Branch King a true pillar of civil rights movement By Stuart Levitan, May 22, 1998 Our greatest mass movement has a historian able to tell its overwhelming story.
The civil rights movement of the early 1960s, a transcendent time in American life, played out an epochal saga of biblical proportions. The stakes were immense — first freedom, then the franchise. The risk was absolute. The actors, whether heroic or villainous, were towering figures.Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Parting the Waters” (1988) was sweeping, subtle, overwhelming, depressing, inspiring. Pillar of Fire,” second of Branch’s movement trilogy, covering 1963-65, is as good or better. Branch chronicles a staggering scope of shattering events: the 1963 march on Washington and the 1964 presidential election; the assassinations of President Kennedy, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and South Vietnam President Diem; the Civil Rights Act, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the Tonkin Gulf Resolution; the Nobel Peace Prize for Dr.
Martin Luther King Jr.; the bombing deaths of four black girls in a church in Birmingham, Ala., and numerous murders, including of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney; the Beatles coming to America and Cassius Clay coming out as a Muslim. The summer of freedom marches, the winter of our national discontent.The events themselves, these signposts for our age, have long formed a collective neural network of shared memory. What Branch has done so brilliantly with words of sense and color is to put complex events into context and paint wonderfully evocative portraits of such disparate personalities as Bob Moses, Allard Lowenstein, Fanny Lou Hamer, and others. As astonishing as are the stories of the main events, equally stunning are the subtexts — the overwhelming pressures on King, tearing him between conciliation and confrontation, the rupture between Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X and the rise of Louis Farrakhan, the role of Lyndon Johnson, the pervasiveness of protest and violence, the political realignments along the fulcrum of civil rights.
Another recurring, depressing subtext is the Kennedy administration’s weakness working for civil rights. Kennedy not only ducked easy symbolic gestures (either keeping his meetings with King secret, or camouflaging them under group meetings), but frequently failed substantively as well.Such Kennedy efforts to satisfy Southern Congressional barons as revoking an order banning whites-only work crews on federally assisted road projects, or disallowing Justice Department lawsuits against police violence, served only to make the bigots and bullies want more appeasement. And while Robert Kennedy would become an impassioned advocate for the dispossessed, as attorney general he authorized an aggressive program of wiretaps and bugs, and fretted over King’s supposed security lapses.
It’s truly pathetic, and terribly sad, to learn that the only conversations Robert Kennedy ever had with Martin Luther King were over the supposed infiltration of communists into the movement. It was not the purported noble heroes of Camelot who led toward liberation, but the Southern successor-as-interloper, Lyndon Johnson. The Civil Rights Act was languishing at the time of JFK’s assassination; within seven months, this revolutionary legislation was law. Branch makes powerfully clear Lyndon Johnson’s commitment and vision, and how much he accomplished by putting the weight of his personality and office behind the bill.
We’re accustomed to Lyndon the Legendary Legislator” stories, the president steamrolling for some bill. But Branch also focuses on the rhetorical Johnson, whether inspirational (a quite good speech at Gettysburg, discussing the movement in Lincolnian terms) or startling (telling a stunned crowd about a Southern colleague who regretted betraying his populist past by campaigning exclusively on the threat of nigger! nigger! nigger!”). Johnson also single-handedly integrated an exclusive Texas country club, by escorting a black female White House aide to a New Year’s Eve function there.
But Branch’s ultimate subtext — reflected in the trilogy’s subtitle America in the King Years” — is that the singular figure of the era was neither Kennedy nor Johnson, but a young black minister. The earlier volume portrayed King’s earliest steps on the national stage; here, he has emerged as an international force.In fulfilling his epic destiny, King faced overwhelming pressures. Was he moving too fast for the cautious and conservative black establishment? Would demonstrations in the South doom federal civil rights efforts? Or was he too timid for the new generation of young, militant blacks? The pressures played out in a dizzying tableau; Branch describes a Detroit crowd of 125,000 enthusiastically greeting King — who was immediately thereafter pelted with eggs from a jeering crowd outside a church in Harlem. The narrative also implicitly comments on a current controversy, by showing how the personal lives of leaders can have a severe and negative impact on their public duties.
It’s sad but true — Dr. King, President Kennedy and Elijah Muhammad all could have done more for humankind had they tamed their sex drives. Using extraordinary espionage, FBI chief J.Edgar Hoover bugged King’s hotel rooms for the express purpose of tape recording encounters romantic (which happened) and communist (which didn’t).
This will destroy the burrhead!” an excited Hoover wrote of one obscene and offensive transcript. King is a `tom cat’ with obsessive, degenerate sexual urges,” he added. The FBI sent King a collection of such tapes, with a note suggesting he commit suicide. How sweet for Hoover that it was Coretta Scott King who opened the anonymous package and first played the recordings. Hoover kept his job by implicitly blackmailing Kennedy over the president’s dangerous liaisons with mob molls and spies.The Kennedys loathed Hoover (a mutual feeling), but feared him — so Hoover was allowed to exercise despotic power, to our lasting suffering and shame.
Branch makes palpable Robert Kennedy’s pain at wanting, but failing, to force Hoover to do the right thing. Hoover wasn’t just ineffectual in setting the FBI to the enforcement of federal law and the protection of federal rights; he made the FBI an active enemy of the movement. Bureau hostility to the movement was sensed in the ’60s and understood in the ’70s — but Branch documents a depth of detail that is overpowering. Hoover was both petty (honoring the agent who successfully dissuaded Marquette University from granting King an honorary degree, trying to block King from meeting with Pope Paul VI) and psychotic (telling others, but not King, of death threats).
It is natural for King’s family to accuse the government of complicity in his murder; Hoover appreciated and benefited from it as much as he had from Kennedy’s. Ultimately, King’s failures of the flesh cannot tarnish the legacy of his accomplishments. His deep and abiding commitment to non-violence — as a tactic, a strategy, a philosophy — probably saved our cities; his belief in a diverse and integrated America probably saved our soul. This story is so compelling, the tale so well told, that you wish the book were longer than its 613 pages. But even more, you wish for a happier ending than the profoundly tragic one we’ve lived.History Reports.