Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963 – 1965 by Taylor Branch

Pillar of Fire1998. ebook. 796 pages.


“Stokes raised both hands toward [LAPD officer] Weese, who shot him through the heart from about eight feet.”

This sentence depicts the fatal escalation of the April 27, 1962 conflict between the LAPD and members of the Nation of Islam temple no. 27. The chaotic sequence of events that led to the killing of Ronald X Stokes started with this: outside temple no. 27, Monroe X Jones asked Fred X Jingles to inspect some suits in the trunk of his car to help determine of they had resale value. Two white police officers driving by saw the two men at Jones’ car, and decided to stop and conduct a “burglary sweep.”

The full account of this conflict, where seven unarmed Nation of Islam members were shot by the LAPD, is the starting point for Pillar of Fire, the second of Taylor Branch’s trilogy about the Civil Rights movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s. I read and reviewed the first book, Parting the Waters, last year.

This account of the events of April 27, 1962 is one example of how reading history helps us understand how we got to where we are today. Pillar of Fire is full of moments of recognition, where the reader sees the DNA of today’s news in past events.

Pillar of Fire covers events from 1963 to 1965. It is impossible to recount everything that struck me while reading this book. I was highlighting passages in my Kindle edition like mad. What follows is an attempt to highlight some of the prominent narrative threads and themes I noted.

There’s a reason that the recent movie Selma begins with the September 15, 1963 killing of four young girls in the bombing of 16th Street Baptist in Birmingham. It is an event that reverberated throughout the civil rights movement, even though it didn’t quite shame the nation into repentance.

[A] white lawyer made himself a lifetime pariah from Birmingham by blaming every citizen who took discreet comfort in segregation, saying, “We all did it,” but Mayor Albert Boutwell stoutly insisted, “We are all victims.”

Upon hearing the news in North Carolina, James Bevel and Diane Nash, civil rights leaders and champions of nonviolent activism, briefly contemplated vigilantism. In the end, they hatched an idea for a mass nonviolent protest centered around Alabama’s capital, Montgomery, an idea that found form later in the Selma to Montgomery march. (Pillar of Fire‘s chronological coverage extends almost to the point of this march.)

The lack of justice for the 16th Street Baptist bombings is a shadow throughout the book. (No one was convicted for the crime until 1977.) This injustice is joined by the lack of justice for NAACP leader Medgar Ever’s 1963 assassination (no conviction until 1994); the 1964 murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner (those few of the lynching mob who are convicted in 1967 do not serve more than six years in prison). In an epilogue, Branch also describes the 1966 Klan killing of Mississippi voting rights activist Vernon Dahmer, and how three of the four convicted were pardoned after only four years in prison by the state governor. The KKK leader, Sam Bowers, who ordered the murder was tried for the crime, but deadlocked juries kept him from conviction. In 1998, the case was reopened and Bowers was finally convicted of Dahmer’s murder.

While mulling over this systemic denial of court justice, consider the segregationist congressman who decried the 1964 Civil Rights Bill as a “monstrous instrument of oppression upon all of the American people.” Or the time when Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is told by a fellow plane passenger that the new civil rights law would “just carry on the trend toward federal dictatorship.” (Newsweek polls find that 74% of whites believe that the pace of integration is “moving too fast.”)

The skillful framing of desegregation as a big government imposition was propogated by several politicians of the era. During his presidential campaign, former Alabaman governor George Wallace talked often of “states’ rights” and “sweeping federal encroachment.” Such dog-whistle rhetoric was picked up by the chosen Republican presidential candidate Goldwater. Of Goldwater, King stated, “While not himself a racist, Mr. Goldwater articulates a philosophy which gives aid and comfort to the racist.”

The galling fact is that if anyone was suppressed by big government intrusion, it was Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is well-known now that Dr. King was under almost constant FBI surveillance. The loathsome and powerful FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover directed this surveillance and also authorized releases of scurrilous information about King to the press (false accusations of Communistic ties, true accusations of infidelity). Hoover tried to prevent King’s meeting with the Pope and in a press interview, Hoover called King “the most notorious liar” in the United States. Again, the FBI’s surveillance of King is no longer a secret, but I was still surprised and horrified by the persistence, extent, and petty exploitation of it.

The in-depth nature of Pillar of Fire also alerted me to historical events I’d never heard of. I had no idea about the integrationist movement in St. Augustine, Florida, for instance, which called out the fact that the oldest city in the United States remained segregated. I also did not know about the jailing of voting rights activists from Greenwood and Itta Bena, Mississippi (for “disturbing the peace”). Some of these activists were imprisoned in the notorious Parchman Penitentiary, where they were sometimes kept in hotboxes, and also hung by their hands in their cells. I didn’t know about the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation that sought seats at the Democratic National Convention, and were denied their place in the political process. And though I knew of Malcolm X, I didn’t know many details about what he did and said.

As I said about the first book, I feel like Pillar of Fire has helped me understand my country better. Not to sound hyperbolic about it, but in some not-fully-realized way, I feel like these books have changed my life.

Excerpts from Goodreads reviews:

Clif – “This book could not be more exciting while at the same time educating the reader about the history of the United States; the subtitle is perfect: America in the King Years. You’ll close it with a deep acquaintance with the leading personalities of that time (not all famous by any means) and a profound appreciation of the courage shown by so many people who risked their lives and their livelihoods to try for a dream.”

Patrick – “The volumes are not perfect–sometimes the panoramic view comes at the expense of narrative momentum. Sentence-level clunkers show up just enough to make you wish that they had spent a little more time polishing the prose. But, those minor flaws aside, it’s an incredible history.”

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