Sometimes, the familiar looks sharper from a different perspective. In the new book “The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement” (Simon & Schuster, $26), author Taylor Branch offers a new point of view about a well-known story.
In 1954, the Supreme Court rendered a decision in the case Brown v. Board of Education about the same time Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus.
Martin Luther King Jr. had recently been drafted as president of a new protest committee. Just before giving a speech, he told a friend, “This could turn into something big.”
“He was twenty-six,” says Branch, “and had not quite twelve years and four months to live.”
Students, wishing to do something for the growing movement, began holding sit-ins. Few of them made any impact initially, but one at a Woolworth's in Greensboro, N.C., changed everything.
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 the 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 Southern Christian Leadership Conference 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 King. State officials rationalized violence through archaic local laws. Civil rights workers put themselves in danger for the movement. Some faced certain beating. 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” different, though, is how 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.”
Instead of getting a dry dates-and-events history book, readers are given glimpses of life and historically significant events that are 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.
For a fresh reflection on a tumultuous period of time, “The King Years” looks good at any angle.
— Terri Schlichenmeyer