Pillar of Fire, America in the King Years, 1963-1965, Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster, 1998, 613 pp
First of all a health update: I am much better! Almost back to normal in fact. Thanks for all the well wishes.
I spent 11 weeks reading Taylor Branch's second volume of a biography centered on Martin Luther King, Jr. Checking back in my reading log, I was surprised that it has been about four years since I read Volume I, Parting the Waters. During those years I read the first three volumes of Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon B Johnson. These two biographical feats dovetail perfectly, especially in Pillar of Fire, because the two men became inextricably entwined in the history of mid-20th century America.
Though I can only read these tomes at a rate of 10 pages a day, so dense are they with persons and events, I am thrilled to be experiencing what I was hoping to find by taking history in college. Especially in what I consider very trying times these days, learning all this history about my country (and much of it was just as trying) gives me courage and hope in some ways while it also has me laughing helplessly at how absurd it all is.
Pillar of Fire focuses intently on the entire Civil Rights Movement during 1963-1965, so it about much more than MLK himself. The movement in those years had become fractured into numerous groups and organizations, much of the time unaligned and full of conflict. Taylor Branch follows all of this on an almost day by day basis. The continuous actions of non-violent protest in the South, the friction between King and Malcolm X, the entry of white college students and ministers from the North and West, and the riots in Northern Cities are all covered in great detail.
President John F Kennedy was assassinated before he could manage to get much done for racial equality. Lyndon B Johnson in his first years as President did get the Civil Rights Bill through Congress. However the KKK kept on bombing churches and killing Black people, getting away with it in the courts of the South.
Thanks to J Edgar Hoover and his obsessions, LBJ could not find a way to provide Federal support for integration despite his new law. He also had the growing situation of Vietnam to deal with. That left King and all the other civil rights leaders to carry on basically without backup.
What struck me hardest as I read was how long and hard it can be to bring about social change, how tirelessly all those thousands of people kept at trying to make the law a reality and getting Blacks the right to vote.
Ten years after Rosa Park's refusal to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama bus, segregation was still the everyday practice in the South. Malcolm X was assassinated. By 1968 Martin Luther King would be too. Today, Black Americans are still at the mercy of brutality, poverty, and incarceration in what we are told is "our great nation." Over 150 year have passed since we freed our slaves, on paper.
So, next up for me is Robert Caro's The Passage of Power, the parallel story of LBJ's years 1958-1964. Another 605 pages. Then one more volume about MLK. Then, God willing, the final LBJ volume from Caro. I sure hope he is able to finish it.