My father established a nightly routine for me that continues to shape my life today. After supper from 1963 to 1969, we sat side-by-side on the couch and watched the evening news, either the Huntley-Brinkley Report or Walter Cronkite.
During those years, I was exposed to people and events that would remain life-long interests: the space program (I loved watching the Mercury and Gemini launches), the war in Vietnam (with its tragic tallies of killed, wounded, and missing), political races (the first I remember is the 1966 Callaway/Maddox Georgia gubernatorial contest), and the civil rights movement.
I was sitting next to my father when I learned of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in April 1968. The Atlanta church we attended hosted mourners for his funeral, and later that year, dedicated a plaque in his memory.
My serious reading in civil rights history began in the late 1980s after viewing the powerful documentary Eyes on the Prize. At RTS Jackson I teach a course that includes a session on American Christianity and race. My students are required to watch one of the series’ episodes.
Many years ago I purchased what became the first volume in Taylor Branch’s magisterial civil rights history of the King years. I began, but never finished reading it. So, when I moved to Mississippi in 2014 and found myself within driving distance to so many of the movement’s historic sites, I determined to read all three volumes.
This summer I completed my goal, reading one book during each of the last three summers. At 2,300 pages (excluding indexes), it took time; I am a very slow reader. But Branch’s style and command of his materials meant that my interest never wavered.
Seminary students ministering in the Deep South should think deeply about our region’s race history. Therefore, I am grateful that Taylor Branch has given us an invaluable resource for navigating and understanding the critical years of 1954-1968.
Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.
Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.
At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965-1968. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.