Whenever I buy a book* – new or used – I immediately write my name and the purchase month on the inside cover. I bought Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 when we were living in Houston; I was starting out as a young pastor at Holy Cross Lutheran. I don’t remember exactly how in 1992 I came across Taylor Branch’s exhaustive tome of more than 1,000 pages detailing the crux of the civil rights era. Perhaps I had heard it won the Pulitzer Prize for History, or maybe my ministry colleague Gene Fogt, a bona fide bibliophile, suggested I read it. The book was yet relatively fresh, published in 1988. We were living in Peru in the late ’80s, my seminary internship dictating how I spent the majority of my hours. Seven degrees south of the equator in Chiclayo, Peru, el bendito castellano occupied most of my free brain space, but I was able to do some “catch up” reading on the side – The Brothers Karamozov and Les Miserables, among others. I had always liked to read, but during my adolescent and early adult years, basketball and golf always took precedence over reading. I played some basketball in Peru for a city team, but didn’t touch a golf club for two years. I started to do a lot of reading on internship, and I continued to read extensively as we made it back to the States.
Once I started reading Parting the Waters, my focus did not waver. During the summer of ’92 all my free time dissipated into ardent observation of Martin Luther King, Fred Shuttlesworth, Septima Clark, John Lewis, Robert Moses, and the many other characters that forged the transformative movement. I was mesmerized; the reading filled me in on a part of my life that I had somehow missed. Born in the last week of 1961, growing up in the mostly white northwest suburbs of Chicago – yes, I missed it. When MLK was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, I was all of six years of age. I don’t remember my parents saying anything to me about it. I certainly don’t blame them.
Parting the Waters, its Exodus imagery trumpeted, is unequivocally one of the best books I’ve ever read. Not only did it provide crucial historical details of the 20th century’s most formative events, it further shaped my understanding of ministry and vocation. People of faith, working together, can influence and even change society in accordance with a sense of what is understood to be God’s justice and love. The shackles can be broken – imagine that. Yes, the arc of the moral universe is long and it does bend toward justice.
Taylor Branch had more to tell; a second book was titled Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65. I remember waiting and waiting for it to come out. Not until 1998, ten years after the first, did the second volume of the promised trilogy see the light of day. I purchased Pillar immediately upon its release, but didn’t read it until 2001. It was as if I had waited too long for dinner and my hunger had passed. There was other stuff I was reading, our three kids commanded plenty of attention, and I was once again playing an occasional round of golf. Once I started to read Pillar, I remember feeling that Branch was like a juggler trying to keep so many balls in the air simultaneously. There were so many details and threads of the story in the years ’63-’65: Kennedy’s assassination, Vietnam, Malcom X, J. Edgar Hoover, the Klan, King’s Nobel Prize, Selma – just to mention a few. A very busy narrative, its primary focus no longer locked onto King. Pillar was good, but it couldn’t match Parting the Waters. No book ever has.
At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68, found Branch back on stride. Published in 2006, the final volume of the trilogy recaptured its focus on King with gripping narrative and historical detail, especially as it highlighted the crucial work of the backbone organizations of the civil rights movement – CORE, SNCC, and King’s own SCLC. I read Canaan in the spring of 2007; as with Parting the Waters, I could hardly put it down.
Another ritual to my book reading habit is to record the date that I finish reading a book on the inside back cover. It was with joy and regret that I wrote 5/18/07 alongside my initials when I finished reading Canaan. Joy for the story told and its teaching message; regret that there was no more to read.
I met Taylor Branch in April 2015 after a lecture he gave at the University of Texas. The topic of the lecture covered his 2011 piece in The Atlantic, “The Shame of College Sports.” The Frank Deford Lecture on Sports Journalism speaker rearticulated his conviction that students who play sports at major universities (such as the University of Texas) need to be compensated financially. According to Branch, it’s a power issue. At the big-time colleges, administrators and coaches are paid extravagantly, which helps perpetuate a hierarchy where students are essentially powerless. I recommend reading the article if you haven’t – it’s conveniently hyperlinked above.
Branch provided good information for those of us interested in book reading, writing, and publishing. Writing was not his vocational goal after graduating from the University of North Carolina in 1968, but, nonetheless, he started working as a staff journalist for magazine publishers (Esquire and Harper’s) to pay the bills. Before long, he fancied himself a god-honest writer. He wanted to write books. He did some ghostwriting – for Watergate convict John Dean and basketball legend Bill Russell – but labored under the impression that real writers are novelists. In 1981 he produced his novel The Empire Blues. He said, in full self-deprecation mode, that “it sold all of 500 copies.”
He then procured a contract to produce a history of the civil rights movement and its era. The procurement wasn’t easy, and the contract was only for three years. Consequently, Branch did some other writing projects to keep himself and his family fed. Six years of research and writing finally came to fruition when Parting the Waters received stellar reviews and won Branch the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for History. Eighteen more years of research and writing would be required for Branch to finish out the landmark trilogy.
My three aforementioned kids are now adults. In the process of their college educations, I came up with the idea to present them some books, crucially important to me, that I hope would help shape their understanding of the world. Each of them receives the three same books, and then one or two books additionally as befits their particular personality and interests. Parting the Waters is the first book on the list that each of them receives; Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything complete the top three list.
I enjoyed visiting with Taylor Branch after the lecture. He was kind enough to inscribe my original copy of Parting the Waters and to receive a copy of my own Just a Little Bit More, posing for a picture to boot. American in the King Years is one set of many books that have influenced my thinking and inspired me to write JaLBM. Branch is a talented historian and journalist, but he’s gifted as a theologian as well. “King’s life is the best and most important metaphor for American history in the watershed postwar years” (from the preface of Parting the Waters).
Click here to purchase Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Paperback, $14.95. You will be redirected to the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website.
*I do own a Kindle and enjoy reading ebooks; Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century was the first ebook I read on my Kindle. I thought I’d start with something light and short. Ahem. Read my review here.
A sidelight: I also met Frank Deford at the same event, the legendary journalist of Sports Illustrated and NPR fame. The University of Texas holds his archival writings, and presents the Frank Deford Lecture on Sports Journalism annually. I told him I always try to catch his NPR Morning Edition commentary on Wednesdays, which he has been doing since 1980. He has two and a half minutes by which to get his message across. I told him those pieces are like mini-sermons; he thought about that and said, “You’re right.” Keep preaching, Frank!