Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963

JULY 27, 2006

I have just finished reading Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63, the first volume of a trilogy. It is a fascinating book and fittingly for such a sprawling multi-faceted panorama the two most important themes were tangential ones. The first is the degree to which the perception of events, at least as presented in the press or comprehended by those at a distance, is removed from the actual reality. The second is the extent of the abuses committed by the FBI under Hoover (and the collusion of politicians in this corruption of democracy due to the power that Hoover wielded). The genesis of these abuses, and the way in which they continued unchecked for so long, is a salutary warning of the need to be ever wary when claims of national security are used to prevent the monitoring of the activities of the government by the public at large.

From the standpoint of personal injury to King, Robert Kennedy did perhaps his greatest disservice by remaining a caretaker Attorney General for another ten months, when the FBI ran unchecked.

The Bureau wasted no time describing its target as “King’s unholy alliance with the Communist Party, USA,” and King as “an unprincipled opportunistic individual.” Sullivan summoned Agent Nichols and others to Washington for a nine-hour war council, the result of which was a six-point plan to “expose King as an immoral opportunist who is not a sincere person but is exploiting the racial situation for personal gain.” All the top officials signed a ringing declaration of resolve laced with the usual pledges to proceed “without embarassment to the Bureau.” The underlying hostility did not make the officials that unusual among Americans of their station. Nor was it unusual that an odd man such as Hoover would run aground in his obsession with normalcy. Race, like power, blinds before it corrupts, and Hoover saw not a shred of merit in either King or Levison. Most unforgivable was that a nation founded on Madisonian principles allowed secret police powers to accrue over forty years, until real and imagined heresies alike could be punished by methods less open to correction than the Salem witch trials. The hidden spectacle was the more grotesque because King and Levison both in fact were the rarest heroes of freedom, but the undercover state persecution would have violated democratic principles even if they had been common thieves. [p. 919, emphasis added]