History Forged by 'Little People'
Taylor Branch's saga of America's race struggle in the King years
PILLAR OF FIRE: AMERICA IN THE KING YEARSSkip to next paragraph
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By Taylor Branch
Simon and Schuster
613 pp., $30
Civil rights was the most significant US movement in an era packed with significance - from the Apollo missions to Vietnam. Spanning the 1954 Brown Supreme Court decision to the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, the fight against racial laws in the South forced America to back its ideals of equal justice. As such, the story has meaning as a collective biography for Americans today (one sadly neglected and distorted). But it is also humanity's story - an inspiration for movements like the dissent that toppled the Berlin Wall or the Tiananmen Square protest for democracy in China.
As this second volume of Taylor Branch's epic history makes clear, the main actors in civil rights were not politicians or generals. Rather it was itinerant black clergy, idealistic students, nameless housewives, community organizers - "little people" - who brought governors and presidents to the table to end segregation, and the reign of terror that enforced it.
Branch's first volume, "Parting the Waters," covers the years 1954 - 1963 and won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1989 for its breathtaking scope and for revealing black Christianity as the real wellspring of civil rights. "Pillar of Fire" is a relentless and majesterial tour through the interconnected dramas of 1963 to 1965, when history accelerates rapidly. A planned third volume, "At Canaan's Edge," will tell the story through 1968.
At the center of it all is Dr. King, whose life, Branch argues convincingly, is "the most important metaphor" for America in those watershed years. King is no longer an unseasoned rookie minister here. He is less impressed with official power (despairing over President Kennedy's inaction) but stays with a message of building bridges and loving one's enemies. Yet when police brutality seems ignored by white liberals he can blurt: "Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will."
King's persona so bothers imperial FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover that he sends 15 agents to wiretap King from coast to coast as one who "takes guidance from communists." Hoover lost interest in that false tack. Ironically, after 60 days of eavesdropping, the wiretap crew feels King is "the most significant American orator of the century." But they don't tell Hoover who tried to demonize King at every turn.
Branch tracks the internecine politics between civil rights groups, the White House and FBI, and local officials. The "action" shifts adroitly between narratives: St. Augustine, Fla., and Selma, Ala., protests and the deaths of four black girls in Birmingham (aka "Bombingham"); the historic civil rights bill engineered by President Lyndon Johnson; the Mississippi Freedom Summer; the rise of Black Muslim politics and demise of Malcolm X.
Each narrative strand operates as a "book within a book" - a carefully researched and readable story line using primary sources and interviews that makes "Pillar of Fire," an instant "standard history."