King a true pillar of civil rights movement
By Stuart Levitan, May 22, 1998
American life, played out an epochal saga of biblical proportions. The
absolute. The actors, whether heroic or villainous, were towering
Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Parting the Waters” (1988) was
sweeping, subtle, overwhelming, depressing, inspiring. “Pillar of
Fire,” second of Branch’s movement trilogy, covering 1963-65, is as
good or better.
church in Birmingham, Ala., and numerous murders, including of civil
summer of freedom marches, the winter of our national discontent.
The events themselves, these signposts for our age, have long formed a
context and paint wonderfully evocative portraits of such disparate
personalities as Bob Moses, Allard Lowenstein, Fanny Lou Hamer, and
As astonishing as are the stories of the main events, equally stunning
are the subtexts — the overwhelming pressures on King, tearing him
between conciliation and confrontation, the rupture between Elijah
Muhammad and Malcolm X and the rise of Louis Farrakhan, the role of
realignments along the fulcrum of civil rights.
Another recurring, depressing subtext is the Kennedy administration’s
weakness working for civil rights. Kennedy not only ducked easy symbolic
gestures (either keeping his meetings with King secret, or camouflaging
Such Kennedy efforts to satisfy Southern Congressional barons as
revoking an order banning whites-only work crews on federally assisted
road projects, or disallowing Justice Department lawsuits against police
violence, served only to make the bigots and bullies want more
And while Robert Kennedy would become an impassioned advocate for the
dispossessed, as attorney general he authorized an aggressive program of
wiretaps and bugs, and fretted over King’s supposed security lapses.
It’s truly pathetic, and terribly sad, to learn that the only
conversations Robert Kennedy ever had with Martin Luther King were over
It was not the purported noble heroes of Camelot who led toward
liberation, but the Southern successor-as-interloper, Lyndon Johnson.
The Civil Rights Act was languishing at the time of JFK’s assassination;
much he accomplished by putting the weight of his personality and office
behind the bill.
We’re accustomed to “Lyndon the Legendary Legislator” stories, the
president steamrolling for some bill. But Branch also focuses on the
Gettysburg, discussing the movement in Lincolnian terms) or startling
(telling a stunned crowd about a Southern colleague who regretted
“nigger! nigger! nigger!”). Johnson also single-handedly integrated an
aide to a New Year’s Eve function there.
But Branch’s ultimate subtext — reflected in the trilogy’s subtitle
“America in the King Years” — is that the singular figure of the era
was neither Kennedy nor Johnson, but a young black minister. The earlier
volume portrayed King’s earliest steps on the national stage; here, he
has emerged as an international force.
he moving too fast for the cautious and conservative black
establishment? Would demonstrations in the South doom federal civil
rights efforts? Or was he too timid for the new generation of young,
The pressures played out in a dizzying tableau; Branch describes a
Detroit crowd of 125,000 enthusiastically greeting King — who was
immediately thereafter pelted with eggs from a jeering crowd outside a
church in Harlem.
The narrative also implicitly comments on a current controversy, by
impact on their public duties. It’s sad but true — Dr. King, President
they tamed their sex drives.
hotel rooms for the express purpose of tape recording encounters
romantic (which happened) and communist (which didn’t). “This will
destroy the burrhead!” an excited Hoover wrote of one obscene and
offensive transcript. “King is a `tom cat’ with obsessive, degenerate
sexual urges,” he added.
The FBI sent King a collection of such tapes, with a note suggesting he
commit suicide. How sweet for Hoover that it was Coretta Scott King who
opened the anonymous package and first played the recordings.
Hoover kept his job by implicitly blackmailing Kennedy over the
president’s dangerous liaisons with mob molls and spies. The Kennedys
loathed Hoover (a mutual feeling), but feared him — so Hoover was
force Hoover to do the right thing.
federal law and the protection of federal rights; he made the FBI an
active enemy of the movement. Bureau hostility to the movement was
sensed in the ’60s and understood in the ’70s — but Branch documents a
depth of detail that is overpowering.
Hoover was both petty (honoring the agent who successfully dissuaded
Marquette University from granting King an honorary degree, trying to
and benefited from it as much as he had from Kennedy’s.
his accomplishments. His deep and abiding commitment to non-violence —
belief in a diverse and integrated America probably saved our soul.
This story is so compelling, the tale so well told, that you wish the
book were longer than its 613 pages.
But even more, you wish for a happier ending than the profoundly tragic
one we’ve lived.