Taylor Branch, “Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-1965” (1998) – This is the second in a big bow-wow flagship popular-history trilogy about the civil rights movement, written by journalist Taylor Branch and published between 1988 and 2006. When I say something is “bow-wow flagship popular-history” I mean big, long, meaty, usually political histories and biographies, the kind that really sailed into market in the period Branch was writing. Stuff you get for your uncle who’s into history, in a more serious vein than the History Channel but not a PhD.
I’m an uncle (and pleased as punch to be one) who is into history, but also a PhD- split the difference! Sometimes historians make impassioned cries for more narrative in works of history. Cultural and social history, focused as they are on trends and groups more than individuals, neglect narrative flow, they say. Well, split the difference there, too, I guess- I do think that historians, especially cultural, social, and intellectual historians, could use to be better writers and pay more attention to craft. That’s not the same as saying they should follow novelistic narrative conventions which wouldn’t suit their historiographical projects. Also, there’s narrative literature other than the Victorian triple-decker and realist novels historians seem to have in mind when they talk about narrative…
Anyway! I thought this was pretty good. Being who I am, I inevitably compare the middle of any trilogy to “The Empire Strikes Back.” This is kind of the opposite, as “Pillar of Fire” depicts what is arguably the high water mark of the civil rights movement in the US. The nonviolent movement wins over segregation in Birmingham, despite losing four children to a bomb in a church basement. Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act. He’s challenged for the presidency by Barry Goldwater, who opens an aperture — opposed to civil rights, but on notionally color-blind grounds — that the liberal establishment can convince itself shuts for good after Johnson annihilates Goldwater in the election. King wins the Nobel Peace Prize, a massive recognition of his international legitimacy, even as he’s despised by millions at home.
But all is not well. Branch has a lot of balls in the air, and most of them spell trouble. He does not begin the book with King, but with followers of the Nation of Islam, black people who oppose much of what King stands for. We read a lot about King’s supposed opposite number, Malcolm X, and his struggles within and eventually against the Nation after he gets expelled for outing Elijah Muhammad’s infidelities and perversions of Islam. The line that “whites would talk to Martin because they didn’t want to talk to Malcolm” is way too simple to take very seriously, but they did exist in a complicated dialectic, one cut off by Malcolm’s murder towards the end of the time covered by this book.
Other balls Branch keeps in the air include the alphabet soup of civil rights group — SCLC, NAACP, SNCC, CORE — and their wrangling over their respective visions. All of them respect King, none of them agree with him entirely, and between the perils of the movement and the liabilities of success, cracks are starting to show. We see a lot from the perspective of the Johnson White House. After the previous volume covered the Kennedy administration extensively, you get an interesting tonal shift. There’s a lot less of the Kennedy-style image-management. Say what you want against Johnson — and there’s plenty to say — but he was a lot more sincere, both about helping people and just in general — than JFK or most people in JFK’s circle. Sadly, that included his commitment to the “Cold War” part of “Cold War liberalism,” and we follow the war in Vietnam as it escalates.
All of these things come together to help doom King’s project, which is presumably what the last part of the book is about. Even his signal successes — the end of formal segregation — turn against his larger project, as they allow cynical whites to claim that racism is over, the project is done. King and the rest of the people who made up the civil rights movement certainly didn’t think that (pace certain cynical leftists, black and white, who paint integration as the goal of sickly lovers of whiteness). Branch isn’t shy about King’s failings, and discusses his serial on-the-road infidelities, though mostly as they affect the movement. Revelations about these activities formed the core of the package the FBI sent to King in an effort to get King to kill himself. If there’s one guy you could remove from American history, there’s a strong argument to be made for J. Edgar Hoover… arguably, Branch puts too many chips on King. He doesn’t do so in narrative terms, but whether or not people — Malcolm, Stokely Carmichael, NAACP, whoever — grasp (read: agree with) King’s nonviolent vision becomes a measure of their seriousness about black freedom, and that doesn’t scan.
But above all, this is a movement history, and a well done one. I knew about the Vietnam stuff and a certain amount of the difficulties in SNCC from prior reading, but what will stick with me is the roll call of honor, battles won and lost by the movement: Birmingham, Alabama; Albany, Georgia; St. Augustine, Florida; Neshoba County, Mississippi; Selma, Alabama, on and on, while everyone from Malcolm and King on down knew that worse tests would come when they would have to take their fight north, to the de jure racism that governed the lives of the children of the great migration. Branch conveys the wild hope and the sheer terror of defying generations of racist power. I was struck by the demonic adaptability of the southern power structure, marshaling everything from Klan murderers to sophisticated PR-management to get their way. I was also struck by the sheer humanity of the civil rights organizers, their internal stresses, burnout, the looming issue of racial inequities within the movement as white students streamed south to help… I can’t claim to have seen stories as epic as theirs, but I’ve seen many of the same dynamics. It’s terrifying to think we need to rely on the weak instruments of human will and blood against entrenched power machines, but it’s what we’ve got. ****’