Firestarter

Taylor Branch
Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years,
1963-65
Simon & Schuster

Not 40 pages into Pillar of Fire, Taylor Branch's continuing narrative history of the civil-rights movement, there's a moment so perfect and evocative it could encapsulate everything wrong between black citizens and white authority in 1963. After being promised an audience with city officials in St. Augustine, Florida, local NAACP activists filed into the City Commission chamber to keep their meeting appointment, only to find an empty table and a tape recorder, with instructions to record their complaints.

"Nonplussed," Branch writes, they "took turns leaning toward the machine," pouring out their grievances about petty segregation laws until the absurdity of the exercise began to chafe. "We stay too far apart and never come to any understanding," one man told the recorder, "because we never come face to face." But between 1963 and 1965--the period of Branch's study--black and white America came face to face more than ever, and with bracing passion and violence. Those NAACP delegates never got an answer, but just a few months later, when Medgar Evers was shot in the back and Kennedy made his televised civil-rights speech, race effectively moved to the center of white America's consciousness. If fear of white authority had been a longtime fact of Southern black life, few were prepared for the terrorism and political backlash unleashed by the glare of national attention.

Pillar of Fire may in part be the story of this backlash, but its approach is more humanizing, and even tender. Branch's critical yet sympathetic portrait of Lyndon Johnson brings us into a government that often baffled and infuriated activists. We glimpse not only the foreign-policy intrigues of the Kennedy brothers and the domestic espionage of the repulsive J. Edgar Hoover, but also the bureaucratic morass that marked the beginning of the Vietnam War, which would eventually sink Johnson's Great Society.

Still, Branch wisely never strays from the movement for long. Using narrative history to full effect, he ably captures the movement of the movement, matching the flow of events. Branch plunges down the personal waterfalls of its heroes, like Fannie Lou Hamer and Bob Moses, and also diligently traces the many smaller tributaries, including the long-forgotten struggle of St. Augustine. The natural dramatic center of the period is Freedom Summer, the well-known 1964 pilgrimage of elite Northern students to Mississippi for a voter-registration drive, and the climax becomes the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party's attempt to be seated at the Democratic Convention that year.

But Branch's sweeping narrative also synthesizes much recent scholarship on Malcolm X to shed new light on his break with the Nation of Islam and his suffocating last days, and it quietly but persistently fleshes out Martin Luther King, Jr.'s successful efforts to forge alliances with American Jews. In Branch's first volume, Parting the Waters, King was the biographical subject as well as the center. Here, he stands firm as events grow more and more out of his control, swirling around him as he uses his new sway with the media to guide the spotlight toward lesser-known fights for freedom. In one instance, flying into St. Augustine to join mounting demonstrations there, he was blocked from entering a lunch establishment favored by out-of-town journalists. "We can't serve you," the owner told him. "We're not integrated." As Branch wryly notes, King replied that he would wait.

The author zooms in so close on these day-to-day scenes of struggle that he's been criticized for not pulling back and offering broader analysis. But Branch's very strength lies in his ability to find meaning in history without contorting to impose one. His is a history of moments, like Peter Guralnick's brilliant, nuanced biography of Elvis, Last Train to Memphis; it's an accumulation of interactions, each with its own distinct emotional tenor. And this human interplay stays with you longer than any lecture on the "lessons" of civil rights.

There's another such moment, again in St. Augustine, that hints at how far the movement had come in the year following that meeting with the tape recorder. King left Andrew Young in town as his designated spokesman, promising to return with reinforcements, but local leader Hosea Williams took the departure as a brush-off, considering Young a "well-bred conciliator by nature" who was unlikely to lead a nonviolent uprising. Before a march, word came that white hoodlums were waiting for the marchers with knives and guns. Williams began whipping up enthusiasm in the church where movement people had gathered, but Young took him aside, saying, "Hosea, there must be 500 Klansmen down there... If we go down there, we'll get killed."

"We've got to go, Andy," Williams told him. "We've got to go."

Young relented, and redeemed himself in Williams's eyes by leading the group. But the police chief stopped them on the street, announcing there was "serious trouble" lurking around the corner in the darkness, and the law couldn't protect them.

There stood both the marchers and the movement in the mid-'60s, with white authority unwilling to help and white terror lurking in the abyss. Pillar of Fire is about how this dangerous road transformed those who took it, and how they, in turn, transformed America.

 
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