Pillar of Fire

Charles Taylor reviews 'Pillar of Fire' by Taylor Branch.

Published January 13, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

| The title tells you everything you need to know. "America in the King Years," Taylor Branch's three-volume biography of Martin Luther King Jr., of which the new "Pillar of Fire" is the second installment, declares its ambition and conviction: Ambition to encompass far more than just King's life, and conviction that King, more than any other figure, shaped American life from the mid-'50s to the late '60s. Branch has embarked on an epic work that shows every sign of being equal to the moral, emotional and narrative complexity of the civil rights struggle, and "Pillar of Fire" can stand alongside the first volume, "Parting the Waters," as one of the greatest achievements in American biography.

As Branch tells it, the movement's struggle continues to feel like the best story in American history. Perhaps because it's our nakedest moment, the time when large numbers of Americans, barely recognized as such by sanctioned power, dared to dream of what the country could be at its best, in the face of what it often was at its worst.

"Pillar of Fire" captures King and the civil rights movement at a fulcrum. The moments of highest triumph and widest influence following the March on Washington, the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and King's winning of the Nobel Peace Prize were also the times the movement faced the greatest violence, epitomized by the Mississippi murders of Goodman, Cheyney and Schwerner during Freedom Summer. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was also riven by an internal conflict over whether to stay true to its grass-roots beginnings or to become a slick political organization; Malcolm X was sowing doubts about the legitimacy of nonviolence; and Stokely Carmichael was shortly to introduce the concept of "Black Power." The territory Branch has to cover here is killingly large. Sometimes he abandons a thread when we want him to move on to a climax, and sometimes his clauses are a tad more convoluted than they need to be. But this is a remarkable job of clarity wrestled from massive detail.

"Pillar of Fire" extends the sympathy and piercing intelligence of the previous volume's psychological portrait of King. Branch also navigates the maddening and deeply moving contradictions of Malcolm X, and what can only be described as the cravenness of JFK. Terrified of losing the South, Kennedy relentlessly put politics first and stayed true to his narrow Cold War ethos by warning King of communist "infiltration" in the movement. But perhaps the most important part of Branch's book is his detailing of J. Edgar Hoover's surveillance of King, and the FBI's various disgusting smear tactics, including sending a package to King containing a tape with evidence of his extramarital affairs accompanied by a note suggesting he kill himself before the tape's contents become known. This material isn't new, but it feels revelatory here because it's been laid out as part of a narrative.

Given what the official channels of government and power brought to bear against the civil rights movement, and given what a sad story Branch is telling and our knowledge of what awaits at the end of the final volume, it's amazing that, reading it, you can still hear clearly the sweet transcendence of the freedom songs and mass meetings he describes. You come to the end of this volume weary, scarcely believing there can be more to come, and hungry for Branch's next volume.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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