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The Boston Phoenix Story of Our Lives

Taylor Branch crafts a monumental yet intimate history of the civil rights movement's climactic years.

By James Surowiecki

FEBRUARY 9, 1998: 

PILLAR OF FIRE: AMERICA IN THE KING YEARS, 1963-65, by Taylor Branch. Simon & Schuster, 746 pages, $30.

Narratively dazzling and emotionally wrenching, Taylor Branch's Pillar of Fire gives us a civil rights movement that is at once familiar and curiously new. What Branch has done with this book is altogether more ambitious than his project in Parting the Waters, the first volume of his planned trilogy about "America in the King years." Parting the Waters, which covered the period from the 1954 Montgomery bus boycott to the demonstrations at Birmingham in the spring of 1963, focused tightly on Martin Luther King and his allies and opponents within the civil rights movement. Though it sprawled over more than 900 pages of text, and though it offered telling glimpses into the backroom machinations of the Kennedy White House and of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, the book never strayed very far from Branch's vividly rendered narrative of the early struggles against Southern segregation. In Pillar of Fire, Branch instead approaches King in an almost oblique fashion, telling the story of the civil rights movement in the years 1963-1965 by telling many different stories that are only loosely intertwined. The result is a book that feels somehow less epic than Parting the Waters and yet at the same time is more illuminating.

A great deal of what Branch relates is well known to students of the period -- the agonizing decision to let children face police dogs and jail in Birmingham, the seemingly hopeless efforts of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to register voters in the backwoods of Mississippi, the effort to find the killers of the three civil rights activists murdered during the summer of 1964, and the struggle to pass the Civil Rights Act that same year. Branch tells these stories as vivid set pieces in the middle of the broader narrative. Much of the ground he covers, though, is less familiar. He devotes a considerable portion of the book to Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, showing how Malcolm's gradual move away from Elijah Muhammad and the political quietism of the Black Muslims was informed by and helped influence the mainstream civil rights movement. Branch pays special attention to the fight against segregation in St. Augustine, Florida, and in so doing shows how that fight continued on a grassroots level even in the absence of television cameras or the presence of major civil rights leaders. And he gives us a deeply affecting portrait of Bob Moses, the saintly SNCC leader who, perhaps more than anyone else in the movement, turned principle into action.

These stories all twist, in a sense, around the book's backbone, which is the tortured relationship between King and the federal government -- a relationship made all the more complicated by the fact that one part of that government (the FBI) took its mission to be the destruction of King, while another part (the White House) was more interested in domesticating him. Branch brings to his work a powerful sense of the weight of institutional power, and of the way in which a general hostility to change on the part of those within the Beltway worked against King in Washington. Pillar of Fire is a politically sophisticated book. It's keenly attuned to the constant balancing act Lyndon Johnson performed between the civil rights activists who demanded greater federal support for desegregation and the Southern politicians whom Johnson needed to back his wider poverty-fighting agenda. And it shows brilliantly how the reality of federalism -- with its delegation of authority over crime, voting, and education to the individual states -- made the legal struggle against state-sanctioned discrimination remarkably difficult to pursue.

Even more striking is the way Branch juxtaposes the battle in Washington over civil rights with the onset of US intervention in Vietnam, and with the Cold War more generally. Books like Pillar of Fire often include crude attempts to situate events in a broader historical context: "Eisenhower was in the White House. Elvis had just released his first single. And the Guatemalan government . . . " But here Branch gives us something very different, simply by reminding us that Vietnam and the civil rights movement did not occur in two distinct realms: each inescapably affected the other. Ngo Dinh Diem deposed in a US-sponsored coup while black Mississippians held their first-ever Freedom Vote; Vietnamese forces attacking US vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin while the bodies of the murdered civil rights workers were found; and the first US ground troops landing in Vietnam as Malcolm X was murdered: in pairing these events off with each other, Branch makes a powerful -- if implicit -- argument that you cannot understand how the US handled civil rights without understanding what it was dealing with in Southeast Asia.

For all its narrative verve, though, the book would have been sharper if Branch's conclusions were more clearly articulated, and if his stories were not so often open-ended. Certainly a strictly narrative approach has its virtues, but the issues Branch is dealing with here are so complicated and, in many respects, so confusing that a stronger authorial presence would have been welcome. Take just one example: the decision by the Justice Department to encourage Bob Moses and SNCC to work on registering black voters in the South rather than on desegregating restaurants and bus stations. On the surface, this seems like a plausible choice by the Justice Department, which wanted to encourage change that didn't involve public demonstrations or civil disobedience. In retrospect, though, it seems very odd that anyone in Washington would have thought voter registration, which struck at the heart of Southern white supremacy, would have been easier or less disruptive than desegregation. For people supposedly attentive to the realities of power, the Justice Department lawyers look either profoundly naive or deeply cynical. And it would be useful for Branch to tell us which he thinks they were, and for him to explain exactly how a decision like this one fit into the broader political and cultural context of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Too often, though, he forgoes explicit analysis in favor of giving us all sides, without ever really taking any of them.

If that's frustrating, it's probably because the issues that Pillar of Fire raises are still so much with us. The years Branch covers in this book indelibly stamped the three decades that followed. The successes of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act made America a far more racially just country. The halfhearted coddling of white Southern Democrats by the Democratic Party destroyed the civil rights movement's faith in electoral politics and contributed to the further racialization of American political discourse. And the diversion of energy into the Vietnam War -- by both its supporters and its opponents -- eroded the potential for dramatic political change at home. In no small part, despite the intervening 30 years, what we are now is the result of what the civil rights leaders (and their adversaries) were then. In Pillar of Fire, Branch makes that more clear than ever.

James Surowiecki writes for the Motley Fool and Slate, and is a regular contributor to the PLS.

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