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Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65 (Book Review)

Synopsis

Taylor Branch’s Pillar of Fire covers the years of 1963-1965 focusing on the intersection of an number of civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X (and the Nation of Islam), Bob Moses, and many more.  Branch’s background as a journalist takes the reader through a number of important events including the Mississippi Freedom Summer, the Democratic National Convention of 1964, the landmark Civil Rights Bill of 1964, and the March and Washington.  The book also travels to lesser known arenas of the civil rights movement like Greenwood, St. Augustine, Harlem, and Los Angeles.

Short Review

This is the second in Branch’s Trilogy of America in the King years (preceded by the book Parting the Waters and succeeded by On Canaan’s Shores).  If you enjoy reading newspaper articles, the book reads like a succession of articles (each new story with at least one or two new characters).  After 500 pages, this style of writing can become hard on the brain trying to remember all the characters and all the intersecting plot lines.  The book also goes into a lot of detail about many minor aspects of the civil rights movement and keeps its distance from really analyzing any one character like King or Malcolm X (if you are looking for info on MLK, this book is probably not your best bet).  I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in becoming an expert in the civil rights era as I have not read any other book that goes into this level of depth and to as many places as this book.  With that said, I would recommend reading it with few breaks in between sessions.  If you wait a week to pick it back up, you may have forgotten some of the cast and Branch does not spend a lot of time re-introducing characters.  The book is largely free of judgment and moralizing, but the quotes that Branch chooses are often chosen with care to help the reader understand the context of the 1960s.  If you are looking for an analysis of the civil rights movement, however, Branch provides little for stimulation in this text.

Long Review

Part 1 of the book is largely a retelling of his first book in the America in the King Years Trilogy (Parting the Waters) and is the tale of Bull Connor, Birmingham, and the fight for the franchise in the South.  The narrative is interspersed with stories of police brutality against the Nation of Islam in Los Angeles and Malcolm X’s response along with the fight for integration in St. Augustine, Florida and the response of the Kennedy Brothers, LBJ, and Herbert Hoover to the Civil Rights Movement.

The book spans an interesting time period as a transition in the South from being majority Democrat to majority Republican.  LBJ is quoted as saying about the South that “I know the risks [of civil rights] are great and that it might cost us the south, but those sort of states may be lost anyway” (94).

The first section also underscores the prevalence of biases, both implicit and explicit, that white Americans held against black Americans.  Branch quotes from a number of articles from the time period including one from Newsweek that stated “85 percent of whites believed Negroes laughed a lot, 70 percent that Negroes had loose morals and a different smell, half that Negroes possessed inferior intelligence . . . experts evaluated claims that a smaller Negro cranium meant less intelligence” (136).  While the typical history class might explain segregation as a peculiar southern institution, Branch argues throughout the first section (and furthers his point later in the book) that resistance to civil rights was not a uniquely southern phenomenon.  Even those northern whites who came to the South to volunteer came (at least at first) with an air of superiority and condescension.  Branch relays one story where a Northern volunteer for freedom stated that “Any white Northerner who’s had the good fortune of achieving even an average education in the North is going to be, just by virtue of the act, so much more talented than the Negro Leadership.”

Part two of the book takes us past the Kennedy assassination and LBJ takes the reigns in the white house with his personal style of power politics honed as a majority leader from Texas in the Senate.  We also see the true depth of terror that black Americans experienced under the thumb of the Ku Klux Klan.  If history teachers teach 9/11 as the first major terrorist attack on America, I would ask them to read this book to see the extent that the terror of the Ku Klux Klan was not only carried out, but really sanctioned by many members of state judicial, executive, legislative branches and local police.  Bob Moses of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) wrote:

We are being deluged.  There have been five killings in S.W. Miss. in the last 3 months.  Klan activity — 3 whippings, scattered shootings, 180 cross burnings.”

Branch would go on to write that “the Mississippi White Knights were strong enough to send a statewide recruitment message by burning crosses in more than sixty counties on a single night, and secret membership mushroomed toward ten thousand by the end of may.”  Even if one can claim that the KKK was a fringe movement, this movement could not have existed without the explicit help of the shopkeepers who sold them large amounts of dynamite for firebombing and the state judicial branches to keep KKK members out of jail.  White juries consistently let murderers and terrorists go free.  This was a system of terror against blacks organized by Americans at almost all levels of government and by America’s private citizens.

The second section also puts the rise of the modern conservative right in perspective.  We see a young Reagan giving speeches for Goldwater in 1964 stating that:

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government.  It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves favors out of the public treasury . . . the democracy always collapses over a loose fiscal policy, always to be followed by a dictatorship. (242)

While Branch is quick to note that Johnson was able to defeat Goldwater at the presidential level, voter-led propositions such as Proposition 14 — which repealed the Fair Housing Act in California — acted as “a harbinger of national backlash against civil rights . . . Supporters of Proposition 14 defined their initiative as a matter of homeowners’ freedom rather than the right to exclude Negroes in real estate” (242).  While the north might not have had the overt, explicit racism of the South, a deadly implicit segregation still loomed large over the Golden State and others in the North.

Even liberal leaders who had inspired King like Richard Niebuhr privately wrote about New York that “they are overplaying their hands.  The poor things [black Americans] have wretched schools in Harlem . . . They think that a massive desegregation will raise the level of their schools . . . Human nature is not that good” while Social leader Norman Thomas stated that “public disturbances in the north ‘alienates the friends we have got to win and hold'” (242).

As further evidence of this systematic devaluing and exclusion of blacks from public life Branch notes that “for instance, that the NBC affiliate MLBT never referred to any Negro civic event during an aggregate fifteen minutes and fifty-five seconds of public service announcements, never showed a Negro congregation in church services nor a Negro face on local shows” (265).  When civil rights organizations attempted to sue, they were told by the FCC that only rival broadcasters could sue under these statutes.

Throughout the second section I was also surprised to see how many Trumpian themes also arose during the 1964 campaign.  Branch recounts an encounter LBJ had with “Tom Fletcher, an out-of-work miner who talked softly of raising his eight children on a $400 annual income” (289).  Running against LBJ, Senator Goldwater had a stump speech that called out “sweeping federal encroachment” and “tyrannical judges” alongside “the ultra-liberal controlled press” (300).  While he did try to downplay the race issue, things like “state’s rights” and “federal overreach” have always been a coded language to talk about race in America without actually saying the words.

Bob Moses, speaking to SNCC leaders stated that national questions ran “much deeper than the issue of civil rights.”. He spoke at length about many issues all facing America in the Age of Trump: automation, schools, and the nature of cities (296).  Indeed, as the epilogue attests, Moses spent much of his later years in the field of education claiming that algebra was just as important as the right to vote.

Just as Trump has ignored some of the deepest problems that lead to systematic treatment of some citizens as second class, much of the deep rooted problems that Branch points in the book persist to this day.  I quote this paragraph in its entirety because of the prescience on the present moment:

“Seventy percent of the Negro youth in Philadelphia are unemployed,” he [Robert Moses] said.  “It’s a fantastic figure.  It affects white people when they organize gangs and start hitting and shooting and fighting each other, and then maybe turn their violence into the street and attack property, which probably belongs to white people.”  Because Negro Literacy had always been a threat to the white south —”If you teach people who want to read and write, then they’re going to want to begin to govern themselves”—heavy migration from Souther Plantations—”every year there are 10 percent fewer jobs”—had delivered up two generations of refugees who were largely useless to the modern world.  Their cliam on the future clashed with World Fair’s dazzling model of slumless cities for the year 2000, with plant-filled glass buildings connected by whizzing elevated sidewalks encased in tubes.  “The deep irony of that really hasn’t reach out across the country,” said Moses.  “All everyone was concerned with was, ‘Don’t mess up our World’s Fair.’ Whose World’s Fair?” (296).

If you watch modern interviews from people who have really studied our urban cities and the problems of modern America, you can take Moses’ quote above and basically apply in today’s America.  Look at, for instance, David Simon’s comments on the modern inner city as he applied it as show runner of The Wire.

The third section of the book focused on the Mississippi Freedom Summer.  This section provided an interesting look at race relations between SNCC veterans who had been involved from the beginning in the civil rights fight and northern “carpetbagger” students who wanted to join in the fight (this section was so interesting that I checked out some of the source material from the library in very interesting sourcebook Letters from Mississippi.).  While much of this book was a personal journey for me, this part was particularly personal because of the summer I spent in Camden, NJ with UrbanPromise.  Many of the words that these students spoke could have been my own words.

What struck me about this section was the seriousness with which SNCC veterans took their roles in the civil rights movement.  In particular, many of the SNCC veterans agonized over the fact that some might be beaten or even killed as a result of coming to the South for the summer (indeed, the triple murder during the Freedom Project takes up a lot of this section of the book).  Prathia Hall, a member of SNCC, spoke eloquently saying,

“No one can be rational about death.  What is happening now is that for the first time as a staff we are coming to grips with the fact that this may be it. . . If you kill an attacker outside the window, you lose your home anyway because the townsmen will come to the defense of the attacker and take everything from you. . . . [we must] bring our blood to the White House door.  If we die here, it’s the whole society which has pulled the trigger by its silence.” (331)

Hall echoed MLK’s own version of being a “witness” or a prophetic voice in the wilderness.  They stand up against those in the book like Senator Byrd who used Christianity as a weapon of segregation (336).  They has had to stand up against Northern whites who may even have sympathy for the movement of civil rights, but Branch points out that sympathy without action is nothing at all.  In fact “while Northern Whites had sympathized with the Negro movement against crude Southern brutality, many privately favored ‘the principle of racial separation.'” (340).  Branch argues this is why, as extreme as Goldwater’s view might seem (and although he lost heavily in the electoral college), he still was able to pick up almost 40% of the American electorate.  And it is with irony now dripping that I write in the year 2017 that Branch quote historian Lawerence Reddick as saying, “If George Wallace could refine such a message from hateful segregation, other national politicians would surely follow.”

Also, throughout much of the book, but particularly in the third section, Branch uses Malcolm X as a kind of foil to MLK.  Whenever MLK speaks about the power of nonviolence, it is not much further in the book that Malcolm X is saying something like “we will immediately dispatch some of our brothers there to organize self-defense units among our people, and the Ku Klux Klan will then receive a taste of his own medicine” (381).  In many ways, Malcolm X does not fit into this book because he was a forerunner of the black power movement.

The third section also delves into the republican and democratic national conventions with lots of interesting details, but none more important the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (headed by Bob Moses and an amalgam of of civil rights groups) to try and seat black members as delegates of Mississippi and the ensuing backlash from the conservative bastions of the DNC.

There is also discussion of the Vietnam War and the policy decisions that Johnson took to guide America in what ultimately became the famous quagmire that would scuttle any chances LBJ had for a second full term as president.  The book started to get into reasons why many civil rights leaders opposed the war (indeed, Bob Moses would dodge the draft and leave the country until the Carter Vietnam amnesty).  With the section on Vietnam, I felt again and again white moderates asking civil rights leaders to “wait their turn.”  Right now they were focused on voting rights.  They could not be bothered to also focus on the fact that minorities were drafted at a higher rate than whites or that we were fighting a war to end so-called communist aggression while poverty at home was striking so many so dearly.

The book left me feeling a bit overwhelmed.  Our country had chosen to spend millions wiretapping civil rights leaders under the tutelage of J. Edgar Hoover.  Again and again throughout the book, black Americans were killed, terrorized, and brutalized by white forces backed up governmental power.  Thus, the fourth section spends an entire chapter on the FBI sending MLK a tape full of sexual indiscretions designed to depress him and make him think suicidal thoughts.

No one really left the book unscathed.  James Bevel, a member of the King’s SCLC, was accused of “serial rascalism behind a bluster of nonviolence” (587).  Bob Moses ended up leaving SNCC and never returned (some think he may have been one of the many who burned out due to constant attacks from the KKK, meager wages, and constant barrages from the media).  The package that had been meant for King was opened by his wife.  Malcolm X was gunned down by members of the group he had formerly belonged to.

Conclusion

This book is a long read.  It was a very personal read for me because I still sometimes feel like those white students in Mississippi when I go in to work as a teacher in the South Bronx.  Something in the way the students look at me tells me I don’t quite belong when I miss a social cue that is obvious to everyone else in the room or when I offend a student unintentionally.  Perhaps if I do this longer I will feel like the veterans in this book (this is my second year working in the Bronx after five years of teaching a very different population of mostly hispanic students in Los Angeles).

But this book is also an overwhelming read.  The philosophy is overwhelming as you think about all the competing ways to think about civil rights: Malcolm X’s violent imagery, the non-violence of King, the cerebral philosophizing of Bob Moses, and many more.  There were arguments about whether there ought to be quotas in SNCC so that white people did not take over the organization.  There was discussion about the proper way to engage with the federal government: ask for help or distrust them altogether?  The plurality of choices was overwhelming.

But more primarily, the book was an overwhelming read because of the relentless attacks on people because of the color of their skin.  You hear about civil rights in school and you watch videos of the March on Washington, but to read about black students shot at close range by the Klan and about elementary school students sprayed by the hoses of Bull Conor, my perspective changed.  It became a much more visceral, personal image of a people who ask again and again simply for a place at the table and who are ultimately denied (and, in some ways, are still denied to this day).  It is overwhelming to think about what I can do about our racist, segregationist heritage and about what we can do as a country.  Perhaps I will learn more as I move closer to the end of the trilogy on Canaan’s Shores.

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