March 1998

Branch’s brilliant look at King continues

By Taylor Branch
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The civil rights movement that began in the 1950s continued to grow in scope and intensity into the early 1960s. A series of non-violent protests in such places as Birmingham, St. Augustine, and Selma met with strong resistance but led to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That legislation was crucial, but it was only part of a long and bitter struggle for full equality for all of our citizens. Although various groups and leaders emerged during this period, the charismatic and eloquent Martin Luther King, Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference stood, out and, among other honors, received the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. In the outstanding second volume of his projected three volume narrative history of the civil rights movement, Pillar of Fire, Taylor Branch reminds us how divisive the issue was and how difficult the period. The first volume, Parting the Waters, which begins in 1954, received the Pulitzer Prize in 1989. A third volume, At Canaan's Edge, will follow. A project the author hoped to complete in one book over three years has now taken 15 years and two books.

Although King is the major figure in the book, Pillar of Fire is not a biography. Instead, Branch is interested in a broad overview of the move toward equal rights. This involves exploring the relationships between individuals and groups, the actions and reactions that led, in some cases, to good, and in others to suffering. He demonstrates that the movement was not monolithic and that often even King and his advisers could not agree on appropriate courses of action. We follow Malcolm X as he breaks from the Nation of Islam and develops his own approach to racial issues. Branch skillfully shows us the tense and often frustrating relationship between King and Robert and John Kennedy until the latter's death and later with Lyndon Johnson. And although the FBI was eventually able to solve some of the worst racial crimes of our time, the Bureau displayed strong animosity toward King and his objectives, and, unknown to him, had him under surveillance for a long period and taped many of his private conversations.

Branch relates the stories of brave and courageous individuals who were not public figures or government officials but put themselves at risk because they believed strongly in equal rights, and he conveys how powerful the resistance to change was and how violent. He relates such incidents as the Birmingham church bombing that killed four girls, and the murder of Medgar Evers. He discusses the Mississippi Summer program in 1964 that brought many students to a part of the country they had never seen before. He details the events leading up to and following the deaths that year of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.

The author's meticulous accumulation of detail upon detail helps us to gain a greater appreciation for what King, as a political as well as spiritual strategist, with the help of many others, accomplished. I was led to reflect on what the late Alex Haley told me in a BookPage interview in 1988. Haley, who collaborated with Malcolm X on his autobiography also conducted what is considered to be one of the most incisive interviews that King ever gave. Haley told me: "The thing that has always intrigued me about Dr. King and Malcolm was how easily either of them might have been the other . . . Dr. King would have made a tremendous hustler. And Malcolm would have made a tremendous theologian. Both of them were great powers in their own way. And so to me always the intrigue has been the two men are a case of Ôbut for the grace of God . . . ' And as a matter of fact, not enough recognition is given to the fact that Malcolm was most helpful to Dr. King. The way Malcolm . . . scared people. And what it did was shake people enough so that when Dr. King came along, speaking of turning the other cheek and the Gandhi principles, he was a lot less threatening . . ." Branch's magnificent work is a must for anyone who wants to understand a turbulent time that helped change the attitudes and practices of this country.

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