All King’s Men

Taylor Branch’s civil-rights epic is more than a mere biography.

Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-64

By Taylor Branch

Simon & Schuster; 746 pages; $30

Shortly after he won the Pulitzer Prize for Parting the Waters (1988), which chronicled the first decade of the civil-rights movement, author Taylor Branch told a reporter that he would probably complete his second and final volume by the fall of 1990, “when the money runs out.” Eight years and 746 pages later, he has, in Pillar of Fire, covered roughly 26 months, from the beginning of 1963 through early 1965. A third volume is promised. Branch, who now knows better, hasn’t predicted when it will be done.

Pillar of Fire’s sprawl doesn’t come from the kind of notebook-emptying self-indulgence that often clogs up journalistic histories. Rather, the book’s breadth reflects Branch’s enthusiasm for his subject and his appreciation of its epic dimensions. The years he covers here were the high-water years for the movement. There were previously unthinkable triumphs: protests at Birmingham and Selma, Ala., that helped topple Jim Crow; a quarter-million Americans gathering in Washington to demand racial equality; black activists and Northern white volunteers registering hordes of black voters; a civil-rights act outlawing racial discrimination, passed despite a three-month Senate filibuster.

And yet, there were also appalling setbacks: NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers was assassinated. Freedom Summer volunteers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner were murdered. The Democratic Party spurned Mississippi’s “Freedom Party” delegation, seating a bloc of segregationist whites instead. Fissures widened within and among the leading civil-rights groups, in some cases irreparably.

A magisterial storyteller, Branch ranges confidently over these peaks and valleys, but he also stops along the way to explore a slew of seemingly less significant tales. The great strength of this book is the way Branch zooms in on the dozens of local skirmishes, from Greenwood, Miss., to St. Augustine, Fla., through which the movement’s shock troops waged their nonviolent campaigns. He returns again and again to these chosen locales, lingering over them, patiently narrating their miniature dramas: a march by schoolchildren to get library cards, a black man’s fatal decision to attend a white theater. At breaks in the action, he will inconspicuously cut away to the White House, or the Supreme Court, or Martin Luther King’s plane. But though he amply covers the higher-stakes political events, he never allows them to eclipse his larger story: farmers and teachers, sharecroppers and dentists, prying their freedom loose from the grip of segregationist whites–and in so doing stripping away the racist restrictions that had always made the achievements of American democracy ring hollow.

Branch’s most powerful scenes are his unflinching descriptions of the horrors endured by hundreds of activists, from the “medieval privations of Mississippi’s Parchman Penitentiary,” to barbaric beatings by St. Augustine Klansmen, to the arson and murder committed by Hattiesburg, Miss., vigilantes. When TV cameras covered events like these, the nation was riveted, but often these individual sacrifices went unnoticed by reporters swooning over King. At one point in his account of the Mississippi Freedom Summer voter-registration drive, Branch describes the release from a Greenwood jail of 111 protesters on the same day King arrived in town.

Foul-smelling and haggard from a six-day hunger strike, … some of them briefly mistook the commotion downtown as a welcoming ceremony for them. Unfamiliar reporters prowled with clipboards and camera equipment, wrote volunteer Sally Belfrage, who noted that “for Negroes there hardly seemed to be anyone who wasn’t rushing around looking for King, cooking for King, talking of King as if they couldn’t find him, and thinking of him as if there was no one to talk to.”

Branch does place King at the center of his history, but Pillar of Fire is far too broad to be labeled a biography of one man. Nor is King here the mythic figure who has become our only undisputed contemporary hero. Branch restores to the man his human dimensions.

That King was fallible was almost forgotten in the mad rush to immortalize him during his own lifetime. In 1963, Time named him Man of the Year, praising his leadership in the Birmingham desegregation protests that made him “the unchallenged voice of the Negro people–and the disquieting conscience of the whites.” The next year, he won the Nobel Peace Prize. But King’s prominence turned out to be a mixed blessing. Whipsawed between the need, on the one hand, to preserve good relations with the White House as it cautiously pushed the landmark civil-rights bill and, on the other, to placate the fiery young activists of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, King “clung to methods suited to his stature as a prince of the Negro church.” He backed away from protests (such as a “stall-in” at the New York World’s Fair) as often as he led them. He frequently emerges from Branch’s narrative as indecisive, feckless, even weak. At one point he states that his own leadership was “standing still, doing nothing, going nowhere.”

Unknown to the public, King was also hemmed in by blackmail threats from the FBI. J. Edgar Hoover despised King, whom he genuinely believed to be a Communist and further resented for assailing the bureau’s sometimes laggard enforcement of justice in the lawless South. Hoover’s agents received special commendations for such petty deeds as getting Marquette University to withdraw an honorary doctorate it had planned to award King. Worse, the bureau tapped King’s phones and shadowed his every move, hunting for any damaging secrets.

On Jan. 6, 1964, FBI men installed microphones in King’s Washington, D.C., hotel room and turned on the tape recorder. According to officials who heard the tapes, King that night betrayed his wife, Coretta–not for the first or the last time–shouting, amid his most private activities, “I’m fucking for God!” and “I’m not a Negro tonight!” Later that year, agents anonymously shipped King “a ‘highlight’ recording of bugged sex groans and party jokes” along with a letter warning him: “You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.” They called it the “suicide package.”

While King vacillated, Malcolm X seized the nation’s attention with his calls for retribution, tempting blacks weary of King’s nonviolence and sending whites into a panic. Throughout Pillar of Fire, Malcolm upstages Martin. King’s speeches may seem like part of the American political canon now, but in the despair of the early ‘60s, they could appear toothless next to Malcolm’s rhetorical daggers. “Anyone can sit,” the angry Muslim preacher sneered, belittling the transformative techniques of the protesters for desegregation. “An old woman can sit. A coward can sit. … It takes a man to stand.” When Malcolm, rejoicing over a plane crash that killed 120 white Atlantans, chalked the disaster up to “our God” and hoped that “every day another plane falls out of the sky,” King could only reply, feebly, “I would certainly disagree with him.” Privately, too, King brooded over Malcolm’s jibes about “my being soft and … my being a sort of polished Uncle Tom.”

Branch interprets the Malcolm-Martin choice not, as the press did, as a simple contrast between violence and gentleness, but as a contest between democracy and its critics. Branch’s King is a theologian for the American way. In King’s letter from the Birmingham jail, where he languished for a week in April 1963, he “pulled up hope in paired phrases of secular and religious faith,” repeatedly invoking “constitutional and God-given rights” in a “characteristically American … notion of divine sanction for democratic values.”

Where King invoked America’s promise, Malcolm underscored its betrayal. “It was people who advocate democracy who sold us like cotton and cows from one plantation to another,” he told a gasping crowd at New York’s City College. “It was people who advocate democracy who had black people lynched from one end of this country to another. … All the hell our people have ever caught in this country, they have caught in the name of democracy.” As Branch notes, “King and the movement’s established leaders sounded ponderous against Malcolm’s avenging swagger.” And yet, for the wider public, black and white, Malcolm was also a helpful foil to King, whose munificence looked noble and whose radicalism looked moderate in contrast.

But Pillar of Fire isn’t a study of two charismatic leaders any more than it is a biography. Its lasting impression is of a portrait gallery of inspiring individuals, King just one among many. I think, for example, of 15-year-old June Johnson, who joined Bob Moses and his “troublemakers” (as her mother called them) in an excursion to Selma, only to wind up beaten by authorities in a Winona, Miss., jail. People such as Johnson never imagined that history would remember them. But quietly, compellingly, Branch shows how they forced America to rethink what it means to be a democracy, achieving with their deeds what King so brilliantly articulated with his words.