Martin Luther King At The Crossroads


America in the King Years, 1963-65

By Taylor Branch

Simon & Schuster 746pp $30

At the conclusion of Parting the Waters, his Pulitzer-prize winning 1988 book about Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil-rights movement, Taylor Branch offered some somber reflections. By the end of 1963, King had traveled a tortuous path from the obscurity of his Montgomery (Ala.) church to worldwide fame. The lunch-counter sit-ins, the Freedom Rides that sought to integrate interstate bus travel, police violence in Birmingham, the March on Washington, and the murder of John F. Kennedy were in the past. Ahead lay a widening struggle, said Branch: "Nonviolence had come over him for a purpose that far transcended segregation. Having lifted him up among rulers, it would drive him back down to die among garbage workers in Memphis. King had crossed over as a patriarch like Moses into a land less bounded by race. To keep going, he became a pillar of fire."

That phrase--a reference to the flame that, in the Book of Exodus, guides the Israelites from Egypt--is now the title of a second, painstakingly researched and broadly focused volume in what Branch projects as a trilogy. Judging only by the two published works, Branch has already written an indispensable account not just of King but of the events that he shaped and was shaped by.

Pillar of Fire is not light reading. Its complex, often-ugly story is also compelling and ultimately inspiring. Over 600, fact-filled pages (plus 91 pages of notes) are devoted to only three years, 1963-65, the crest of the civil-rights movement in the South. Branch knits together a staggering range of events and themes: the explosive Freedom Summer in Mississippi; political twists and turns in Washington; the expanding Vietnam war; the rise and fall of Malcolm X; and King's frequent doubts and uncertainty about what to do next.

The story retains its power to shock. Branch describes, for example, the unremitting brutality of local sheriffs in Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. Blacks and their white supporters were repeatedly clubbed and jailed, their houses, stores, churches, and synagogues bombed and burned. The Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964--during which hundreds of students poured into the state to take part in voter-registration drives--reached a horrendous climax when three young men, one local black and two white Northern volunteers, were murdered. This violence went on year after year, even after Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The FBI calculated that over a five-year period in southwest Mississippi, the Ku Klux Klan committed 9 murders, 75 church burnings, and at least 300 bombings and assaults.

Almost equally shocking was the stubborn short-sightedness of white leaders who gave police and vigilantes free rein. Gradually, these leaders, including businesspeople worried about economic damage to their communities, came to see that allowing black children to be beaten while the national press looked on was self-defeating.

More upsetting personally are the book's appalling quotes from FBI tapes of King taking part in sexual liaisons in various hotel rooms. That such tapes existed is known to many, but seeing the obscene words in cold print dismays and saddens.

Then there's the sordid story behind these tapes. Over many years, the FBI wiretapped King's home and office phones and put bugs in his hotel rooms. It was all part of a merciless campaign against King waged by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. The FBI constantly sought to undermine King with supporters, deny him awards and honorary degrees, and even sabotage an audience with Pope Paul VI. Its vendetta culminated in a package of tapes and other material, together with an "anonymous" letter urging King to commit suicide, that was sent to reporters, political and religious leaders, and King himself.

From this tumultuous background, King emerges as a heroic but deeply human figure, struggling frequently with depression, even despair. He won the loyalty of many but faced opposition at every turn, including within the movement. Roy Wilkins, head of the NAACP, for example, favored attacking racial discrimination in the courts and disliked sit-ins and demonstrations, which he felt yielded few results and angered potential white allies. On the left, King faced hostile fire from the more radical Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

King knew he could not avoid hard decisions. He recognized, for example, that most Americans tended to see racial discrimination as synonymous with Southern segregation--something fewer and fewer people were inclined to support. King knew these were not the only issues: As early as 1964, he was convinced that he must venture into Northern cities and take on the thornier matters of discrimination in jobs and housing. The risks, he knew, were great.

But doubts and worries did not turn King from his course. Committed and courageous, he drew strength from his conviction that nonviolent resistance would overcome both hatred and indifference. As the book closes, King is in Selma, preparing to lead the march to Montgomery that would confront Governor George Wallace. King has three more years to live, during which he stands, in Branch's words, "at Canaan's edge." That, we are told, will be the title of the third and final volume of this magisterial work.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.