Pillar of Fire Essay - Critical Essays

Taylor Branch

Pillar of Fire

PILLAR OF FIRE is the second installment in Taylor Branch’s projected three-volume study of the Civil Rights movement, AMERICA IN THE KING YEARS. PARTING THE WATERS (1989) won the Pulitzer Prize, and this second volume continues the history in those crucial years when the Civil Rights movement began to influence public policy. The book covers the media events—like the presidential race of 1964 between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater—but also retells historical events readers will not remember as well: the demonstrations across the South against segregation, and the beatings and jailings of the people, black and white, who were doing so much to further the cause of civil rights in the United States. The March on Washington in August of 1963, with King’s ringing “I Have a Dream” speech, lives on in the national consciousness, but Branch reminds readers of equally important events, like the spring days of April and May of that year, when Alabama school children—some as young as six and seven—demonstrated against segregation in what Branch calls “the miracle of Birmingham.”

What emerges from Branch’s colorful history is not one but several narrative strands. Clearly, as he writes, “King’s life is the best and most important metaphor for American history in the watershed postwar years.” King is not the sole focus of PILLAR OF FIRE, however, and the book is filled with portraits of other civil rights workers who struggled to change the United States, who were beaten and jailed, and returned to march again. Branch jumps from one story to another—of the emerging Malcolm X, the struggles between J. Edgar Hoover and Robert F. Kennedy, the deepening quicksand of Vietnam—and readers can lose sight of the narrative thread easily. Still, this is a part of one of the most significant histories of the decade.

Sources for Further Study

Commonweal. CXXV, April 24, 1998, p. 22.

Dissent. XLV, Summer, 1998, p. 108.

The Economist. CCCXLVII, May 16, 1998, p. S8.

The Nation. CCLXVI, February 16, 1998, p. 25.

The New York Review of Books. XLV, April 9, 1998, p. 4.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, January 18, 1998, p. 12.

Newsweek. CXXXI, January 19, 1998, p. 62.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, December 22, 1997, p. 46.

Time. CLI, January 26, 1998, p. 72.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, January 25, 1998, p. 1.