I had put off picking up Taylor Branch’s three-volume biography of Martin Luther King for a long time — the length was just too daunting. But I finally started the first in the series, Parting the Waters, over the holidays and was absolutely bowled over by it. It’s comprehensive, but never slow and, of course, describes incredibly moving events. We can forget how much of the work of the civil-rights movement took place under physical threat. Indeed, if you were going to do a word cloud of Parting, the word “dynamite” would show up pretty prominently. When he was still in Montgomery at the time of the bus boycott, King had a bad feeling when he was sleeping at the parsonage one night, got out of bed, told his friend who was on night duty staying with him, “I think we better leave here tonight.” Hours later, a bomb exploded across the street and twelve sticks of dynamite were discovered on the front porch of the parsonage. On it goes, with brave people putting their bodies and lives on the line for justice in unbelievably trying circumstances (a couple of registrars themselves, in their offices, beat up people trying to register to vote). Branch has a wonderful account of MLK’s famous speech at the March on Washington. King called one of the great audibles of all time at the podium, skipping over this clunky line he had written near the end of his speech: “And so today, let us go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction.” Instead, he started to improvise and preach, and we know what happened next. JFK, listening to him for the first time, commented, “He’s damn good.” The same must be said of these books, an enduring contribution to American history.