Excerpts for King Years : Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement

The King Years


Beyond state and local laws, which mandated racial separation everywhere from schools and businesses to public libraries, custom enforced segregation in houses of worship.


Since 1982, it took me twenty-four years and 2,306 pages to compile a three-book narrative history, America in the King Years, and the same enthrallment has distilled that work now into this slender volume. A singular wonder continues. I was not born or raised to care about politics, let alone to write history. The landmark Brown decision of 1954 had caught me a white first-grader in segregated Atlanta, Georgia, and my college graduation fourteen years later closely followed the Kingassassination. Through all the formative years in between, I remained fearfully oblivious to race until the relentless freedom movement redirected my entire life's interest. Permanent curiosity drove what would become a career ambition. As an outsider, I needed to learn what had sustained such resonant witness among near-peers of African descent.

Well before the 1988 publication of the first installment, Parting the Waters, I resolved to present my findings in storytelling form rather than the analytical synthesis common to history. No stylistic device can escape interpretation, and all history at bottom is an argument, but it seemed evident that cross-racial perspective has been especially vulnerable to distortion. Many standard histories taught, for instance, that the Civil War had little to do with slavery. President Kennedy recalled lessons at Harvard that Reconstruction trampled the rights of prominent white Southerners. Some textbooks still use an earnest, religious word--"Redeemers"--to describe the late-nineteenth-century politicians who imposed white supremacy and segregation, often by Klan-led terror. Clearly, over time, racial undercurrents have tilted and even inverted the prevailing view of our past.

This pitfall recommended a determined effort to ground cross-cultural history in fully human actors on all sides. Therefore, I resolved to avoid insofar as possible the distinctive labels of the civil rights era--"militant," "racist," "radical," "integrationist"--because such terms invite comfort and caricature rather than discovery. The goal was to pursue stories of impact until the clashing characters felt convincing by all available evidence, including their own lights.

My regimen made for a sprawling text and carried its own burdens of craft. Parting the Waters is dedicated to the late Septima Clark for a peculiar reason. Interviews with her left a strong personal effect on me, confirming what others from the civil rights movement felt, but she had functioned almost entirely "offstage" from the main historical narrative, as it were, teaching literacy and citizenship to rural sharecroppers. My dedication was a personal gesture of tribute mixed with regret, because I found it impossible within my storytelling rules to include Septima Clark in proportion to her influence.

Those same rules delayed my writing altogether at the outset, because they prohibited an introductory essay on the movement's incubator and laboratory, Southern black churches. Only luck turned up a potential solution in an unwritten trove of memory about Vernon Johns, Dr. King's predecessor at his church in Montgomery. The opening chapter presented this remarkable but unknown character on the calculated hope that his story itself could introduce the separate world of preachers and congregations, of warring politics and inspiration, from which the civil rights movement emerged.

Septima Clark and Vernon Johns are omitted from these pages along with many other figures I consider historically significant. Brevity offsets their absence. A hybrid framework for this volume seeks to preserve the authenticity of narrative detail within limited space. I have selected eighteen historical turning points from the 1954-68 era, described here in less than ten percent of the complete trilogy. Some are simple. Others are complex. They follow the spine of consequence through a transformative period that remains controversial. Each chapter begins with a short transitional summary, sometimes covering major events and intertwined plots with a paragraph or two. These new passages are necessarily compressed, interpretive, and open to argument, but they provide economical context so that readers can experience and absorb the key moments.

Those moved to seek fuller descriptions can find them in my books and many others, with voluminous reference notes. Our goal in this edition is to convey both the spirit and sweep of an extraordinary movement. Newer generations will find here the gist of a patriotic struggle in which the civil rights pioneers, like modern Founders, moved an inherited world of hierarchy and subjugation toward common citizenship. Others can recall vivid triumph and tragedy at the heart of national purpose for the United States, whose enduring story is freedom. The unvarnished history should resist fearful tides to diminish that story. Above all, the King years should serve as a bracing reminder that citizens and leaders can work miracles together despite every hardship, against great odds.