MAXWELL:  In King’s time

1/11/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

 

PILLAR OF FIRE

America in the King Years, 1963-65

By Taylor Branch

Reviewed by BILL MAXWELL

To have been an active participant in the making of history is an honor. I was honored to have played a small role in some of the events chronicled in Taylor Branch’s new book, Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65.

And I am honored today to review this volume, the second in a projected trilogy that recounts the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., his singular impact on American history, the many forces that shaped him personally and ideologically and the seldom-discussed infighting that threatened to derail the civil rights movement at its zenith. The first volume, Parting the Waters, outlined the King years from 1954 to 1963 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1989.

As a student at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, from 1963 to 1965, I traveled with other students to towns in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida as part of a dangerous effort to register black voters. Violence and confusion stalked our lives day and night, and we encountered dozens of civil rights organizers who, at the time, appeared to be the epitome of courage and righteousness.

Only now, however, after reading Pillar of Fire, can I appreciate the rich texture and interlocking pattern of events that I was part of, events that would change the nation forever.

My schoolmates and I, like hundreds of other college students nationwide, had no way of knowing, for example, that as we piled into our VW bugs, police officers and Black Muslims in South Central Los Angeles were firing shots at one another.

Although the events in L.A. were nearly 1,000 miles away, they were to become part of the gathering movement that would span the nation and affect everyone, especially King and the efficacy of his efforts in Birmingham, Ala., and other segregated hot spots and in his talks with the country’s most powerful political leaders and clergy of all races and denominations.

Branch skillfully traces King’s early attempts to establish the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as a viable organization that would bring not only Christian principles to the movement but also a non-violent core that would keep the struggle for racial equality on the moral high ground.

Branch shows King’s fight against a backdrop that includes President John F. Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon Johnson (later, President Johnson), Attorney General Robert Kennedy and, of course, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Readers will enjoy overhearing the cast of not-so-well-known players who helped to make possible the most important movement in recent American history, people such as Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who became one of King’s most important confidants, and Diane Nash Bevel, Fannie Lou Hammer and Robert Moses.

Some of the most interesting reading involves the tumultuous battles among King, Malcolm X, Adam Clayton Powell, Elijah Muhammad, the cautious leaders of NAACP and the young, brash stalwarts of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Branch demonstrates how the actions of these leaders intersected the lives of hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens, blacks and whites, who risked everything to join freedom rides, voter registration campaigns, sit-ins, marches and rallies that invited the wrath of law enforcement officers, Klansmen and FBI agents who often turned the other way when black protesters and their white supporters were brutalized.

The book’s narrative style makes the complicated chain of events accessible to the ordinary reader, while at the same time offering the scholar the benefit of 15 years of research that includes archival investigation, new primary sources, newspaper accounts, memoirs, legal testimony and nearly 2,000 personal interviews. Some of the most startling new material comes from FBI wiretaps and White House telephone recordings.

“My purpose is to write a history of the civil rights movement out of the conviction from which it was made, namely that truth requires a maximum effort to see through the eyes of strangers, foreigners, and enemies,” Branch writes. “I hope to sustain my thesis that King’s life is the best and most important metaphor for American history in the watershed postwar years.”

Indeed, King’s life is a powerful metaphor, one that captures the ambivalence, chaos, betrayals and loyalties that framed the early 1960s. King is shown as a vulnerable man, tormented by FBI surveillance of his philandering; Robert Kennedy is shown giving Hoover permission to bug King’s telephones, a move that would weaken Kennedy’s entire department; Malcolm X emerges as a faithful Muslim coming to grips with the terrible realization that his mentor, Elijah Muhammad, has impregnated several secretaries; King himself is overhead telling a tasteless, obscene joke during JFK’s funeral.

Why does King tell the joke? Because he had been offended by Kennedy’s half-hearted advocacy of civil rights.

Branch’s thoroughness is admirable. Everyone in the book is shown as being human, and no one is dismissed as a minor player. For Branch, all people, including naive college students doing good and rabid bigots wanting to kill blacks, who contributed to the convergence of events that would unfold during the rest of the 1960s are important historical figures in a movement that, ironically, earned King the Nobel Peace Prize for fighting for equal justice in the United States _ “the land of the free,” where the concept of equal justice underpins our most important documents.

Finally, Pillar of Fire, a history of symbiosis and epiphany, records King’s vision and the disparate moral currents that unwittingly forced America to redefine itself in light of its failure to live up to its own principles of freedom.

Branch has begun work on the last volume of the trilogy, titled At Cannan’s Edge. This title is apropos for a book about King’s last days because, like the Hebrew leader Moses, who saw the Promised Land, Cannan, and never reached it, King was gunned down in Memphis, Tenn., before seeing the movement that he helped to initiate come to fruition.

Bill Maxwell is a Times staff writer.