Branch Essay, Research Paper

King a true pillar of civil rights movement

By Stuart Levitan, May 22, 1998

Our greatest mass movement has a historian able to tell its overwhelming


The civil rights movement of the early 1960s, a transcendent time in

American life, played out an epochal saga of biblical proportions. The

stakes were immense — first freedom, then the franchise. The risk was

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.

Branch chronicles a staggering scope of shattering events: the 1963

march on Washington and the 1964 presidential election; the

assassinations of President Kennedy, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and South

Vietnam President Diem; the Civil Rights Act, the Nuclear Test Ban

Treaty and the Tonkin Gulf Resolution; the Nobel Peace Prize for Dr.

Martin Luther King Jr.; the bombing deaths of four black girls in a

church in Birmingham, Ala., and numerous murders, including of civil

rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney; the

Beatles coming to America and Cassius Clay coming out as a Muslim. The

summer of freedom marches, the winter of our national discontent.

The events themselves, these signposts for our age, have long formed a

collective neural network of shared memory. What Branch has done so

brilliantly with words of sense and color is to put complex events into

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

Lyndon Johnson, the pervasiveness of protest and violence, the political

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

them under group meetings), but frequently failed substantively as well.

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

the supposed infiltration of communists into the movement.

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;

within seven months, this revolutionary legislation was law. Branch

makes powerfully clear Lyndon Johnson’s commitment and vision, and how

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

rhetorical Johnson, whether inspirational (a quite good speech at

Gettysburg, discussing the movement in Lincolnian terms) or startling

(telling a stunned crowd about a Southern colleague who regretted

betraying his populist past by campaigning exclusively on the threat of

“nigger! nigger! nigger!”). Johnson also single-handedly integrated an

exclusive Texas country club, by escorting a black female White House

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.

In fulfilling his epic destiny, King faced overwhelming pressures. Was

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,

militant blacks?

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

showing how the personal lives of leaders can have a severe and negative

impact on their public duties. It’s sad but true — Dr. King, President

Kennedy and Elijah Muhammad all could have done more for humankind had

they tamed their sex drives.

Using extraordinary espionage, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover bugged King’s

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

allowed to exercise despotic power, to our lasting suffering and shame.

Branch makes palpable Robert Kennedy’s pain at wanting, but failing, to

force Hoover to do the right thing.

Hoover wasn’t just ineffectual in setting the FBI to the enforcement of

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

block King from meeting with Pope Paul VI) and psychotic (telling

others, but not King, of death threats). It is natural for King’s family

to accuse the government of complicity in his murder; Hoover appreciated

and benefited from it as much as he had from Kennedy’s.

Ultimately, King’s failures of the flesh cannot tarnish the legacy of

his accomplishments. His deep and abiding commitment to non-violence —

as a tactic, a strategy, a philosophy — probably saved our cities; his

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.

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