end of racial prejudice or conflict or of differences in consciousness or perception between blacks and whites. Nor did equal access to jobs, schools, and public facilities result all at once in equal levels of wealth, education, and social pathologies, as (for no earthly reason) some expected it would.
In addition, the movement itself ended badly. Following the lead of the young shock troops of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, pronounced “Snick”) who had stoically endured abuse apparently beyond their limit, the movement jettisoned its slogan of “Freedom Now” in favor of “Black Power,” and turned away from nonviolence. Indeed, the movement’s very victories seemed to crack the dams of fear that had held back generations of black anger; that anger now flowed forth in spasms of urban rioting, in the emergence of crazy, violent revolutionary cells, and in the rise of anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, and anti-white racism as acceptable currents of black thought.
It was not just the civil-rights movement that lost its way. America as a whole seemed to go off its hinges in the 1960’s. The momentous significance of a decade of civil-rights struggle thus faded into a larger, vaguer collage of turmoil and protest: the Vietnam escalation and the rise of the antiwar movement, the New Left and the counterculture.
Now, Taylor Branch has recaptured the historical moment in his compendious new book, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63. Despite the subtitle, the book is not a general history at all, but an account just of the civil-rights movement, using Martin Luther King, Jr. as its organizing focus. Branch is at work on a second volume that will complete the story, but this first one covers the bulk of the civil-rights era, and does so in painstaking detail.
Thanks to Branch, we can revisit each scene in the drama, from the Montgomery bus boycott to the lunch-counter sit-ins in Greensboro and Nashville, from the near-murderous assault on Freedom Riders in Anniston to the riots that sought to block the admission of James Meredith to the University of Mississippi, from the March on Washington to the racists’ vindictive response in the Birmingham church-bombing that killed four little girls. Branch has carefully reconstructed each civil-rights demonstration, from conception to execution, often with interesting descriptions of key participants.
The Montgomery bus boycott, he shows, had a long germination. It was because Rosa Parks showed the seriousness of purpose and had the requisite presentability to symbolize their cause that black leaders took up and publicized her arrest; they had passed over earlier, similar arrests of black women who lacked the necessary qualities. By contrast, the lunch-counter sit-ins, probably the quintessence of the civil-rights struggle, came about virtually by accident, a consequence of a spontaneous impulse by four freshmen at North Carolina A&T Indeed, by Taylor’s account the movement could not have succeeded without the participation not only of college students but of hundreds of high-school and even grammar-school students, whose prime qualification may have been that they were too innocent to appreciate the ghastly dangers they were courting.
Branch’s book also serves as a reminder of the enormous social distance America has traveled since the early civil-rights days. So obvious do the rights and wrongs of the issue seem today that it is easy to forget how ingrained and intractable racism appeared back then, so much a part of the way things were that its institutional defeat seemed virtually beyond hope. The Montgomery bus boy-cotters at first did not dare to aim for integrated seating; they merely demanded that discriminatory practices be buffered with a few meager courtesies. It was only the refusal of city authorities to brook any compromise that spurred the protesters to their ultimate victory. It is startling, too, to be reminded that the television networks, today so self-consciously forward-thinking, refused to broadcast a speech to the 1960 Republican National Convention by President Eisenhower’s sole high-ranking black aide lest his appearance on the screen give offense to Southern audiences.
The book should help to correct distortions in popular memory about the relation of the Kennedys to the civil-rights struggle. Far from being partners in the struggle, President John and Attorney General Robert Kennedy were dragged along under political duress. They were much interested in securing black votes, little in securing black rights. They repeatedly invoked constitutional constraints barring federal assistance or protection for civil-rights workers, then resisted proposals for legal changes that would have expanded the authority of the federal government. The civil-rights issue seems to have engaged them much less than it did New York’s Republican Governor, Nelson Rockefeller, or Kennedy’s Vice President and successor, Lyndon Johnson.
But Branch does not prettify the heroes of his story, either. Civil-rights leaders are shown with all their behind-the-scenes blemishes—vanity, rivalry, greed, lust, power-hunger. Those who quarreled with King, notably the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins, come off in an especially bad light. Even King himself is not spared. Although Branch makes only the most fleeting and apologetic reference to King’s notorious womanizing, he does show him to be an often indecisive leader, with little sense of strategy, and sometimes overmastered by fear.
The very honesty of this portrait works, however, to capture King’s greatness. As the Reagan presidency has most recently shown, a great leader can lack many desirable qualities so long as he does certain things exceptionally well. In the case of the civil-rights struggle, success depended on bringing America face-to-face with the contradiction between its deepest ideals and the reality of race discrimination. And forcing this confrontation required that black Americans find the courage and self-confidence to resist the status quo. King’s rhetorical virtuosity, which could in a single speech touch illiterate black sharecroppers and white elites alike, was an irreplaceable element in these processes.
Though Branch’s book has many virtues, and though it fills a gaping need, it suffers from two shortcomings. The first is its prose, which is at best pedestrian and, when it reaches for rhetorical resonance, often worse. Strange similes and overwrought adjectives clutter the pages, not to mention verbs tortured for effect into unusual meanings. Here is an example of Branch’s style:
King and Kennedy were at odds over the innermost meanings of freedom. Having wrestled to a secret, preliminary draw in the Rose Garden, they acted out their differences in gargantuan public spectacles of haunting, providential aptness, like a thunderclap after confession.
The subject of this passage is Kennedy’s warning to King to rid his entourage of two Communists. And that brings us to the source of the book’s more serious flaw. A main subtext in Branch’s narrative is the story of FBI surveillance of two close King associates, Stanley Levison and Jack O’Dell, and the efforts of the Kennedy administration to persuade King to separate himself from these two men. As Branch tells it, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover pursued Levison and O’Dell merely as a way of getting at King, whom Hoover despised (according to Branch) out of a combination of racism and anger over criticisms of the Bureau which King had reportedly uttered.
In the case of Stanley Levison, Branch stops just short of proclaiming a definitive judgment on the allegations that he was a Communist. (The FBI, for reasons Branch finds scurrilous, has refused his Freedom of Information Act request for all its documents about Levison.) Nonetheless, Branch does conclude that “Levi-son’s character and historical contributions are established beyond significant doubt.” He says, indeed, that “King and Levison both in fact were the rarest heroes of freedom,” that their persecution by the FBI was “less open to correction than the Salem witch trials,” and that it constituted “an American echo of the Alfred Dreyfus scandal.”
This is how Branch presents the facts about Levison:
As a longtime official of the American Jewish Congress, . . . Levison had specialized in fund-raising for [it] and for a host of civil libertarian and radical causes—to save the Rosenbergs, to abolish as unconstitutional the McCarran Act and other restrictions on political expression from the McCarthy era, to assist the defendants in the Smith Act “show trials.” Since 1949, nearly a hundred top officials of the U.S. Communist party had been jailed and deported under the Smith Act. Working closely and often clandestinely with defense committees, Levison had served in effect as a financial pillar of the Communist party during the height of its persecution.
Levison was a fiercely independent thinker, of eclectic political interests. After Joseph McCarthy’s power was broken by Senate censure in 1954 and the Justice Department reduced Smith Act prosecutions, he joined with A. Philip Randolph and others to support the beleaguered Southern Negroes trying to integrate public schools under the Brown decision. . . . Communists officially scorned such efforts. In the prevailing Marxist jargon . . . integration was a “revisionist” pursuit . . . [that] contradicted the official Moscow goal of “separate national development” for American Negroes. . . .
This treatment of a question so central to Branch’s book is deficient in knowledge, understanding, and honesty. In claiming that Levison’s work for school integration shows he was no Communist but a “fiercely independent thinker,” Branch assumes, incorrectly, that Levison would have been restricted by the party to working with only those blacks who already toed its line. And even if this were true, Branch has his facts wrong: the Brown decision inspired a quick change in the party line. A party book published in 1954 gave this appraisal of Brown: “This victory, as Comrade [William Z.] Foster stated, ‘belongs in the first place to the Negro people themselves,’ whose united persistent mass opposition to segregation has wrested this significant gain.”1 And in 1956, party chief Eugene Dennis explained in his published report to the National Committee: “In the 1954 Program the previous position of the party on self-determination in the Black Belt has been modified, in fact dropped.”
Far less excusable than Branch’s ignorance is his apparently deliberate effort to shade the facts to fit his conclusions. Branch makes it sound as if Levison’s financial relations with the party had to do only with defending the persecuted; in this assessment he claims to be drawing on the research of David Garrow, whose book, The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr., was hailed as a scathing exposé of the bureau. Yet here is what Garrow reports:
According to some former FBI agents, Jack Childs [the Bureau’s prize informant in the top echelons of the Communist Party, USA] told the Bureau that Levison reportedly had been an important secret financial benefactor of the Communist party since perhaps 1945 or 1946. Levison was reputed to have played a central role in establishing businesses whose real purpose was to earn or perhaps launder money needed by the Communist party. . . .
Beginning in 1953 or early 1954, however, Jack Childs also told the FBI that Levison was assisting Communist party financial chiefs . . . in acquiring and managing the CP’s secret monies. . . . Then, in February 1954, party treasurer Weiner died, and Levison’s reported role in CP financial affairs became even more important. Stanley, Jack Childs told the Bureau, was now the interim chief administrator of the party’s most secret funds, and Childs’s nominal boss. . . .
. . . Jack Childs could supply firsthand testimony that Levison had been directly involved in secret Communist activity in 1954, activity that almost certainly made Levison privy to the party’s financial link to the Soviet Union. . . .
Garrow himself concludes that by the later 1950’s Levison had sincerely separated himself from the party and worked with King out of pure conviction. This is a reasonable conclusion, although different from that of the FBI, which believed that Levison had courted King as a party agent. In any event, the reader of Garrow’s book can draw his own conclusion about which interpretation to accept; not so, the reader of Taylor Branch’s. Because this information does not fit his argument that the FBI was wickedly motivated, Branch simply suppresses it and substitutes the anodyne version I have quoted above, with the American Jewish Congress tossed in as a non-red herring.
Branch’s treatment of Jack O’Dell is of a piece with this. O’Dell was called to testify about his Communist activities before both the Senate and House subcommittees investigating subversion, and he pleaded the Fifth Amendment before both. Evidence presented to those subcommittees identified him as a member of the National Committee of the Communist party who served as a party organizer. To this day he is an important fixture in the pro-Communist Left, although he appears to be associated not with the party itself but rather with a small pro-Soviet splinter group named Line of March.
Here, however, is how Branch presents O’Dell:
[After World War II] he went back to New Orleans and found work as an organizer for his union, the National Maritime Union [NMU]. It was renowned among Negroes as the first seamen’s international to break the color line. . . . One of its international executives was the first Negro to hold such a position in any trade union. . . . When an anti-Communist faction purged the union in 1950, O’Dell was expelled for circulating peace petitions.
Once again, Branch has his facts wrong. On a quick check I found three unions (the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, and the International Longshoremen’s Association) that had black national officers before the NMU did, and there may well have been more. And once again Branch diligently prettifies the picture. The NMU was dominated by Communists until its own Communist-installed president, Paul Curran, broke with the party and turned against it. He then purged the remaining Communists from the staff, and there is no reason to doubt that he knew exactly who they were. If “peace petitions” were in fact an issue in the purge, in all likelihood they were petitions against American resistance to North Korea’s invasion of South Korea.
Whenever O’Dell may have separated himself from the party, it was at least a few years later than Levison did. Moreover, the fact that Levison was the one who brought O’Dell into a key role in the administrative structure of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference raises doubts about whether Levison’s own break was genuine. So does the fact, related by Branch with characteristic fudging, that a year and a half after Levison’s withdrawal from his role in party finance (and months after his relationship with King had commenced), he was brought into a council of the top leaders of the party’s various factions in order to help work out a compromise that might avert a split.
Whatever the whole truth about Levison, the fact is that various Communists made valuable contributions to the civil-rights struggle, as did socialists and radicals of miscellaneous stripe. They all deserve thanks for what they did, but we also need to recognize that the Communists’ contribution was especially flawed by ulterior motives. When the movement began to go haywire in the mid- to late 60’s, the Communists hastened to encourage its most irresponsible elements, eventually becoming big promoters of the Black Panther party. Apparently, the Communist party found that this development served its interest, perhaps because it isolated black militants from many other white supporters. Whatever benefit the party might have derived from this strategy, it surely was a disaster for black America.
A complete history of the civil-rights movement would have to include a balanced presentation of the issue of Communist involvement, if only because Hoover’s ham-fisted actions have made it a hot topic. Unfortunately, Taylor Branch’s highly valuable study is flawed by his refusal to do so. He seems locked into a world view in which Communists are little more than liberals in a hurry, and anti-Communists are by definition paranoid.
1 Betty Gannett, The Communist Program and the Fight for Jobs, Peace, Equal Rights and Democracy (New Century Publishers, 1954), p. 25.