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Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 By Taylor Branch Illustrated. 1,064 pages. Simon & Schuster. $24.95.
The title of Taylor Branch's monumental account of the American civil rights movement, ''Parting the Waters,'' is richly ironic. Unlike what Moses achieved with God's help in the 37 words of Exodus 14:21 of the Old Testament, it takes the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. nearly a thousand pages to accomplish only the first phase of his journey out of the wilderness. And there is to be a sequel to the present volume, to be called ''Pillar of Fire,'' which will cover Dr. King's experiences during the years of Lyndon B. Johnson's Presidency.
It isn't only the richness of events that makes this volume so enormous, covering as it does Dr. King's youth and education, the Montgomery bus boycott, the 1960 Presidential election, the lunch-counter sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, the voter registration drives, the integration of Ole Miss, the siege of Birmingham and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, the murder of Medgar Evers and dozens of other incidents in the movement's agonizing struggle to define itself.
There is also the sprawling cast of characters. As Mr. Branch - a former staff member of The Washington Monthly, Harper's and Esquire - explains the scheme of his book: ''I have tried to make biography and history reinforce each other by knitting together a number of personal stories along the main seam of an American epoch.'' And so: ''The text moves from King to people far removed, at the highest and lowest stations. By seeking at least a degree of intimacy with all of them - old Mother Pollard'' (who said during the Montgomery bus boycott, ''My feets is tired, but my soul is rested'') ''and also President Eisenhower, Bob Moses of SNCC and also J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI, with the Kennedys and also King's rivals within the black church - I hope to let the characters define each other.''
There is the complexity of Dr. King himself. Mr. Branch shows us rarely glimpsed sides of his subject: the student at Crozer Theological Seminary who excelled equally at preaching and pool shooting; the intellectual influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr who came to see Gandhi's nonviolence as ''merely a Niebuhrian stratagem of power''; the activist who secretly ''yearned for a life of prestigious, intellectual repose such as he had tasted in his pipe-smoking graduate-school days.''
But a life of repose was not to be. After the early success in popular movements like the bus boycott and the Freedom Rides, which he had entered more or less haphazardly, ''his public stature made anything he did a referendum on his principles,'' so ''pragmatism demanded that he design his own test.'' This he did not achieve until the showdown involving what Mr. Branch calls ''the children's miracle'' at Birmingham, Ala., when teen-agers marched forth to confront the dogs and fire hoses of Eugene (Bull) Connor's police force. Only then, according to the narrative's metaphor, was he able to ''cross over'' into a realm of freedom.
The risk of telling history in such detail is that events tend to unfold too slowly for the reader to gain perspective. For instance, Mr. Branch devotes extraordinary space to Stanley Levison, the friend and adviser of Dr. King, whom the Federal Bureau of Investigation considered to be a dangerous security risk. Coming in bits and pieces as it does, the story is difficult to put together; in the text, it seems that Hoover is forever pressuring the Kennedys to force Dr. King to dissociate himself from Mr. Levison, and that the Kennedys are forever dithering.
Of course, the jury is still out on the question of Mr. Levison's true status as a security risk. As Mr. Branch explains in his Preface: ''In opposing my request'' for ''the original FBI documents pertaining to the Bureau's steadfast contention that King's closest white friend was a top-level Communist agent,'' the ''U.S. Department of Justice has argued in federal court that the release of thirty- to thirty-five-year-old informant reports on Levison would damage the national security even now.''
Still, the upshot of the story is deeply disturbing, if I understand Mr. Branch correctly. He writes that by threatening the Kennedys with information in the F.B.I.'s possession concerning the President's sexual liaisons, Mr. Hoover was eventually able to force on them his own views of Dr. King, which were narrow-minded and disapproving to say the least, or so Mr. Branch suggests. When Dr. King asked for proof of Mr. Levison's disloyalty, he was told by no less a figure than the Attorney General that, in Mr. Branch's words, ''the evidence came from the highest and most sophisticated machinery of American espionage.'' Mr. Branch makes it all sound like a children's game, one that Dr. King never had a chance to win.
Just as this F.B.I. issue achieves new dimension, many great events that have nearly become cliches in our memories assume fresh life in Mr. Branch's treatment - in particular, Dr. King's first speech in Montgomery after he was elected the bus boycott's new leader in December 1955, his composition of the ''Letter From Birmingham Jail'' in April 1963, and, of course, his ''I have a dream'' speech at the Washington Monument in August of that year.
David Garrow, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning ''Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference'' (1986), did pathbreaking work in revealing new details of this extraordinary life. Now Mr. Branch has animated them, and given us an overwhelming new perspective on Dr. King's spiritual quest and journey to apotheosis.