History Forged by 'Little People'

Taylor Branch's saga of America's race struggle in the King years


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."

At bottom, however, the story is the struggle to crack an entrenched "way of life," as supporters of segregation called it. Resistance was deep and broad. President Johnson told aide Bill Moyers after signing the Civil Rights Bill that he handed the South to the GOP "for my lifetime and yours." The FBI worried more about capturing King's adultery on tape than exploring death threats against him.

At one point, with King in jail in a Florida town, US Sen. Smathers won't get him out, reasoning that to break Jim Crow laws, even if they aren't just, "harms the image of America." In Alabama, after numerous killings of blacks aren't investigated, Gov. George Wallace screams when King once uses a Justice Department car when his vehicle breaks down, leading King to note the absurdity when car rides are treated like murder and murders like car rides.

Civil rights activists respond with a degree of discipline and courage that belies recent attempts to paint them as loud, unwashed rabble. But Branch does shine a strong light on those in the movement who prefer limelight to the unglamorous work of organizing.

Branch is equally good in many directions, from vignettes and atmospheric details to explorations of underlying causes to straight reporting on power politics. He recounts a moment when a Northern volunteer sacks out in a black shanty and wakes to the morning prayers of the woman who hosts him, "Oh let things go well today, Jesus. Oh, make them see, Jesus."

Branch finds the national press treating civil rights not as moral claims of blacks for justice, but as a competition that makes for interesting reading: Whose winning, King or segregation?

King's letters rely heavily on a religious view of "justice among equal souls" that calls upon whites' conscience. He gets little help from the GOP in 1964, when only 14 of more than 1,000 delegates to the San Francisco Cow Palace presidential convention are black. Since blacks walked out of the 1960 Democratic convention over segregation, the GOP could have made overtures; instead, the Goldwater nomination with its nod to the radical wing of the party, shut the door on blacks. Goldwater says no to Dixiecrat George Wallace who offers himself in exchange for a place on the ticket.

"Pillar" is best read as a follow-on to "Parting the Waters." That volume clarifies the role of black ministers as a natural aristocracy in black culture, King's own heritage as the son of a powerful Atlanta preacher, and the enormous preparation in black thought for what eventually became the Montgomery bus boycott. "Branch" does not try to reconstruct this context; he tells a story that is more complex and quick. But at times it is hard to know which details and themes are most significant, due to the sheer amount of rich material.

But this is quibbling. This book illuminates the inner workings of a cause that defined in our era where the US would go on a question it once fought a civil war over. But the question is still on the table.

* Robert Marquand, a staff writer, covers the US Supreme Court.

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