The King Years

The King Years by Taylor Branch

News from Simon & Schuster.


In Taylor Branch’s latest book, The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement (Simon & Schuster), Branch has identified eighteen essential moments from the Civil Rights Movement, and providing selections from his trilogy, has placed each moment in historical context with a newly written introduction.  The captivating result is a slender but comprehensive view of America in the turbulent, transformative 1960s, by our nation’s foremost authoritative voice on the subject.

Branch looks back on his own work with fresh insight about what lessons and challenges remain most salient today.  This compact book conveys the full sweep of an era, showing how a small bus boycott evolved into the signature freedom movement of the 20th century, generating worldwide inspiration and sustained progress toward equal citizenship in areas far beyond racial discrimination.

Hear an audio excerpt from the book’s introduction (click orange play button in the top left).

The King Years is meant for general readers, but Branch designed it also as a teaching tool for the digital age.  Starting in January 2013, from his home town, he will make this book the centerpiece for an experimental on-line seminar offered by the University of Baltimore.  New, interactive technology promises an unmatched course on democratic leadership for a potentially worldwide audience.  With this unique, handy addition to the literature on civil rights, readers can equip themselves for an uncertain future by absorbing hope from our resilient past.

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The eighteen chapters include well-known, dramatic events such as the March on Washington, and major clashes over the Vietnam War, along with up-close views of iconic figures such as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the Kennedy brothers, and President Lyndon Johnson.  Branch also features underappreciated characters such as Diane Nash and the mystical student leader Bob Moses, and he illuminates small but significant turning points in history.  His chapter on voting rights, for instance, focuses neither on Selma’s famous Bloody Sunday assault nor the triumphant march into Montgomery.  Instead, Branch takes readers inside the aborted “turnaround” march in between, when a divided nonviolent movement faced maximum pressure from every level of government.  At a crossroads, Martin Luther King made uncertain choices amid fierce internal conflict.  Were political threats or promises real?  Was the hope of federal legislation more important than the cohesion of a battered citizens’ protest?  How does one find the true path between prudence and bravado, hope and fear, cooperation and self-reliance?

Branch argues that these upheavals remain crucial for anyone who wishes to understand our divided political climate. In September 1963, network television doubled nightly coverage from only 15 to 30 minutes, sending into millions of homes extra images of ugly violence against a previously invisible black culture. Television showcased primal reactions for and against its projected new world.  Governor Ross Barnett of Mississippi appeared on an NBC News Special to accuse the media of a biased racial agenda, asserting that “the real goal of the conspiracy is the concentration of all effective power in the central government in Washington” (page 72).

A year later, final passage of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act coincided with two historic U-turns at the presidential nominating conventions.  Chapter Ten reveals President Lyndon Johnson privately in anguish, on the verge of breakdown as he turned Democrats away from their century-old base in solid-South segregation, while the Republican candidate, Senator Barry Goldwater, turned the Party of Lincoln against its emancipator’s tradition by voting against the civil rights bill.  “The 1964 election marked an unprecedented shift in the structure of national politics,” writes Branch.  “A partisan reversal would take hold over decades, driven and yet muffled by race, tainting the word ‘liberal’ in both parties” (page 90).

Other chapters mention wrenching changes from the era that have become taken for granted and largely unnoticed.  The Supreme Court struck down criminal laws that restricted marriage by race.  The Immigration Reform Act of 1965 opened naturalized U.S. citizenship to areas of the globe that had been excluded.  Once desegregated, a new Sun Belt prosperity rose in southern states that had been stigmatized and poor.  Women entered Ivy League colleges, military academies, new professions, and much of the clergy.  To cover urban areas sealed off in a riot, the Los Angeles Times hired its first Negro reporter in 1965.  Prisons turned darker and far more crowded.  Nonviolence, the most powerful doctrine of the early civil rights movement, receded from public discourse.  Cultural experts detected a broad de-glamorization of the word “city.”  Negroes became black people, then African-Americans, prominent in the arts and exceptional in high places.

Throughout the book, Branch communicates this watershed history in personal stories.  Profound debates move from church kitchens to the White House.  Ordinary citizens risk their lives for equal treatment, and people contend over many styles of leadership.  Through dramatic narrative, readers experience suffering that tested the basic premise of self-government.  They also feel the perseverance and discovery that enlarged historic movements to refine democratic freedom.

The King Yearsis being published in hardcover, ebook, and enhanced ebook editions. The enhanced ebook showcases additional videos and music throughout the text, making it a rich multi-media learning experience. Such resources include film of Walter Cronkite interviewing President Kennedy, King discussing his early plans for sustained demonstrations in Birmingham, b-roll of sit-in demonstrations, and tracks of Freedom songs.


A special note from the author to educators and all of us still learning:

“For nearly twenty-five years,” says Taylor Branch, “since publication of Parting the Waters, teachers have pressed upon me their need for more accessible ways to immerse students in stories of authentic detail and import.  Against my published habits, which are hardly succinct, the goal here is to accommodate them and others by careful choice.”

“This single-volume project has been a daunting but exhilarating challenge,” Branch adds. “American history teachers are embattled, partly because the United States has decided to evaluate schools by test scores limited to reading and math.  By downgrading the history of our distinctive national experiment, we would leave future generations less prepared to understand and exercise their vital responsibility as free citizens.”

Branch continues, “For all readers, I believe, lessons from the civil rights era apply not to bygone forms of racial segregation but most urgently to a troubled future.  Drawn from the core of our national purpose, they show how ordinary people can work miracles against intractable burdens to advance both freedom and the common good.”


Taylor Branch is the bestselling author of Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63; Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65; At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968; and The Clinton Tapes. He has won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He lives in Baltimore.


Title: The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement
Author: Taylor Branch
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: January 2, 2013
Hardcover ISBN: 9781451678970; Hardcover price: $26.00
eBook ISBN: 9781451662474
Enhanced eBook ISBN: 9781451697346
Book clubs: Book-of-the-Month Club Alternate, History Book Club Alternate, Literary Guild Alternate, and Quality Paperback Club Alternate