Pillar of Fire

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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 for History, and this second volume in Branch’s trilogy continues the history in that tradition. Branch is a tireless researcher who has taken years to compile his work, but the results of his efforts are irreplaceable: narratives that portray the players and detail the issues in the social and political struggles that changed the face of America in the middle decades of the twentieth century.

Pillar of Fire deals with the crucial years of 1963 to 1965 when the Civil Rights movement coalesced, became a national force, and began to influence public policy. The book covers well-publicized history—such as the presidential race of 1964 between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater—but also retells less familiar events: 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. The March on Washington in August, 1963, with Martin Luther King’s ringing words in his “I Have a Dream” speech, lives on in the national consciousness, but Branch reminds readers of equally important events, such as the spring days of April and May of that year, when Alabama schoolchildren—some as young as six and seven—demonstrated against segregation in what Branch calls “the miracle of Birmingham.”

Branch’s narrative jumps from one location to another: from Birmingham, to St. Augustine, Florida, to Hattiesburg and Meridian and the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, to Washington, D.C., to Boston. He begins his book, in fact, not in the South but in a Muslim mosque in South Central Los Angeles—Muhammad’s Temple No. 27, where on April 27, 1962, police killed an unarmed black man, and thirteen Muslims were indicted for the ensuing riot. The case was important in part because Malcolm X emerged from it as an independent political figure, eventually to break away from Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. Yet Branch also uses the events around the Mosque murder to introduce two themes that will haunt this history: the story of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and its vast intelligence network, including the wiretaps on so many of the figures discussed in the book, and the wave of violence that would spill across the country in the next three years.

In the geographical checkerboard that becomes the background to the history in Pillar of Fire, Branch moves for chapter 2 from Los Angeles to Chicago and the January, 1963, Chicago Conference on Religion and Race, when Martin Luther King, Jr., and Abraham Heschel, the Hasidic scholar, joined forces, one of many such King alliances. Chapter 3 follows Vice President Lyndon Johnson to St. Augustine, Florida, for preparations for the four hundredth birthday celebration of the nation’s oldest city, a city that would see some of the fiercest resistance to desegregation in America in the next years. By the end of the book, readers have travelled the geographical mosaic of America and beyond, for the story of Birmingham and St. Augustine is also the story of Washington, even of Saigon, where the war in Vietnam was just getting started.

What emerges from Branch’s colorful history is not one but several narrative strands. Clearly, as he writes in his preface, “King’s life is the best and most important metaphor for American history in the watershed postwar years.” King is everywhere in this period, hopping between Atlanta and Washington and Selma, giving sermons and speeches, demonstrating with his other Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) leaders. He would go to jail more than once during this period (and write one of his most important pieces, “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” there). In 1964, he would travel to Oslo, Norway, to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded in recognition of the work he had undertaken to change the racial landscape of the United States.

As Branch makes clear, however, King rarely worked alone—and the forces arrayed against him were even larger. Thousands of others marched with King in the early 1960’s to improve the moral and political climate of the country....

(The entire section is 1786 words.)