December 24, Westford, MA: My grandfather lived in Louisiana much of his life. For where he lived, I’d consider him fiscally conservative, socially moderate. He was exactly the voter in play when the South flipped from Democrats to Republicans, the upper middle class white male. We would, from time to time when I drifted back to Louisiana for a holiday or a visit, talk politics. And I’ve always remembered that one time he told me something along the lines of: the South would have integrated in time, we just weren’t ready yet and pushing us to do it made things dangerous. Well, yes, Papa, but the folks who were on the other side of segregation were long past ready for integration. And whose perspective is more important in that decision?
I originally read Parting the Waters for a job. I’d been assigned to help produce Black History Month coverage for the high school audience news channel I worked for and we were doing some pieces on the civil rights movement and I don’t mind being thorough if it involves a big, thick book. This book is certainly big and thick, and what’s more it is the first of a trilogy. So the total tale is massive in scope (and wordcount).
I was really excited to re-read this in 2014. Particularly the first volume which delves into the roots of King’s philosophy of non-violence. I’d felt like I’d glossed over that in the past. And the book is so engaging; it reads like a historical thriller, capturing all the tension of the age. It covers the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Freedom Rides, Birmingham and the Letter from its Jail, and culminates in the March on Washington. It’s not just King, but the whole movement. You get to know Bob Moses and a very young John Lewis. You spend time with the Bobby and Jack Kennedy, struggling to comprehend what’s happening in the South. It’s the perfect detailed and surprising re-telling of a story you thought you knew so well.
The first time I read Parting the Waters I thought about how far we’d come. This time I thought only about how much further there is to go. I was deep in these pages as the grand jury decisions came back on the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases. I was reading about white southern juries necessitating federal civil rights legislation as contemporary northern grand juries were inspiring debate about whether we needed to invoke those laws again. The former felt so far away in the past— lynching can’t happen any more, can it? But the present day stood up and mocked this at every turn. Our playfield remains far from level.
Buy and read this book because it is so important to understand how we got to where we are today and what it might take to move us even further.