Bookworm: 'The King Years'

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The situation had you flummoxed.

You looked at it from every angle, knowing there had to be a way to understand. It was right in front of you, but nothing made sense until someone else showed you what was what.

Sometimes, the familiar looks sharper from a different perspective. And in the new book The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement by Taylor Branch, you’ll read a well-known story from a new point of view.

It was somewhat of a Perfect Storm: in 1954, the Supreme Court made a decision on Brown v. Board of Education at about the same time Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus. As if that wasn’t enough to make the time ripe for a movement, Martin Luther King Jr. had recently been drafted as president of a new protest committee. Just before giving a speech he’d been asked to present, he told a friend, “This could turn into something big.”

“He was 26,” Branch said, “and had not quite 12 years and four months to live.”

Students, wishing to do something for the growing movement, spontaneously (at first) began sit-ins. Few of them made any impact initially but one at a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, N.C., changed everything. As this activity cascaded, volunteers offered to relieve sitters while others organized to have sit-ins elsewhere, mostly in cities with negro colleges. Nonviolent protest was key to the sit-ins’ success, and workshops were quickly formed to teach students how to deal with everything crowds could (sometimes literally) throw at them. Arrests were made, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was founded.

By 1963, King had a court. Hollywood backed him. The SCLC was behind him. The White House “leaned toward proposing a civil rights bill,” but there was still a ways to go. The FBI was secretly keeping records on him. State officials rationalized violence through archaic local laws. Civil rights workers put themselves in danger for the movement.

Some faced beatings. Others faced certain death.

There’s more, of course, to this story and much of it has become abundantly familiar in the past 50 years. What makes The King Years so different is the way the story is told.

Branch spent 24 years writing a three-book history on America during the Civil Rights Movement, and he says in his preface that he prefers to tell “stories of impact” in “narrative detail.” This means that, instead of getting a dry dates-and-events history book, readers are gifted with glimpses of life and “historically significant” events, presented almost in the form of a novel.

That makes this book very accessible for veterans of the Movement, youngsters who weren’t born yet, and for students of this subject.


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