Parting the Waters
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Parting the Waters

America in the King Years 1954-63

Taylor Branch

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Parting the Waters

America in the King Years 1954-63

Taylor Branch

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In Parting the Waters, the first volume of his essential America in the King Years series, Pulitzer Prize winner Taylor Branch gives a "compelling…masterfully told" ( The Wall Street Journal ) account of Martin Luther King's early years and rise to greatness. Hailed as the most masterful story ever told of the American Civil Rights Movement, Parting the Waters is destined to endure for generations.Moving from the fiery political baptism of Martin Luther King, Jr., to the corridors of Camelot where the Kennedy brothers weighed demands for justice against the deceptions of J. Edgar Hoover, here is a vivid tapestry of America, torn and finally transformed by a revolutionary struggle unequaled since the Civil War.Taylor Branch provides an unsurpassed portrait of King's rise to greatness and illuminates the stunning courage and private conflict, the deals, maneuvers, betrayals, and rivalries that determined history behind closed doors, at boycotts and sit-ins, on bloody freedom rides, and through siege and murder.Epic in scope and impact, Branch's chronicle definitively captures one of the nation's most crucial passages.

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ONE

FORERUNNER: VERNON JOHNS

Nearly seven hundred Negro communicants, some wearing white robes, marched together in the exodus of 1867. They followed the white preacher out of the First Baptist Church and north through town to Columbus Street, then east up the muddy hill to Ripley Street. There on that empty site, the congregation declared itself the First Baptist Church (Colored), with appropriate prayers and ceremonies, and a former slave named Nathan Ashby became the first minister of an independent Negro Baptist church in Montgomery, Alabama.
Most local whites considered the separation a bargain, given the general state of turmoil and numb destitution after the war. Governor Robert M. Patton and the new legislature, in a wild gamble based on Andrew Johnson’s friendliness toward prominent ex-Confederates, openly repudiated the Fourteenth Amendment’s recognition of Negro citizenship rights, only to have a Union brigadier walk into the Montgomery capitol to declare that he was superseding the state government again until its officials saw fit to reconsider. White spirits fell; Negro spirits soared. The town’s population had swelled to fourteen thousand, with Negroes outnumbering whites three to one. Refugees of both races were fleeing the crop failures and foreclosures in the countryside and streaming into Montgomery, where they often lived in clumps on the streets and entertained themselves by watching the outdoor sheriff’s sales.
Under such conditions, and with the U.S. Congress threatening a new Fifteenth Amendment to establish the right of Negroes to vote and govern, most whites were of no mind to dispute the Negro right to religion. Many were only too happy to clear the throngs from the church basement, even if it meant that their previous items of property would be conducting their own church business at the corner of Columbus and Ripley—offering motions, debating, forming committees, voting, hiring and firing preachers, contributing pennies, bricks, and labor to make pews and windows rise into the first free Negro institution. The Negro church, legal in some respects before the Negro family, became more solvent than the local undertaker.
Ten years later, a dissident faction of the First Baptist Church (Colored) marched away in a second exodus that would forever stamp the characters of the two churches. Both sides would do their best to pass off the schism as nothing more than the product of cramped quarters and growing pains, but trusted descendants would hear of the quarrels inevitable among a status-starved people. Undoubtedly some of the tensions were the legacy of slavery’s division between the lowly field hands and the slightly more privileged house servants, the latter more often mulattoes. These tensions culminated when “higher elements” among the membership mounted a campaign to remodel the church to face the drier Ripley Street instead of the sloping Columbus, where they were obliged to muddy their shoes on Sundays after a rain. Their proposed renovation, while expensive, would afford cleaner and more dignified access.
Most members and some deacons considered this an unseemly and even un-Christian preoccupation with personal finery, but a sizable minority felt strongly enough to split off and form the Second Baptist Church (Colored). Although the secessionists shared the poverty of the times and of their race—and held their organizational meeting in the old Harwell Mason slave pen—the world of their immediate vision was one of relative privilege. At the first baptismal services, conducted by a proper British minister, guests included three equally proper white Yankee schoolmistresses from the missionary legions who were still streaming south to educate and Christianize the freedmen. In January 1879, the new church paid $250 for a lot and a building that stood proudly in the center of town on Dexter Avenue, little more than a stone’s throw from the grand entrance of the Alabama state capitol. The all-Negro congregation renamed itself Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Its first minister, a former slave named Charles Octavius Boothe, wrote that the members were “people of money and refinement” and boasted that one of the members, a barber named Billingslea, owned property worth $300,000. This claim, though widely doubted, entered the official church history.
From the beginning, Dexter Avenue operated as a “deacons’ church,” meaning that the lay officers took advantage of the full sovereignty claimed by each Baptist congregation. They were free to hire any preacher they wanted—trained or untrained, fit or unfit—without regard to bishops or other church hierarchy. The Baptists had no such hierarchy at all, nor any educational requirements for the pulpit, and this fact had contributed mightily to the spread of the denomination among unlettered whites and Negroes alike. Anyone with lungs and a claim of faith could become a preacher. And as the ministry was the only white-collar trade open to Negroes during slavery—when it was a crime in all the Southern states to teach Negroes to read or allow them to engage in any business requiring the slightest literacy—preachers and would-be preachers competed fiercely for recognition. Religious oratory became the only safe marketable skill, and a reputation for oratory substituted for diplomas and all other credentials. For most of the next century, a man with a burning desire to be a saint might well find himself competing with another preacher intent only on making a fortune, as all roads converged at the Negro church. It served not only as a place of worship but also as a bulletin board to a people who owned no organs of communication, a credit union to those without banks, and even a kind of people’s court. These and a hundred extra functions further enhanced the importance of the minister, creating opportunities and pressures that forged what amounted to a new creature and caused the learned skeptic W. E. B. Du Bois to declare at the turn of the twentieth century that “the preacher is the most unique personality developed by the Negro on American soil.”
Not surprisingly, these powerful characters sorely tested the ability of congregations to exercise the authority guaranteed them in Baptist doctrine. As a rule, the preachers had no use for church democracy. They considered themselves called by God to the role of Moses, a combination of ruler and prophet, and they believed that the congregation behaved best when its members, like the children of Israel, obeyed as children. The board of deacons at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was one of the few to defend itself effectively against preachers who regularly tried to subdue the membership. Indeed, the board’s very identity seemed rooted in the conviction that the church’s quality lay as much in the membership as in the pastor. And because those same deacons also made it a tradition to choose the best trained, most ambitious ministers, titanic struggles after the fashion of those between European monarchs and nobles became almost a routine of church life at Dexter. Nearly a dozen preachers came and went in the first decade.
By contrast, the First Baptist Church (Colored) remained a “preacher’s church,” with only three pastors during its first fifty-seven years of existence. The exalted preachers tended to reign in a manner that provoked another mass exodus in 1910, not long after the church burned to the ground. The minister at that time, Andrew Stokes, was a great orator and organizer who had baptized an astonishing total of 1,100 new members during his first year in the pulpit. Stokes made First Baptist the largest Negro church in the United States until the great migration of 1917 created larger congregations in Chicago. He was also a money-maker. If white realtors had trouble selling a house, they often advanced Stokes the down payment, letting him keep his “refund” when white buyers mobilized to keep him out of their neighborhood. Stokes would joke with his deacons about the justice of making the whites pay for their prejudice, and he donated a portion of the proceeds to the church. This was fine, but a controversy erupted when Stokes proposed to rebuild the burned church a few hundred feet to the northeast on a corner lot that he owned and to take title to the parsonage in exchange for the property. Many irreparable wounds were inflicted in the debate that followed. Stokes went so far as to promise to make the new church entrance face Ripley Street, as the wealthier members had demanded more than thirty years earlier, but the unmollified elite among the deacons led a fresh secession down to Dexter Avenue Baptist.
It was said that Dexter actually discouraged new members, fearing that additions above the peak of seven hundred would reduce the quality of the whole, and several Dexter deacons predicted in public that Stokes would never be able to rebuild First Baptist without their money and influence. Undaunted, Stokes continued preaching to the impoverished masses who stayed with him, meeting outdoors when he could not borrow a church, and he laid down his law: those who were too poor to meet the demands of the building fund must bring one brick each day to the new site, whether that brick was bought, stolen, or unearthed from Civil War ruins. At the dedication ceremony five years later, Stokes led the great cry of thanks that went up for what became known as the “Brick-a-Day Church.”
Over the next thirty years, the friction between the two churches diminished to the point of religious, if not social, cooperation. Small meetings of important community leaders tended to take place at Dexter, larger meetings in the spacious sanctuary at First Baptist. The congregations and their contrasting traditions were remarkably stable. Officers at both churches tended to be grandchildren of those who had marched out of the white church in the first exodus, and children of those who had separated over issues of mud and class. Moreover, their personalities tended to reflect these differences. William Beasley, church secretary at First Baptist, was genial, strong, and outgoing, from a long line of working people. R. D. Nesbitt, church clerk at Dexter, was wiry and erect, an insurance executive of light tan skin, well dressed and professional, reserved with strangers and even some of his friends. A further difference between them was that Nesbitt and his pulpit committee were about to begin a run of hard luck that would stand out as an ordeal even in the contentious history of Dexter’s relations with its pastors.
In the late summer of 1945, Nesbitt traveled for the first and only time in his life to the annual meeting of the National Baptist Convention, its five million members making up the largest association of Negroes in the world. As always, the five-day meeting was an extravaganza unnoticed by whites except the hotel managers who appreciated the attendance records consistently set by upwards of fifteen thousand Negro preachers, choir members, and church officials. The conventioneers lost themselves in preaching, singing, and electioneering. Processions of singers in brightly colored robes filled great halls. The father of gospel music, Thomas Dorsey, often made a celebrity appearance to lead renditions of his own compositions, such as “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” Unemployed choir directors hustled jobs and old friends reunited along countless tables heaped with fried foods and delicacies. Amid the din, the inspiration, and the consumption, church pulpits were traded and filled.
That year Nesbitt went home with the name of a prestigious, highly trained candidate for the vacant pulpit at Dexter—a man further recommended to the church’s tastes by his attendance at no less than five colleges, and by the possession of four names, Alfred Charles Livingston Arbouin. Six months later, after Dexter’s usual painstaking selection process, Arbouin assumed his duties.
Among the deacons, worry spread privately but quickly when Reverend Arbouin arrived in Montgomery with a wife, whose existence had somehow escaped the background investigation. Matters worsened when inquiries turned up other Arbouin wives. When Arbouin took leave to attend the 1946 National Baptist Convention, the church slipped into the kind of nightmare that chills a deacon’s bones. In the minister’s absence, Mrs. Arbouin began so flagrant a friendship with a soldier from Maxwell Air Force Base that the deacons called her in for a private meeting even before Arbouin returned. Mrs. Arbouin interrupted their courtly, painfully ornate inquiry to administer a profound shock to the deacons—baring her bruised shoulders and legs, telling them that she was the victim of beatings in her own home, and declaring herself firmly unrepentant.
Confronted with a demand for his resignation, Reverend Arbouin refused and responded that his private affairs were his own business. He dared the deacons to take the sordid matter before the entire congregation, which he knew was the last thing they wanted. Arbouin, however, had not taken the measure of these deacons, who fought back with a lawsuit seeking his removal under a judicial order of secrecy. Not a word of the case reached the newspapers, Negro or white.
Raising a powerful defense, Arbouin claimed that the Constitutional separation of church and state barred the judge from entering an ecclesiastical argument, and that in any case the deacons had failed to obtain his dismissal by vote of the entire congregation, as required by Baptist practice. The deacons, for their part, used their connections to summon no less a personage than Rev. D. V. Jemison, president of the National Baptist Convention, to testify about proper procedures in such sensitive cases. When the closed trial was over, the decision rested with the white judge. No doubt impressed with Jemison, and swayed by the deacons’ lack of support for Arbouin, the judge ordered the Reverend to leave his pulpit by a certain date. Until then, he further ordered, R. D. Nesbitt and the four other deacons who had brought the suit were not to speak, sing, or even pray within the walls of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, on pain of having the entire order rescinded. Thus the deacons managed to save the church from their own misjudgment, and Arbouin managed to escape without public scandal. He went on to spend seventeen years as the pastor of a church in New York. Dexter’s official history noted that his “entire ministerial career [was] God-blessed.”
Nesbitt and the Dexter Avenue deacons waited nearly a year before seeking a new minister. Fortune fell to them when they did, in the form of a recommendation from a new music professor at Alabama State College—the Negro school that had been founded in Dexter’s basement and from whose faculty the church membership was largely drawn. Altona Trent Johns was a pianist and music teacher of some renown, daughter of a college president, member in good standing of the Atlanta Negro aristocracy from its early twentieth-century flourishing on “Sweet Auburn” Avenue, and, most important to Nesbitt, wife of one of the most brilliant scholar-preachers of the modern age, Vernon Johns. Negroes placed him in the foremost triumvirate of their preachers, along with Mordecai Johnson and Howard Thurman.
Through Mrs. Johns, Nesbitt invited the eminent preacher to deliver a trial sermon. The church was packed when the imposing figure of Vernon Johns rose to the pulpit, recited a long passage of Scripture without looking at the Bible, and then held the congregation spellbound for half an hour without a pause or benefit of notes. Dexter’s stolid deacons were accustomed to quality, but in Johns they recognized a mind of a higher order altogether. Upon learning that Johns wanted to join his wife in Montgomery, they suspended precedent for the first time in Nesbitt’s memory and offered Johns their pulpit without an investigation or a second trial sermon. Johns moved into the parsonage on South Jackson Street in October 1948. His behavior pitched the entire church into four years of awe, laughter, inspiration, fear, and annoyance. For Nesbitt, the responsible deacon, Johns became the most exquisite agony he had ever known in the church.
Vernon Johns was merely another invisible man to nearly all whites, but to the invisible people themselves he was the stuff of legend. The deepest mysteries of existence and race rubbed vigorously together within him, heating a brain that raced constantly until the day he died. His ancestry was a jumble of submerged edges and storybook extremes. During slavery, his father’s father was hanged for cutting his master in two with a scythe, and even eighty years later it was whispered in the Johns family that the hunting dogs would not approach the haunted spot where the murder had occurred.
Johns’s maternal grandfather was a white man named Price, of Scottish descent, who maintained two entirely separate families—one white, one Negro. This type of bi-patriarchy, though fairly widespread, was never publicly acknowledged in either culture. The Negro children handed down stories about how Price became one of the first inmates at the new Virginia State Penitentiary for killing another white man he caught trying to rape his slave mistress. He protected the mistress “just like she was a white woman.” For this he was admired by some Negroes, but he was by nature a mean, violent, complicated man. When his Negro wife died in the 1870s, he took all his Negro children into the other household to be raised by his childless white wife, “Miss Kitty.” Vernon Johns’s mother, Sallie Price, made this transfer as a little girl, and years later she told her family how the taboos had been respected against all opposing reality, even in the intimacy of the home. She never called her father “father,” for decency required the Negro children to be orphans and the white couple to be missionary dispensers of foster care. When Price died about 1900, Sallie Price Johns went to the funeral with her young son Vernon and her husband Willie, son of the hanged slave, and sat through the burial services in a separate-but-equal family section, just across the gravesite from Miss Kitty and the white relatives.
Willie Johns died not long afterward, and in due course Sallie Johns married her dead husband’s younger brother. So Vernon Johns finished his youth as the stepson of his uncle, and grandson of a slave who killed his master and of a master who killed for his slave. Only in the Bible did he find open discussion of such a tangle of sex, family, slavery, and violence.
Born in 1892, Vernon Johns grew up outside Farmville, in Prince Edward County, an area so remote that its inhabitants preserved a distinctive speech pattern from the early Scots who settled there. Outsiders found the accent faintly Elizabethan and the country correspondingly backward. It lay at the extreme northern boundary of the rich agricultural Black Belt, and Vernon Johns always clung to the belief that farming was the base line of independence and prosperity, even long after the twentieth-century marketplace had reduced his home region to something like a ghost of nearby Williamsburg.
Johns had a square head and jaw, flaring nostrils, a barrel chest, and huge hands that he joked were like Virginia hams. He looked like the farmer he was, except that he always wore scholarly horn-rimmed glasses. Poor eyesight caused him to vow as a youth that he would read the small print of the Bible only once. Usually he listened to others read out loud, and he first displayed extraordinary gifts by reciting from memory long passages he had heard only once or twice. In grammar school, scolded for erasing a blackboard filled with the week’s assignments, Johns reproduced every word from memory. He soon moved on to more substantial feats, memorizing long biblical passages, including the entire Book of Romans. This greatly pleased his father Willie, who left the farm on Sundays to earn extra money as a “saddlebags preacher.”
Like most Negro parents, Sallie Johns and her husbands invested what meager educational funds they had in their eldest daughter, keeping Vernon on the farm. There his gifts seemed to multiply in the process of self-education. He would recite poetry behind the plow and scrounge books to read at night. He used these skills and his gumption to talk his way into several schools, including the Virginia Seminary at Lynchburg. Tossed out for rebelliousness, he ran away from home to Oberlin College in Ohio, pushed his way into the dean’s office, and announced his readiness to begin classes. The dean replied, as politely as the erudite dean of a famous liberal white college could speak to a rude Negro youth during World War I, that Oberlin had already turned Johns down because of his worthless credits.
“I got your letter, Dean Fiske,” Johns replied. “But I want to know whether you want students with credits or students with brains.”
As both Fiske and Johns told it later, the dean rather impatiently handed Johns a book written in German and demanded that he read it—and was surprised when he did. He soon dispatched Johns to see Dr. Edward Increase Bosworth, the eminent dean of Oberlin Seminary. Bosworth tested Johns with a book of Greek scripture, and Johns smiled. In later years, he would discard his Latin and Hebrew on aesthetic grounds, but he would always collect histories and poems in his beloved Greek. By the end of the day, Bosworth was impressed enough to enroll Johns as a provisional student, and by the end of the term he had taken on the young phenomenon as his protégé—making him a full-fledged member of the graduate seminary and helping him find work as a part-time preacher to support himself. Within the year, Johns displaced Robert M. Hutchins as class leader in scholarship. Hutchins, a liberal Midwesterner in the abolitionist tradition, found himself pushed beyond the limits of tolerance, and he remarked that no country Negro could make the grades Johns was making without cheating. When Johns got word of the insult, he promptly sought out Hutchins on the campus, calle...

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