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Books: Eyes Still On The Prize

3 minute read
R.Z. Sheppard

On its surface, Taylor Branch’s Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65 (Simon & Schuster; 746 pages; $30) keeps to the high ground. The moral and legal victories of the civil rights movement leave reasonable Americans feeling hopeful and good about themselves. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent confrontations continue to reassure the fearful suburbs. The bushwhacked Medgar Evers and the murdered civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner become martyrs for an inspiring cause. We Shall Overcome is a crossover hit.

At ever deepening levels, however, Branch’s follow-up to his Pulitzer-prizewinning Parting the Waters (1988) is dark and boding–a chronicle of deaths foretold. King no longer holds center stage as he did in the first volume. Challenges to the Georgia preacher’s pacifist leadership begin to emerge from Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam and later from its leading apostate, the militant separatist Malcolm X. Malcolm’s differences with King were unambiguous and raised legitimate questions, not least of which was the right of self-defense. But the man Branch vividly documents as King’s most insidious enemy is FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.

Hoover ordered telephone taps that he hoped would tie King to communist conspiracies. Disappointed with the results, the nation’s official blackmailer then bugged the Washington hotel room where King was overheard having noisy extramarital sex. “King is a ‘tom cat’ with obsessive, degenerate sexual urges,” gloated Hoover. It is an odd comment coming from a man whose own unconventional private life was one of the FBI’s top secrets.

Branch’s narrative is rich in historical ironies, none more telling than the gruesome discovery of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner on the same day that Lyndon Johnson used a dubious North Vietnamese attack in the Gulf of Tonkin as an excuse to enlarge a war he privately did not believe in.

Intentionally or not, Johnson emerges as Branch’s leading tragic figure. Unlike his privileged predecessor, the old Texas New Dealer knew the stink of poverty and racism. John F. Kennedy may have charmed the multitudes, but he did not impress King and other black leaders with his refusal to push hard for civil rights legislation. Johnson, a public relations catastrophe, did the right thing by ramming through the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The war, of course, would swallow his presidency and all other issues. That point is powerfully dramatized by the gathering of revolutionizing forces: television, the bringer of violence to the breakfast table; the start of the assassinations that would claim many of the book’s antagonists; the spread of rights protest into the indulged yawps of the 1960s youth rebellion; and later, the furious dissent of the antiwar movement.

At all levels Branch’s scholarship reveals a nation whose unexamined ideals are about to collide with unanticipated realities. In his upcoming final installment of America in the King Years, Branch faces the challenge of resolving dissonances with a unifying fugue. Until then, be grateful for two-thirds of a monument.

–By R.Z. Sheppard

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