Journal of Southern Religion

Taylor Branch, Pillar of Fire: American in the King Years, 1963- 65. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998. 619pp + notes and index.

      When Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1951-63 (1988) first appeared, the historiography of the civil rights movement was already in full swing. Since then, the proliferation of studies has proceeded apace. In the interim, Branch has also had access to the tapes made in Lyndon Johnson's White House and has made use of the FBI wiretappings not only of King and his circle but also of Nation of Islam personnel, including Malcolm X. All this helps explain why Branch has limited Pillar of Fire to roughly two years (including considerable recapitulation of material covered in volume one). A third volume is now planned to conclude his history of the King Years.

"Branch's failure to analyze or to explain the contents of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, much less to consider the arguments over its constitutionality, is a very strange omission indeed."

      Pillar of Fire continues the approach adopted in Branch's first volume--history as the interaction of individual public lives as they grapple with historical events. The three central figures in Pillar of Fire are President Lyndon Johnson, Malcolm X and, of course, Martin Luther King, Jr., with J. Edgar Hoover and his lieutenants, Cartha "Deke" DeLoach and William Sullivan, constantly intervening to sow discord. As before, Branch weaves the life histories and current actions of important, but less prominent figures such as Allard Lowenstein, Robert Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer and Abraham Heschel into the rich, even overcrowded, tapestry of the mid-1960s. Nor are the Kennedys and their entourage entirely forgotten once John Kennedy is assassinated.

      Before focusing on the place Branch makes for religion in his story, some evaluation of the book's strengths and weaknesses are in order. The strengths of Pillar of Fire are several. First, Branch expands the story beyond the dual focus on the southern campaigns between 1963 and 1965 and the responses to those campaigns within the federal government. Now Malcolm X and the Black Muslims are seen as major players in the urban North and West. Second, Branch's account reminds us how important a role red-baiting, initiated by the egregious Hoover, played in the evaluation of King and the civil rights movement in government circles. In addition, Branch very effectively conveys the physical and psychological terror that black southerners in much of the Deep South endured during these years. Whether it was in Jacksonville, Florida or in Philadelphia, Mississippi or in Selma, Alabama, neither public authorities (from governor down to the local sheriff) nor the institutions of white civil society (such as the Protestant churches) cared or dared enough to defend the rights of black southerners against the rankest sort of discrimination and intimidation. Finally, Branch effectively exposes the gangland-style thuggery of the Nation of Islam. On several occasions, Malcolm X barely escaped with his life before his assassination in February, 1965 by a hit squad. Everyone knew it was coming. Elijah Muhammad and his minions, including Louis X (now Farrakhan), hardly needed government provocateurs to encourage them in their plotting against their former star, though Branch does fail to address the charge that Malcolm's death was aided and abetted by white authorities.

     But the triumph of narrative over analysis in Pillar of Fire means that many readers will miss the probing of action, motive, and implication which an historian of the movement--and a biographer of King-- must occasionally hazard. Part of the problem is that Branch's first volume, Parting the Waters, already introduced most of the major players, sketched in and explained their backgrounds, and then set them in motion. Thus in Pillar of Fire, a relatively fresh figure such as Lyndon Johnson emerges as more important (and more compelling) than either Dr. King or Malcolm X. Indeed, King seems to recede in importance, while Malcolm emerges as a figure of pathos, even despair and ineffectuality, rather than a commanding hero of black consciousness. Death captured Malcolm X somewhere between his old identity and something as yet unknown, and this eerily anticipates King's own wilderness years after 1965 and before he was shot down in Memphis. Put another way, Branch's claim in volume one that "King's life is the best and most important metaphor for American history in the watershed postwar years" is not argued for very strongly in volume two.

      Perhaps the third volume will make good certain other shortcomings such as the almost total absence of the New Left from the story. More seriously for this volume, Branch's failure to analyze or to explain the contents of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, much less to consider the arguments over its constitutionality, is a very strange omission indeed. And, unlike Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire is carelessly and at times awkwardly written.

      Finally, religion is everywhere in Pillar of Fire; not, however, as theology or faith but as an institutional force. Indeed, Branch's treats the struggle for racial equality in these years as a moral-religious as much as a political-ideological phenomenon. The overall effect is to remind the reader of President Lincoln's observation in his Second Inaugural Address that both the North and the South read the same Bible and prayed to the same God. Martin Luther King's grounding in black southern Protestantism and his more abstract religious humanism, along with what Branch refers to as the "confrontational Christianity" (p.55) of black student activists from Nashville, stand at the center of the history of the civil rights movement. But the religious plot thickens in Pillar of Fire with the presence of Malcolm X and the Muslims, a challenge both to the secular political culture and to Martin Luther King's Christianity. In fact, the central moral-religious tension within the Nation of Islam was generated by Malcolm X's increasing desire to involve himself in the political struggles of his time, something which went against the non-political orientation of Elijah Muhammad's sect. The central ethical-religions tension between the Muslims and King's forces (and within the movement itself) was the role of violence in self-defense.

      Beyond that, Branch makes clear that one of the crucial factors in the passage of the Public Accommodations Act of 1964 came from pressure exerted by white Protestants in the midwest and mountain states upon their overwhelmingly Republican congressional delegations. And during the debate over the Civil Rights Act, over one hundred clergy, mainly Protestant and organized by Rev. Robert Spike of the National Council of Churches, descended on Washington to lobby the Congress to support the pending bill.

      Finally, of course, the segregationist white South had its own theological and biblical self-justification. Branch notes that Senator Robert Byrd (D-WVa), filibustering against the bill that would become the 1964 Civil Rights Act, claimed that he had searched the scriptures in vain for its justification. Branch describes Medgar Evers's convicted murderer, Byron de la Beckwith, as a "kind of lay theologian for white segregation" (p.113). The Klan of course fought in the name of racial Christianity against "Satanism" and "the Communist yoke" (p.240), while J.R. Stoner and Connie Lynch asserted that "God's with the white man in this struggle for racial purity!" (p.378). The moderate white South is, in Branch's account, largely silent, hardly a factor in the controversy except by its silence.

      This of course is not the whole story. A good number of white ministers supported integration of their churches and, as a result, lost their pulpits. Their story remains to be told. The governing bodies of the Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians did grapple with the "race problem" all throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Thus religion is an issue--or cluster of issues--which Branch's third volume might engage more explicitly. Not least among those issues should be the historical irony that African American religion became a political force in and through the civil rights movement; yet only a decade after King's death, southern-led white fundamentalist and conservative evangelicals had become politicized to a degree hardly imaginable without the precedent of their African American counterparts in the 1960s.

Richard H. King, Woodrow Wilson Center

© 1998 by The Journal of Southern Religion. All rights reserved. ISSN 1094-5234

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