Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-1965

Overview

In the second volume of his three-part history, a monumental trilogy that began with Parting the Waters, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, Taylor Branch portrays the Civil Rights Movement at its zenith, recounting the climactic struggles as they commanded the national stage.

A sequel to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Parting the Waters, this second volume of a trilogy about the civil rights era re-creates all the factionalism, ...

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Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65

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Overview

In the second volume of his three-part history, a monumental trilogy that began with Parting the Waters, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, Taylor Branch portrays the Civil Rights Movement at its zenith, recounting the climactic struggles as they commanded the national stage.

A sequel to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Parting the Waters, this second volume of a trilogy about the civil rights era re-creates all the factionalism, blackmail, hatred, and violence that dimmed Martin Luther King, Jr.'s vision of nonviolent integration. Profiling historic characters such as Malcolm X and J. Edgar Hoover, Branch takes you inside the explosive dramas that rattled every American institution from the Presidency to the FBI to the local pulpits. Black-and-white photos.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Volume two of Branch's broad history of King and his times. The 1960s witnessed a strange and remarkable confluence of changes. But more than the youth or women's or anti-war movements, the fight for civil rights initiated the struggles against authority and repression. And King stood front and center.
Stephen Moore
Pillar of Fire represents a monumental undertaking. . . a monument to the many individuals and circumstances encountered in the effort to secure the fundamental rights of citizenship. It is clearly a book worth reading, and if approached with an open mind can be both rewarding and informative. -- Quarterly Black Review
Charles Taylor
The title tells you everything you need to know. America in the King Years, Taylor Branch's three-volume biography of Martin Luther King Jr., of which the new Pillar of Fire is the second installment, declares its ambition and conviction: Ambition to encompass far more than just King's life, and conviction that King, more than any other figure, shaped American life from the mid-'50s to the late '60s. Branch has embarked on an epic work that shows every sign of being equal to the moral, emotional and narrative complexity of the civil rights struggle, and Pillar of Fire can stand alongside the first volume, Parting the Waters, as one of the greatest achievements in American biography.

As Branch tells it, the movement's struggle continues to feel like the best story in American history. Perhaps because it's our nakedest moment, the time when large numbers of Americans, barely recognized as such by sanctioned power, dared to dream of what the country could be at its best, in the face of what it often was at its worst.

Pillar of Fire captures King and the civil rights movement at a fulcrum. The moments of highest triumph and widest influence following the March on Washington, the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and King's winning of the Nobel Peace Prize were also the times the movement faced the greatest violence, epitomized by the Mississippi murders of Goodman, Cheyney and Schwerner during Freedom Summer. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was also riven by an internal conflict over whether to stay true to its grass-roots beginnings or to become a slick political organization; Malcolm X was sowing doubts about the legitimacy of nonviolence; and Stokely Carmichael was shortly to introduce the concept of "Black Power." The territory Branch has to cover here is killingly large. Sometimes he abandons a thread when we want him to move on to a climax, and sometimes his clauses are a tad more convoluted than they need to be. But this is a remarkable job of clarity wrestled from massive detail.

Pillar of Fire extends the sympathy and piercing intelligence of the previous volume's psychological portrait of King. Branch also navigates the maddening and deeply moving contradictions of Malcolm X, and what can only be described as the cravenness of JFK. Terrified of losing the South, Kennedy relentlessly put politics first and stayed true to his narrow Cold War ethos by warning King of communist "infiltration" in the movement. But perhaps the most important part of Branch's book is his detailing of J. Edgar Hoover's surveillance of King, and the FBI's various disgusting smear tactics, including sending a package to King containing a tape with evidence of his extramarital affairs accompanied by a note suggesting he kill himself before the tape's contents become known. This material isn't new, but it feels revelatory here because it's been laid out as part of a narrative.

Given what the official channels of government and power brought to bear against the civil rights movement, and given what a sad story Branch is telling and our knowledge of what awaits at the end of the final volume, it's amazing that, reading it, you can still hear clearly the sweet transcendence of the freedom songs and mass meetings he describes. You come to the end of this volume weary, scarcely believing there can be more to come, and hungry for Branch's next volume. -- Salon

Alan Wolfe
Branch brings to these events both a passion for their detail and a recognition of their larger historical significance....a stunning accomplishment. —The New York Times Book Review
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
A glorious account of extraordinary times.
Jeff Shesol
Branch spins an intricate, seamless web of politics and personalities, ambition and imagination, triumph and tragedy. —The Washington Post Book World
Newsweek
A magisterial history of one of the most tumultuous periods in postwar America.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
A glorious account of extraordinary times.
Steven F. Lawson
Though covering only a few years, Pillar of Fire is majestic in scope, the product of intense archival research and oral history.... As [Branch] lurches from topic to topic within each chapter, [he] provides both more and less than satisfies the reader...the book falls short of providing a coherent interpretation of King, the movement to which he belonged, and the alternatives available to him. Despite more than 600 pages of text, it is an imcomplete effort.
— Political Science Quarterly
Library Journal
This follows the success of Branch's magesterial Parting the Waters (LJ 1/89), which took King from the time of the Brown decision through the Montgomery bus boycott and on to 1963, the watershed year. The second volume chronicles these crowded years of 1963-65, when the Civil Rights movement reached full cry in Washington and King was at the height of his powers. (LJ 2/1/98).
Library Journal
Following Parting the Waters (LJ 1/89), his magnificent Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the Civil Rights years 1954-63, Branch's second volume of a projected trilogy takes the story through the heady years that saw the Southern Freedom Rides, Congressional battles over the Civil Rights acts, the March on Washington, the Birmingham bombing, and the assassinations of John Kennedy, Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X. Once more, Branch's national epic is knit together by the charismatic figure of Dr. King. We only think we know this story, which in Branch's masterly version seems freshened and newly impressive, told without cant or cliche. (LJ 2/1/98)
Russell Baker
Pillar of Fire extend[s] from January of 1963 to the later part of 1965. Short though the time span is, these were years packed with great events that were to change the course of history. Branch seems determined to reconstruct a day-by-day record of absolutely everything that took place....the final, cumulative effect is overpowering. The sheer volume of fascinating stories accounts for this success. -- Russell Baker, The New York Review of Books
Alan Wolfe
Branch brings to these events both a passion for their detail and a recognition of their larger historical significance....a stunning accomplishment. -- The New York Times Book Review
Richard Bernstein
By the time you have finished [Pillar of Fire], you feel almost as if you had relived the era, not just read about it.
The New York Times
Jeff Shesol
Politics and personalities, ambition and imagination, triumph and tragedy.
The Washington Post
David M. Shribman
One part biography, one part history, one part elegy…a vast panorama…powerful.
The Wall Street Journal
Jeff Shesol
Branch spins an intricate, seamless web of politics and personalities, ambition and imagination, triumph and tragedy. -- The Washington Post Book World
Newsweek
A magisterial history of one of the most tumultuous periods in postwar America.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
A glorious account of extraordinary times.
NY Times Book Review
The second volume of a projected trilogy that began with "Parting the Waters" continues the story of Martin Luther King Jr., a man who, the author concludes, was truly an epic hero.
Kirkus Reviews
In this stirring follow-up to his Pulitzer Prize winning Parting the Waters (1988), Branch recalls the terror, dissension, and courage of the civil-rights movement at its zenith: the mid- 1960s agitation leading to landmark integration and voting-rights legislation. With deft narrative skill, Branch shows how the lives of individuals and the nation as a whole were transformed in such diverse settings as Birmingham, Ala., where legendary protests occurred; the LBJ White House; and South-Central L.A., where a 1962 shooting involving police and Black Muslims signaled the start of a decade of urban tensions. Memoirs, oral histories, interviews, and recently revealed FBI wiretaps enable Branch to trace the inexorable momentum of change almost day by day. He also details the overlapping goals, tactical disputes, and petty jealousies among and within major movement organizations, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the NAACP. Straddling a narrative filled with a novel's-worth of fascinating real-life characters are two spellbinding, tormented figures epitomizing two poles of protest: Martin Luther King Jr., unnerved by FBI surveillance of his philandering, so resentful of Kennedy caution over civil-rights advocacy that he cracked an obscene joke while watching the president's funeral, yet winning a Nobel Peace Prize; and Malcolm X, shattered by his discovery that mentor Elijah Muhammad had impregnated several secretaries, attempting on the fly to plot a new course away from the Nation of Islam before his assassination. Finally, Branch foreshadows the forces and events that were to stall the movement in thenext few years: a Republican Party making inroads in the South during Barry Goldwater's otherwise disastrous campaign, the alienation of white liberals from militant blacks, and the Vietnam War. With a third volume to come, this history is taking pride of place among the dozens of fine chronicles of this time of tumult and moral witness in American history.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684848099
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 1/20/1999
  • Pages: 768
  • Sales rank: 215,604
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Taylor  Branch

Taylor Branch is the bestselling author of Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63; Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65; At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968; and The Clinton Tapes. He has won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Biography

Taylor Branch is the bestselling author of Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 (which won the Pulitzer Prize), Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65, and At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968.

The author of two other nonfiction books and a novel, Branch is a former staff member of The Washington Monthly, Harper's, and Esquire. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

Author biography courtesy of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Good To Know

Some interesting and inspiring outtakes from our interview with Branch:

"The civil rights movement was my formative inspiration for writing, because I was both stunned and mystified by the courage of black people across town much younger than my non-political self."

"I would like my readers to entertain the core notion that civil rights history is not a quaint tale of yesteryear, but rather our best model for the urgent task of understanding and refining democracy."

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    1. Hometown:
      Baltimore, Maryland
    1. Date of Birth:
      January 14, 1947
    2. Place of Birth:
      Atlanta, Georgia
    1. Education:
      A.B., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1968; M.P.A., Princeton University, 1970
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 6

Tremors: L.A. to Selma

James Bevel was in Birmingham by then, summoned by Martin Luther King. With Diane Nash and their eight-month-old daughter, Bevel arrived from Greenwood just in time to preach at the April 12 mass meeting in place of King, who had submitted to solitary confinement that afternoon. The carefully planned Birmingham campaign was in crisis. Over the next week, Bevel and Nash pitched in behind King's exacting administrator, Wyatt Walker, who labored to keep pace with chaos on many fronts — lobbying for some hint of public support from the Kennedys, cultivating reporters and distant celebrities, coaxing forward new jail volunteers, weeding out laggards and training the rest in nonviolence for the daily marches toward the forbidden landmarks of segregated commerce.

One of Walker's tactical innovations presented an opportunity uniquely suited to Bevel. Walker demanded punctuality in the daily demonstrations until he noticed while fuming through the inevitable delays that news reporters often lumped Negro bystanders together with actual jail marchers in their crowd estimates. After that, Walker went against his nature to hold up the marches with deliberate tardiness, so that daily stories of growing crowds could disguise the dwindling number willing to accept jail. As the delays stretched past school hours, crowds began to fill with Bevel's preferred recruits — Negro students.

To Bevel, looking past the arrests to the teenagers in the background, the flagging demonstrations already had accomplished the work of many months in the Mississippi Delta, where the bulk of the Negro population was widely dispersed on rural plantations: they had gathered a crowd. With Nash and student volunteers, he distributed handbills advertising a daily youth meeting at five o'clock, two hours before the regular seven o'clock mass meeting. There he preached on the meaning of the primal events downtown. His crowds grew so rapidly that Andrew Young helped run the youth meetings, and Dorothy Cotton, Young's assistant in the SCLC citizenship program, led the singing. Following his practice in Mississippi, Bevel showed a film — an NBC White Paper on the Nashville student movement of 1960, which featured the stirring, climactic march of four thousand students that had desegregated Nashville's libraries and lunch counters. By April 20, when King and Abernathy bonded out of the Birmingham jail, the youth meeting already surpassed the adult meeting in numbers. By April 23, when reporters again failed to ask President Kennedy about Birmingham at his press conference, the adult mass meeting first packed St. James Baptist Church because the students in a mass stayed over from their own session. By April 26, when the jail march was reduced to a handful, forcing Fred Shuttlesworth to play for time by announcing a massive new phase to begin on May 2, most of the jail volunteers who rose in the mass meeting came from the youth workshops.

King praised the children for their courage but told them to sit down. The Birmingham jail was no place for them. At the nightly strategy sessions, King and the other leaders flailed among themselves to devise a master stroke for May 2 that might hold off the movement's extinction — a hunger strike or perhaps a jail march by Negro preachers in robes. No idea promised to crack the reserve of the outside world. Sensing their exhaustion from the other side, Birmingham's white leaders rallied to the "velvet hammer" policy of firm but nonsensational resistance, and the local newspaper published an article of encouragement entitled "Greenwood Rolled with the Punch — And Won." King's sessions grew more rancorous. They were promising their followers and the national press nothing less than "a nonviolent D-Day" on May 2, but all the thunder of preachers and the honey of massed choirs pulled no more than forty or fifty volunteers from the pews, Wyatt Walker admitted. He bristled at Bevel's claims that the youth meetings were spilling over into another church almost every day. Walker resented Bevel as an upstart, an intruder, and a free spirit who played loose with the chain of command.

Still, Walker was a man of results. Having come into Birmingham with only minority support from the Negro adults of Birmingham, and having delivered mostly suffering and disappointment since then, King and Shuttlesworth already were fending off internal pressures to evacuate gracefully. Backbiters predicted that the outsiders would leave Birmingham Negroes worse off than ever, with segregation hardened by the besieged anger of whites. Worse, Bevel's proposal would leave the best of the next generation with criminal records, not to mention the psychological scars of wide-eyed children dragged into the inferno of a segregated jail. King's host family in Birmingham, John and Deenie Drew of a prominent insurance family, resolved to send their children off to boarding school lest they get caught up in the trouble. Like most of King's strongest supporters, they would have recoiled in horror had they known that Bevel aimed to use not just the older teenagers but also the junior high students on down to "the babies" just out of kindergarten. What dismayed much of the senior staff was not so much that King, smiling and noncommittal, insisted on hearing Bevel out, but that King seemed to respect the "voices" Bevel heard even when they urged him to subvert the damaged authority of Negro Birmingham through its children. "Against your Mama," Bevel told King, "you have a right to make this witness."

When the doors of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church opened shortly after one o'clock on Thursday, May 2, a line of fifty teenagers emerged two abreast, singing. The waiting police detail hauled them into jail wagons, as usual, and only the youth of the demonstrators distinguished the day until a second line emerged, then a third and many more. Children as young as six years old held their ground until arrested. Amid mounting confusion, police commanders called in school buses for jail transport and sent reinforcements to intercept stray lines that slipped past them toward the downtown business district. On the first day, nearly a thousand marching children converted first the Negro adults. Not a few of the onlookers in Kelly Ingram Park were dismayed to see their own disobedient offspring in the line, and the conflicting emotions of centuries played out on their faces until some finally gave way. One elderly woman ran alongside the arrest line, shouting, "Sing, children, sing!"

With the jails swamped by nightfall, Bull Connor ordered a massed phalanx of officers to disperse rather than arrest any demonstrators King might send the next day — intimidate them, shoo them away. When more than a thousand new children turned out in high-spirited, nonviolent discipline, giving no ground, frustration and hatred erupted under Connor's command. Police dogs tore into the march lines, and high-powered fire hoses knocked children along the pavement like tumbleweed. News photographs of the violence seized millions of distant eyes, shattering inner defenses. In Birmingham, the Negro principal of Parker High School desperately locked the gates from the outside to preserve a semblance of order, but students trampled the chain-link fence to join the demonstrations.

King, preaching at night to a serial mass meeting that spilled from one packed church to another, urged crowds to remember the feel of history among them. He cast aside his innate caution along with criticism and worry over the children in jail, shouting, "Now yesterday was D-Day, and tomorrow will be Double-D Day!" From Shuttlesworth's old pulpit, Bevel cried out in playful hyperbole that they would finish off Birmingham before Tuesday by placing every Negro young and old in jail so that he could be "back in Mississippi, chopping cotton." Bevel did not make his deadline, but nonviolent Negroes did overflow the jails and flood the forbidden downtown streets within a week. By Monday, May 6, the sudden conversion gushed from child to adult until no fewer than 2,500 demonstrators swamped the Birmingham jail, and King welcomed in awe the tangible sensation of history spilling over at frenzied mass meetings of four times that number.

Something primal welled up the same day in a Los Angeles courtroom. Defense lawyer Earl Broady faltered while cross-examining Officer Lee Logan about the mayhem at the Muslim Temple No. 27 in April of 1962. "Now this 'male Negro' business, this is significant to you, isn't it?" asked Broady in a whisper, his face suddenly clouded. "'Male Negroes,'" he repeated. When Logan replied that the term was merely descriptive of the brawlers that violent night, Broady tried to resume his planned examination but stopped again. "You called them niggers while you were in this fight with them, didn't you?" he blurted out.

"I did not," Logan replied.

Broady asked for time to compose himself, but he called for a bench conference as soon as Logan testified that his first sight at the crime scene was "several male Negroes" fighting with officers a block south of the Muslim temple. "Your Honor, I believe these defendants should be referred to exactly the same as if they were Caucasians," said Broady. "This officer wouldn't refer to male Jews. He wouldn't refer to male Irishmen. He wouldn't refer to male Swedes. He wouldn't refer to male Caucasians."

Judge David Coleman hushed stirrings in the courtroom and spoke gently to Broady, whom he had known for years, observing that race was a standard designation in all police reports. "This issue has been made by the defense and not by the People," said the judge, who went on to remind Broady that the defense lawyers had tried to insert a racial standard by objecting, for instance, to the all-white jury. (On that matter, Judge Coleman had assured Broady privately that the all-white jury was probably best because most Negro jurors were too emotional to be objective about such a sensational case.) Broady argued that the drumbeat repetition of generic racial phrases was far from neutral in effect, and spread a blur of prejudicial guilt over all Negroes, including the fourteen Muslims on trial. "This man has said 'male Negroes' eleven times," Broady protested. "We kept an accurate count on it."

Judge Coleman chided Broady for insecurity. "Someday we will get to a period of confidence and respect for ourselves," he said at the bench, "when a reference to us as Negroes, Jews, or anything else will not be a matter that disturbs us very much, but it would be in effect something which we are very proud of."

Unable to reply, Broady walked back to the defense table and stood paralyzed for some time. Perversely, the judge's rebuttal struck deep within him. As dean of Negro lawyers in Los Angeles, Broady had spent years believing that to speak and think as a Negro was to confess inferiority, and that to think white was clear and refined. Recently, when business required him to talk with the employer of a criminal defendant, Broady had found himself cringing involuntarily in manner and speech — "yessiring" — to a Beverly Hills neighbor he claimed as a peer. Only then did he begin to admit that he was learning lessons from bootblacks and reformed thieves. For a month now — as long as King had campaigned in Birmingham — up to 250 armed deputies had guarded the courtroom against tinderbox fears of a race riot, and yet only the fourteen Muslim defendants spoke forthrightly of race. They sat in perfect order at the defense table a few rows ahead of Malcolm X, as crisp as their Muslim suits. Each testified with unflinching discipline about degradations — their broken homes, poor educations, and criminal records, their loss of bladder or bowel control after the shootings outside the temple. Broady had come to admire them in spite of their religious hokum, as he saw it, but he could not push race to the surface and hope to win in court.

"Your Honor," he said finally, "...I don't feel I can continue this cross-examination." Broady later minimized his breakdown as a suppressed fit of temper, telling reporters he feared he "might pull a Muslim" if he spoke, but at the defense table he could only bury his face in his hands while his co-counsel gamely took over.

The two sides skittered back and forth on the open mention of race. Prosecutors occasionally slipped in loaded questions: "As a Muslim, Mr. Jones, does the phrase 'kill the white devils' have any significance?" A deputy DA was careful to ask one question of Officer Paul Kuykendall: "Just for the record, are you of the Negro race?" Kuykendall's positive response established that one of the government's police witnesses was a Negro, much to the discomfort of Kuykendall himself. Within the department, he no longer could pass as a white officer. Acid doubt about Kuykendall's moment of hesitation in that night's death struggle between Officer Lee Logan and Muslim Arthur X Coleman — sparing Coleman's life in exchange for even an instant's added danger to Logan — dissolved fraternal trust among police for Kuykendall, while practically no Negroes allowed him offsetting credit for professionalism or humanity. Kuykendall was to remain a morose figure, stranded in a cloud of isolation.

For the defense, Broady did ask teenage defendant Troy X Augustine if he could have used the word "Negro," among others, as recorded in a disputed statement. "No, sir," Augustine replied. Asked why, he said, "Ever since I have found out what Negro means, I stopped calling people that." Broady cut off the testimony before Augustine could explain, however, and a prosecutor made sport of the inconsistency, saying the defense wanted to discuss race some times and not others. Broady could not afford testimony on the meaning of "Negro" because it would open the treacherous subject of Elijah Muhammad's Muslim teachings. Members of the Nation of Islam strictly and exclusively used the term "black" instead of "Negro," the Spanish word for "black," saying it was as absurd for them to ground racial identity in a foreign language as it would be for white people to call themselves "Blancos."

Most of the testimony re-created the chaotic violence of April 27 as mirror images of primeval savagery, with each side portraying itself as victim. Medical testimony lent some support to the dramatic accounts of police suffering, especially early in the altercation when Tomlinson was shot and Kensic badly beaten. As descriptions moved to the later shootings and reprisals inside the temple, however, officers seemed to have emerged remarkably unscathed from the mass attack. Officer Reynolds had a thumb injury, which defense counsel suggested was the result of his own aggressions. As for the defense, Muslim witnesses consistently denied that they ever saw any fellow Muslim fighting back against the officers. They embraced their wounds and their lack of weapons as the anchor strength of their testimony, discarding Elijah Muhammad's posture of virile self-defense along with his militant sarcasm about the cowardly weakness of the nonviolent movement. Malcolm X coached all the defendants, demanding precision of testimony and a uniform politeness under the most scathing hostility. In the crucible of trial, they displayed an air of acceptance that bordered on forgiveness.

Small wonders took seed in the obscure Muslim trial just as nonviolence seized the emotions of the larger world from Birmingham. King's demonstrators literally carpeted Birmingham's downtown business district that second week of May. Having no place to put them, police officers in their midst shrugged helplessly to the city's business leaders, who were traumatized by the sudden evaporation of normalcy and commerce alike. Nearly two hundred reporters had converged from as far away as Germany and Japan. "We are not sitting idly by," President Kennedy's spokesman announced tersely in Washington. "We just can't say anything." Privately, Kennedy and several members of his Cabinet were calling the heads of corporations with subsidiaries in Birmingham, urging them to enter negotiations with King, and on Friday, May 10, Fred Shuttlesworth announced triumphantly that Birmingham "has reached accord with its conscience." Birmingham's merchants had accepted a schedule for desegregating their dressing rooms and lunch counters — even hiring Negro clerks. "Now this is an amazing thing!" King cried out at the mass meeting.

In Los Angeles, Charles X Zeno testified that same Friday about how he had left his sons in the car while he went into the temple to find his wife, Mabel, and how Officer Reynolds crashed through the door into him so that they tumbled pell-mell into the water cooler in the next room. Like other Muslim witnesses, Zeno identified the shreds of the suit he had worn. By the time Earl Broady gave up the witness for cross-examination, deputy DA Howard Kippen was eager to remove the torn coat and trousers from view. "Well, let's take these away so we can see each other," he told Zeno, and then paused. Instead of contesting detailed testimony about vengeful police hysteria, Kippen abruptly reversed course to make use of it. "Now the night of April 27, 1962, at any time did you get angry?" he asked.

"No, sir," Zeno testified.

"You didn't get angry?" Kippen asked, underscoring surprise.

"No, sir."

"You were struck from the back?"

"Yes, sir."

"You were punched in the mouth."

"Yes, sir."

"Your gums were bleeding, your teeth were bleeding and loose?"

"Yes, sir."

"Your clothes were ripped?"

"Yes, sir."

"You were hit in the groin?"

"Yes, sir."

"You didn't get angry?"

"No, sir."

Broady jumped up to object that Kippen was not allowing the defendant to explain himself — perhaps Zeno meant he was too frightened at the time to be angry — but Kippen had his answer. In summation, he argued that no human being could endure such abuse without getting angry, suggesting that the police deserved the benefit of doubt if the Muslims joined in the violence — or alternatively that the Muslims were inhuman. Either way, they deserved what they got. Only one defendant ever admitted feeling resentment of the rawest humiliation and pain, he scoffed. Prosecutors said the Muslims were too good to be true. By their formulation, the defendants were guilty unless the jury could find them as innocent as the youngest child in Birmingham jail.

Bernard Lafayette drove to Birmingham to help Bevel and Diane Nash drill young people for the climactic jail marches, but he seldom stayed over. The thunderous breakthrough in Birmingham made him uncomfortable away from his new post some hundred miles to the south, and Lafayette returned to Selma most evenings that week to sit in vigil at tiny, segregated Berwell Infirmary, where a last debilitating stroke did not keep Sam Boynton from proselytizing whenever conscious. "Are you a registered voter?" he called out to strangers walking down his corridor. "I want you to go down and register. A voteless people is a hopeless people."

Boynton expired within hours of the jubilee news from Birmingham, and the coincidence loosed a flood of emotion so powerful that Lafayette canvassed ministers about the fleeting chance to hold Selma's first mass meeting. He half concealed his political purpose by calling it a "Memorial Service for Mr. Boynton and Voter Registration," but no one was fooled. Boynton's own pastor declined to have such a service at First Baptist of Selma, which had shunned controversy since driving off its pastor, Fred Shuttlesworth, a decade earlier, and other pastors refused for fear of having their churches bombed. "They don't feel disposed to build another church," advised Rev. L.L. Anderson of Tabernacle Baptist. "Most of them have their churches paid for." Anderson himself admitted that he could not offer Tabernacle on his own, even as a last resort. "That's too big a thing for one man," he said, but he did preach an impromptu eulogy for Boynton at a business meeting, asking who could deny tribute to such a man. When no deacon objected, Anderson quickly spread word of his commitment. Within hours, a local Negro printer on his own wits refused Lafayette's order for high-quality leaflets. "I understand you call yourself a printer," Anderson thundered at the balky shopowner. "When people bring things to you, your job is just to print them. You are a printer."

Lafayette got his leaflets, but by nightfall the Tabernacle deacons caucused on their own in the boardroom of Selma University. Anderson rushed there with foreboding, knowing the deacons considered Selma University their turf. Many were on the faculty, and D.V. Jemison had doubled as president of the college when he was alive. To Anderson's dismay, the spokesman for the rebellious deacons was the redoubtable Dr. William H. Dinkins, a history professor of pioneering degrees from Brown University among other schools, with a puckish sense of theater to lighten his pomposity. Anderson liked Dinkins and often called upon him spontaneously from the pulpit for a scriptural reference or historical fact, which Dinkins invariably supplied. Father of the woman Anderson hoped to marry, Dinkins had supported him through the schism of 1956, tormenting the Walker faction with learned expositions on the difference between "misfeasance" and "malfeasance." These ties made it painful on both sides for Dinkins to say the deacons canceled any use of Tabernacle for a Boynton memorial. "You are forsaking your friends, pastor," he said. "You are going with strangers." He meant the young Freedom Rider Lafayette, whom Dinkins called "this rabble-rouser who says he's a preacher."

Almost nose to nose, Anderson and Dinkins debated which sin most profaned a house of worship: a purpose tinged with secular politics, or a spirit corrupted by worldly fear. Each man cited the story of Jesus driving money changers from the Temple, drawing opposite lessons on the propriety of the Boynton memorial. The clash of emotions caused a number of deacons to wail and intercede clumsily for peace. One confessed that he had always avoided his friend Boynton in public view downtown, for fear of association with a voting zealot. When religious arguments were exhausted, Anderson pretended to concede. "You built the church," he told the deacons. "You carried the mortar. You stacked the bricks. I don't have a dime in the building, and as a matter of fact I wasn't even born. So I'm not going to take this church." While confident that the members would support him if he went ahead by fiat, Anderson declared, he would defer instead and move the Boynton service outdoors to a strip of land just off church property. He described the boundaries with precise detail and rising excitement. "I'm going to wire it up with loudspeakers," he shouted. "And I'm going to tell the folks that they can't come into Tabernacle because the deacons are afraid! Afraid of the white folks!"

"No, no, brother pastor, don't do that," Dinkins replied. Ambushed, the deacons tried to gauge the mix of bluff and determination in Anderson's face.

None of this internal anguish showed when the crowd of 350 gathered at Tabernacle Baptist on Tuesday evening, May 14. For them, soft organ music and the calming presence of Reverend Anderson in his robes preserved the repose of the sanctuary against a tension that was shockingly external. Glaring red and blue police lights flashed through the stained glass windows. On their car radios, many in attendance had been listening to the angry voice of Governor George Wallace denouncing the presence of U.S. Army troops in Birmingham as "an open invitation to resumption of street rioting by lawless Negro mobs, under the assumption that they will be protected by the federal military forces." For three days, since bombs detonated outside Martin Luther King's motel room, tremors of race spread from Birmingham to Selma and far beyond, rattling bones in Tabernacle.

Sheriff Jim Clark entered the sanctuary with a brace of deputies. The sudden appearance of any white person would have hushed the church, but these armed men, led by the widely feared enforcer of the white supremacy laws, drew an instant crowd of nervous Tabernacle deacons. Clark showed them a court order giving him access to the church to guard against insurrection, explaining it as something like a search warrant. Waving off a humble request that the guns not be displayed in the church, Clark posted his men all around the rear of the curved walnut pews beneath Tabernacle's imposing central dome. One deputy transmitted Clark's orders by walkie-talkie to some fifty reinforcements posted outside among flashing lights. Angry shouts and the sounds of breaking glass filtered through the walls. Those seated in the pews could not be sure whether the damage to their parked cars came from white bystanders or the law enforcement officers themselves, or both. The threat was as ambiguous as Clark's court order, which could be stretched to mean that the officers were protecting the church against the insurrectionary violence of white segregationists.

For three hours, the gathered Negroes expressed their own double meanings on the edge between heavenly and earthly reward. When hymns and testimonials to Boynton had lifted spirits, Lafayette introduced as featured speaker the man who had assigned him to Selma, SNCC Executive Director James Forman. Although Forman at thirty-four was a few months older than Martin Luther King, he remained a student leader in title and function, and his measured audacity often bowled over audiences who expected the tentative suggestions of youth. Preaching a sermon called "The High Cost of Freedom," Forman said it was good that the white officers were there to deprive them of cheap courage. If they wanted to shout amen to the mission of Sam Boynton, they should do so in front of the sheriff who stood in its way. "Someday they will have to open up that ballot box," said Forman. A crescendo of enthusiasm made a number of elders cringe for the reaction of Sheriff Clark. Among them was the senior minister, who hastened to deliver the closing prayer. "You shouldn't put all of the blame on the white man," he said. "...We've got a lot to do in our own homes and own community before we talk about these other things."

Upon dismissal near midnight, the buzzing crowd exited no further than Tabernacle's front steps before clumping hesitantly at the sight of angry whites strewn along Broad Street, Selma's main thoroughfare. Most prominent were teenagers wielding freshly lathed table legs from a nearby furniture company. Sheriff Clark surprised some of the Negro leaders by shouting for everyone to disperse, but nothing happened. His special deputies mingled among the whites, who stood their ground. As Negroes huddled in panic, fearing arrest if they stayed and attack if they moved, decisive peacemaking authority arrived in the person of the football coach from Selma High School, who jumped from his car and pointed out his current and former players, telling them to go home.

Neither the Selma mass meeting nor the Muslim trial in Los Angeles competed with the avalanche of movement stories breaking out in city after city. Government statisticians counted 758 racial demonstrations and 14,733 arrests in 186 American muncipalities over the ten weeks following the May 10 Birmingham settlement. Sites quivered separately, unaware of one another or of the converging potential to lift up the right to vote and the raw alienations of cities outside the South. Less than two years later, Malcolm X would speak from a Selma pulpit alongside James Bevel and Fred Shuttlesworth, with Martin Luther King in jail, in a voting movement that made Selma an American landmark.

Copyright © 1998 by Taylor Branch

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Table of Contents

Contents
Preface to Pillar of Fire

PART ONE
BIRMIGHAM TIDES
1 Islam in Los Angeles
2 Prophets in Chicago
3 LBJ in St. Augustine
4 Gamblers in Law
5 To Vote in Mississippi: Advance by Retreat
6 Tremors: L.A. to Selma
7 Marx in the White House
8 Summer Freeze
9 Cavalry: Lowenstein and the Church
10 Mirrors in Black and White
11 Against All Enemies
12 Frontiers on Edge: The Last Month

PART TWO
NEW WORLDS PASSING
13 Grief
14 High Councils
15 Hattiesburg Freedom Day
16 Ambush
17 Spreading Poisons
18 The Creation of Muhammad Ali
19 Shaky Pulpits
20 Mary Peabody Meets the Klan
21 Wrestling with Legends
22 Filibusters
23 Pilgrims and Empty Pitchers
24 Brushfires

PART THREE
FREEDOM SUMMER
25 Jail Marches
26 Bogue Chitto Swamp
27 Beachheads
28 Testing Freedom
29 The Cow Palace Revolt
30 King in Mississippi
31 Riot Politics
32 Crime, War, and Freedom School
33 White House Etiquette
34 A Dog in the Manger: The Atlantic City Compromise
35 "We see the giants..."
36 Movements Unbound

PART FOUR
"LORD, MAKE ME PURE — BUT NOT YET"
37 Landslide
38 Nobel Prize
39 To the Valley: The Downward King
40 Saigon, Audubon, and Selma
Epilogue

Acknowledgments
Abbreviations Used in Source Notes
Notes
Major Works Cited in Notes
Index

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First Chapter

P> Chapter 6

Tremors: L.A. to Selma

James Bevel was in Birmingham by then, summoned by Martin Luther King. With Diane Nash and their eight-month-old daughter, Bevel arrived from Greenwood just in time to preach at the April 12 mass meeting in place of King, who had submitted to solitary confinement that afternoon. The carefully planned Birmingham campaign was in crisis. Over the next week, Bevel and Nash pitched in behind King's exacting administrator, Wyatt Walker, who labored to keep pace with chaos on many fronts -- lobbying for some hint of public support from the Kennedys, cultivating reporters and distant celebrities, coaxing forward new jail volunteers, weeding out laggards and training the rest in nonviolence for the daily marches toward the forbidden landmarks of segregated commerce.

One of Walker's tactical innovations presented an opportunity uniquely suited to Bevel. Walker demanded punctuality in the daily demonstrations until he noticed while fuming through the inevitable delays that news reporters often lumped Negro bystanders together with actual jail marchers in their crowd estimates. After that, Walker went against his nature to hold up the marches with deliberate tardiness, so that daily stories of growing crowds could disguise the dwindling number willing to accept jail. As the delays stretched past school hours, crowds began to fill with Bevel's preferred recruits -- Negro students.

To Bevel, looking past the arrests to the teenagers in the background, the flagging demonstrations already had accomplished the work of many months in the Mississippi Delta, where the bulk of the Negro population was widely dispersed on rural plantations: they had gathered a crowd. With Nash and student volunteers, he distributed handbills advertising a daily youth meeting at five o'clock, two hours before the regular seven o'clock mass meeting. There he preached on the meaning of the primal events downtown. His crowds grew so rapidly that Andrew Young helped run the youth meetings, and Dorothy Cotton, Young's assistant in the SCLC citizenship program, led the singing. Following his practice in Mississippi, Bevel showed a film -- an NBC White Paper on the Nashville student movement of 1960, which featured the stirring, climactic march of four thousand students that had desegregated Nashville's libraries and lunch counters. By April 20, when King and Abernathy bonded out of the Birmingham jail, the youth meeting already surpassed the adult meeting in numbers. By April 23, when reporters again failed to ask President Kennedy about Birmingham at his press conference, the adult mass meeting first packed St. James Baptist Church because the students in a mass stayed over from their own session. By April 26, when the jail march was reduced to a handful, forcing Fred Shuttlesworth to play for time by announcing a massive new phase to begin on May 2, most of the jail volunteers who rose in the mass meeting came from the youth workshops.

King praised the children for their courage but told them to sit down. The Birmingham jail was no place for them. At the nightly strategy sessions, King and the other leaders flailed among themselves to devise a master stroke for May 2 that might hold off the movement's extinction -- a hunger strike or perhaps a jail march by Negro preachers in robes. No idea promised to crack the reserve of the outside world. Sensing their exhaustion from the other side, Birmingham's white leaders rallied to the "velvet hammer" policy of firm but nonsensational resistance, and the local newspaper published an article of encouragement entitled "Greenwood Rolled with the Punch -- And Won." King's sessions grew more rancorous. They were promising their followers and the national press nothing less than "a nonviolent D-Day" on May 2, but all the thunder of preachers and the honey of massed choirs pulled no more than forty or fifty volunteers from the pews, Wyatt Walker admitted. He bristled at Bevel's claims that the youth meetings were spilling over into another church almost every day. Walker resented Bevel as an upstart, an intruder, and a free spirit who played loose with the chain of command.

Still, Walker was a man of results. Having come into Birmingham with only minority support from the Negro adults of Birmingham, and having delivered mostly suffering and disappointment since then, King and Shuttlesworth already were fending off internal pressures to evacuate gracefully. Backbiters predicted that the outsiders would leave Birmingham Negroes worse off than ever, with segregation hardened by the besieged anger of whites. Worse, Bevel's proposal would leave the best of the next generation with criminal records, not to mention the psychological scars of wide-eyed children dragged into the inferno of a segregated jail. King's host family in Birmingham, John and Deenie Drew of a prominent insurance family, resolved to send their children off to boarding school lest they get caught up in the trouble. Like most of King's strongest supporters, they would have recoiled in horror had they known that Bevel aimed to use not just the older teenagers but also the junior high students on down to "the babies" just out of kindergarten. What dismayed much of the senior staff was not so much that King, smiling and noncommittal, insisted on hearing Bevel out, but that King seemed to respect the "voices" Bevel heard even when they urged him to subvert the damaged authority of Negro Birmingham through its children. "Against your Mama," Bevel told King, "you have a right to make this witness."

When the doors of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church opened shortly after one o'clock on Thursday, May 2, a line of fifty teenagers emerged two abreast, singing. The waiting police detail hauled them into jail wagons, as usual, and only the youth of the demonstrators distinguished the day until a second line emerged, then a third and many more. Children as young as six years old held their ground until arrested. Amid mounting confusion, police commanders called in school buses for jail transport and sent reinforcements to intercept stray lines that slipped past them toward the downtown business district. On the first day, nearly a thousand marching children converted first the Negro adults. Not a few of the onlookers in Kelly Ingram Park were dismayed to see their own disobedient offspring in the line, and the conflicting emotions of centuries played out on their faces until some finally gave way. One elderly woman ran alongside the arrest line, shouting, "Sing, children, sing!"


With the jails swamped by nightfall, Bull Connor ordered a massed phalanx of officers to disperse rather than arrest any demonstrators King might send the next day -- intimidate them, shoo them away. When more than a thousand new children turned out in high-spirited, nonviolent discipline, giving no ground, frustration and hatred erupted under Connor's command. Police dogs tore into the march lines, and high-powered fire hoses knocked children along the pavement like tumbleweed. News photographs of the violence seized millions of distant eyes, shattering inner defenses. In Birmingham, the Negro principal of Parker High School desperately locked the gates from the outside to preserve a semblance of order, but students trampled the chain-link fence to join the demonstrations.

King, preaching at night to a serial mass meeting that spilled from one packed church to another, urged crowds to remember the feel of history among them. He cast aside his innate caution along with criticism and worry over the children in jail, shouting, "Now yesterday was D-Day, and tomorrow will be Double-D Day!" From Shuttlesworth's old pulpit, Bevel cried out in playful hyperbole that they would finish off Birmingham before Tuesday by placing every Negro young and old in jail so that he could be "back in Mississippi, chopping cotton." Bevel did not make his deadline, but nonviolent Negroes did overflow the jails and flood the forbidden downtown streets within a week. By Monday, May 6, the sudden conversion gushed from child to adult until no fewer than 2,500 demonstrators swamped the Birmingham jail, and King welcomed in awe the tangible sensation of history spilling over at frenzied mass meetings of four times that number.


Something primal welled up the same day in a Los Angeles courtroom. Defense lawyer Earl Broady faltered while cross-examining Officer Lee Logan about the mayhem at the Muslim Temple No. 27 in April of 1962. "Now this 'male Negro' business, this is significant to you, isn't it?" asked Broady in a whisper, his face suddenly clouded. "'Male Negroes,'" he repeated. When Logan replied that the term was merely descriptive of the brawlers that violent night, Broady tried to resume his planned examination but stopped again. "You called them niggers while you were in this fight with them, didn't you?" he blurted out.

"I did not," Logan replied.

Broady asked for time to compose himself, but he called for a bench conference as soon as Logan testified that his first sight at the crime scene was "several male Negroes" fighting with officers a block south of the Muslim temple. "Your Honor, I believe these defendants should be referred to exactly the same as if they were Caucasians," said Broady. "This officer wouldn't refer to male Jews. He wouldn't refer to male Irishmen. He wouldn't refer to male Swedes. He wouldn't refer to male Caucasians."

Judge David Coleman hushed stirrings in the courtroom and spoke gently to Broady, whom he had known for years, observing that race was a standard designation in all police reports. "This issue has been made by the defense and not by the People," said the judge, who went on to remind Broady that the defense lawyers had tried to insert a racial standard by objecting, for instance, to the all-white jury. (On that matter, Judge Coleman had assured Broady privately that the all-white jury was probably best because most Negro jurors were too emotional to be objective about such a sensational case.) Broady argued that the drumbeat repetition of generic racial phrases was far from neutral in effect, and spread a blur of prejudicial guilt over all Negroes, including the fourteen Muslims on trial. "This man has said 'male Negroes' eleven times," Broady protested. "We kept an accurate count on it."

Judge Coleman chided Broady for insecurity. "Someday we will get to a period of confidence and respect for ourselves," he said at the bench, "when a reference to us as Negroes, Jews, or anything else will not be a matter that disturbs us very much, but it would be in effect something which we are very proud of."

Unable to reply, Broady walked back to the defense table and stood paralyzed for some time. Perversely, the judge's rebuttal struck deep within him. As dean of Negro lawyers in Los Angeles, Broady had spent years believing that to speak and think as a Negro was to confess inferiority, and that to think white was clear and refined. Recently, when business required him to talk with the employer of a criminal defendant, Broady had found himself cringing involuntarily in manner and speech -- "yessiring" -- to a Beverly Hills neighbor he claimed as a peer. Only then did he begin to admit that he was learning lessons from bootblacks and reformed thieves. For a month now -- as long as King had campaigned in Birmingham -- up to 250 armed deputies had guarded the courtroom against tinderbox fears of a race riot, and yet only the fourteen Muslim defendants spoke forthrightly of race. They sat in perfect order at the defense table a few rows ahead of Malcolm X, as crisp as their Muslim suits. Each testified with unflinching discipline about degradations -- their broken homes, poor educations, and criminal records, their loss of bladder or bowel control after the shootings outside the temple. Broady had come to admire them in spite of their religious hokum, as he saw it, but he could not push race to the surface and hope to win in court.

"Your Honor," he said finally, "...I don't feel I can continue this cross-examination." Broady later minimized his breakdown as a suppressed fit of temper, telling reporters he feared he "might pull a Muslim" if he spoke, but at the defense table he could only bury his face in his hands while his co-counsel gamely took over.

The two sides skittered back and forth on the open mention of race. Prosecutors occasionally slipped in loaded questions: "As a Muslim, Mr. Jones, does the phrase 'kill the white devils' have any significance?" A deputy DA was careful to ask one question of Officer Paul Kuykendall: "Just for the record, are you of the Negro race?" Kuykendall's positive response established that one of the government's police witnesses was a Negro, much to the discomfort of Kuykendall himself. Within the department, he no longer could pass as a white officer. Acid doubt about Kuykendall's moment of hesitation in that night's death struggle between Officer Lee Logan and Muslim Arthur X Coleman -- sparing Coleman's life in exchange for even an instant's added danger to Logan -- dissolved fraternal trust among police for Kuykendall, while practically no Negroes allowed him offsetting credit for professionalism or humanity. Kuykendall was to remain a morose figure, stranded in a cloud of isolation.

For the defense, Broady did ask teenage defendant Troy X Augustine if he could have used the word "Negro," among others, as recorded in a disputed statement. "No, sir," Augustine replied. Asked why, he said, "Ever since I have found out what Negro means, I stopped calling people that." Broady cut off the testimony before Augustine could explain, however, and a prosecutor made sport of the inconsistency, saying the defense wanted to discuss race some times and not others. Broady could not afford testimony on the meaning of "Negro" because it would open the treacherous subject of Elijah Muhammad's Muslim teachings. Members of the Nation of Islam strictly and exclusively used the term "black" instead of "Negro," the Spanish word for "black," saying it was as absurd for them to ground racial identity in a foreign language as it would be for white people to call themselves "Blancos."

Most of the testimony re-created the chaotic violence of April 27 as mirror images of primeval savagery, with each side portraying itself as victim. Medical testimony lent some support to the dramatic accounts of police suffering, especially early in the altercation when Tomlinson was shot and Kensic badly beaten. As descriptions moved to the later shootings and reprisals inside the temple, however, officers seemed to have emerged remarkably unscathed from the mass attack. Officer Reynolds had a thumb injury, which defense counsel suggested was the result of his own aggressions. As for the defense, Muslim witnesses consistently denied that they ever saw any fellow Muslim fighting back against the officers. They embraced their wounds and their lack of weapons as the anchor strength of their testimony, discarding Elijah Muhammad's posture of virile self-defense along with his militant sarcasm about the cowardly weakness of the nonviolent movement. Malcolm X coached all the defendants, demanding precision of testimony and a uniform politeness under the most scathing hostility. In the crucible of trial, they displayed an air of acceptance that bordered on forgiveness.

Small wonders took seed in the obscure Muslim trial just as nonviolence seized the emotions of the larger world from Birmingham. King's demonstrators literally carpeted Birmingham's downtown business district that second week of May. Having no place to put them, police officers in their midst shrugged helplessly to the city's business leaders, who were traumatized by the sudden evaporation of normalcy and commerce alike. Nearly two hundred reporters had converged from as far away as Germany and Japan. "We are not sitting idly by," President Kennedy's spokesman announced tersely in Washington. "We just can't say anything." Privately, Kennedy and several members of his Cabinet were calling the heads of corporations with subsidiaries in Birmingham, urging them to enter negotiations with King, and on Friday, May 10, Fred Shuttlesworth announced triumphantly that Birmingham "has reached accord with its conscience." Birmingham's merchants had accepted a schedule for desegregating their dressing rooms and lunch counters -- even hiring Negro clerks. "Now this is an amazing thing!" King cried out at the mass meeting.

In Los Angeles, Charles X Zeno testified that same Friday about how he had left his sons in the car while he went into the temple to find his wife, Mabel, and how Officer Reynolds crashed through the door into him so that they tumbled pell-mell into the water cooler in the next room. Like other Muslim witnesses, Zeno identified the shreds of the suit he had worn. By the time Earl Broady gave up the witness for cross-examination, deputy DA Howard Kippen was eager to remove the torn coat and trousers from view. "Well, let's take these away so we can see each other," he told Zeno, and then paused. Instead of contesting detailed testimony about vengeful police hysteria, Kippen abruptly reversed course to make use of it. "Now the night of April 27, 1962, at any time did you get angry?" he asked.

"No, sir," Zeno testified.

"You didn't get angry?" Kippen asked, underscoring surprise.

"No, sir."

"You were struck from the back?"

"Yes, sir."

"You were punched in the mouth."

"Yes, sir."

"Your gums were bleeding, your teeth were bleeding and loose?"

"Yes, sir."

"Your clothes were ripped?"

"Yes, sir."

"You were hit in the groin?"

"Yes, sir."

"You didn't get angry?"

"No, sir."

Broady jumped up to object that Kippen was not allowing the defendant to explain himself -- perhaps Zeno meant he was too frightened at the time to be angry -- but Kippen had his answer. In summation, he argued that no human being could endure such abuse without getting angry, suggesting that the police deserved the benefit of doubt if the Muslims joined in the violence -- or alternatively that the Muslims were inhuman. Either way, they deserved what they got. Only one defendant ever admitted feeling resentment of the rawest humiliation and pain, he scoffed. Prosecutors said the Muslims were too good to be true. By their formulation, the defendants were guilty unless the jury could find them as innocent as the youngest child in Birmingham jail.


Bernard Lafayette drove to Birmingham to help Bevel and Diane Nash drill young people for the climactic jail marches, but he seldom stayed over. The thunderous breakthrough in Birmingham made him uncomfortable away from his new post some hundred miles to the south, and Lafayette returned to Selma most evenings that week to sit in vigil at tiny, segregated Berwell Infirmary, where a last debilitating stroke did not keep Sam Boynton from proselytizing whenever conscious. "Are you a registered voter?" he called out to strangers walking down his corridor. "I want you to go down and register. A voteless people is a hopeless people."

Boynton expired within hours of the jubilee news from Birmingham, and the coincidence loosed a flood of emotion so powerful that Lafayette canvassed ministers about the fleeting chance to hold Selma's first mass meeting. He half concealed his political purpose by calling it a "Memorial Service for Mr. Boynton and Voter Registration," but no one was fooled. Boynton's own pastor declined to have such a service at First Baptist of Selma, which had shunned controversy since driving off its pastor, Fred Shuttlesworth, a decade earlier, and other pastors refused for fear of having their churches bombed. "They don't feel disposed to build another church," advised Rev. L.L. Anderson of Tabernacle Baptist. "Most of them have their churches paid for." Anderson himself admitted that he could not offer Tabernacle on his own, even as a last resort. "That's too big a thing for one man," he said, but he did preach an impromptu eulogy for Boynton at a business meeting, asking who could deny tribute to such a man. When no deacon objected, Anderson quickly spread word of his commitment. Within hours, a local Negro printer on his own wits refused Lafayette's order for high-quality leaflets. "I understand you call yourself a printer," Anderson thundered at the balky shopowner. "When people bring things to you, your job is just to print them. You are a printer."

Lafayette got his leaflets, but by nightfall the Tabernacle deacons caucused on their own in the boardroom of Selma University. Anderson rushed there with foreboding, knowing the deacons considered Selma University their turf. Many were on the faculty, and D.V. Jemison had doubled as president of the college when he was alive. To Anderson's dismay, the spokesman for the rebellious deacons was the redoubtable Dr. William H. Dinkins, a history professor of pioneering degrees from Brown University among other schools, with a puckish sense of theater to lighten his pomposity. Anderson liked Dinkins and often called upon him spontaneously from the pulpit for a scriptural reference or historical fact, which Dinkins invariably supplied. Father of the woman Anderson hoped to marry, Dinkins had supported him through the schism of 1956, tormenting the Walker faction with learned expositions on the difference between "misfeasance" and "malfeasance." These ties made it painful on both sides for Dinkins to say the deacons canceled any use of Tabernacle for a Boynton memorial. "You are forsaking your friends, pastor," he said. "You are going with strangers." He meant the young Freedom Rider Lafayette, whom Dinkins called "this rabble-rouser who says he's a preacher."

Almost nose to nose, Anderson and Dinkins debated which sin most profaned a house of worship: a purpose tinged with secular politics, or a spirit corrupted by worldly fear. Each man cited the story of Jesus driving money changers from the Temple, drawing opposite lessons on the propriety of the Boynton memorial. The clash of emotions caused a number of deacons to wail and intercede clumsily for peace. One confessed that he had always avoided his friend Boynton in public view downtown, for fear of association with a voting zealot. When religious arguments were exhausted, Anderson pretended to concede. "You built the church," he told the deacons. "You carried the mortar. You stacked the bricks. I don't have a dime in the building, and as a matter of fact I wasn't even born. So I'm not going to take this church." While confident that the members would support him if he went ahead by fiat, Anderson declared, he would defer instead and move the Boynton service outdoors to a strip of land just off church property. He described the boundaries with precise detail and rising excitement. "I'm going to wire it up with loudspeakers," he shouted. "And I'm going to tell the folks that they can't come into Tabernacle because the deacons are afraid! Afraid of the white folks!"

"No, no, brother pastor, don't do that," Dinkins replied. Ambushed, the deacons tried to gauge the mix of bluff and determination in Anderson's face.

None of this internal anguish showed when the crowd of 350 gathered at Tabernacle Baptist on Tuesday evening, May 14. For them, soft organ music and the calming presence of Reverend Anderson in his robes preserved the repose of the sanctuary against a tension that was shockingly external. Glaring red and blue police lights flashed through the stained glass windows. On their car radios, many in attendance had been listening to the angry voice of Governor George Wallace denouncing the presence of U.S. Army troops in Birmingham as "an open invitation to resumption of street rioting by lawless Negro mobs, under the assumption that they will be protected by the federal military forces." For three days, since bombs detonated outside Martin Luther King's motel room, tremors of race spread from Birmingham to Selma and far beyond, rattling bones in Tabernacle.

Sheriff Jim Clark entered the sanctuary with a brace of deputies. The sudden appearance of any white person would have hushed the church, but these armed men, led by the widely feared enforcer of the white supremacy laws, drew an instant crowd of nervous Tabernacle deacons. Clark showed them a court order giving him access to the church to guard against insurrection, explaining it as something like a search warrant. Waving off a humble request that the guns not be displayed in the church, Clark posted his men all around the rear of the curved walnut pews beneath Tabernacle's imposing central dome. One deputy transmitted Clark's orders by walkie-talkie to some fifty reinforcements posted outside among flashing lights. Angry shouts and the sounds of breaking glass filtered through the walls. Those seated in the pews could not be sure whether the damage to their parked cars came from white bystanders or the law enforcement officers themselves, or both. The threat was as ambiguous as Clark's court order, which could be stretched to mean that the officers were protecting the church against the insurrectionary violence of white segregationists.

For three hours, the gathered Negroes expressed their own double meanings on the edge between heavenly and earthly reward. When hymns and testimonials to Boynton had lifted spirits, Lafayette introduced as featured speaker the man who had assigned him to Selma, SNCC Executive Director James Forman. Although Forman at thirty-four was a few months older than Martin Luther King, he remained a student leader in title and function, and his measured audacity often bowled over audiences who expected the tentative suggestions of youth. Preaching a sermon called "The High Cost of Freedom," Forman said it was good that the white officers were there to deprive them of cheap courage. If they wanted to shout amen to the mission of Sam Boynton, they should do so in front of the sheriff who stood in its way. "Someday they will have to open up that ballot box," said Forman. A crescendo of enthusiasm made a number of elders cringe for the reaction of Sheriff Clark. Among them was the senior minister, who hastened to deliver the closing prayer. "You shouldn't put all of the blame on the white man," he said. "...We've got a lot to do in our own homes and own community before we talk about these other things."

Upon dismissal near midnight, the buzzing crowd exited no further than Tabernacle's front steps before clumping hesitantly at the sight of angry whites strewn along Broad Street, Selma's main thoroughfare. Most prominent were teenagers wielding freshly lathed table legs from a nearby furniture company. Sheriff Clark surprised some of the Negro leaders by shouting for everyone to disperse, but nothing happened. His special deputies mingled among the whites, who stood their ground. As Negroes huddled in panic, fearing arrest if they stayed and attack if they moved, decisive peacemaking authority arrived in the person of the football coach from Selma High School, who jumped from his car and pointed out his current and former players, telling them to go home.


Neither the Selma mass meeting nor the Muslim trial in Los Angeles competed with the avalanche of movement stories breaking out in city after city. Government statisticians counted 758 racial demonstrations and 14,733 arrests in 186 American muncipalities over the ten weeks following the May 10 Birmingham settlement. Sites quivered separately, unaware of one another or of the converging potential to lift up the right to vote and the raw alienations of cities outside the South. Less than two years later, Malcolm X would speak from a Selma pulpit alongside James Bevel and Fred Shuttlesworth, with Martin Luther King in jail, in a voting movement that made Selma an American landmark.

Copyright © 1998 by Taylor Branch

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Interviews & Essays

On Friday, January 16th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Taylor Branch to discuss PILLAR OF FIRE.


Moderator: Welcome to barnesandnoble.com, Mr. Branch. We are pleased you could join us on the eve of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend to discuss PILLAR OF FIRE.

Taylor Branch: Thank you. I'm glad to be here. It's been a long time -- nine years -- and I'm glad to have the book finally done.


Mark from Scotch Plains, NJ: What is it about Martin Luther King that drew you to write such a cumulative book? Did you interact at all with him while he was alive?

Taylor Branch: No. I never met Dr. King, although we lived in the same city -- Atlanta. I was a high school student at the time of the Birmingham demonstrations in 1963 and the Civil Rights Bill of '64. Something about them was so powerful that they changed the direction of my interests for my whole life. And when I became a writer in the 1970s, I retained a determination to discover someday what had made this movement so powerful that it could have such an effect on me as a teenager.


Greg from Hamilton, NY: Periods of social unrest, as in the 1960s, supposedly occur once a generation. We seem to be overdue. Do you see history repeating itself any time soon?

Taylor Branch: Upheaval can come from many causes. Depression, economic dislocation, war, unforeseen events. I hope we don't, but we may have one of these. The civil rights movement in the '50s and '60s was different. It was born of hope and conviction that struggled -- my word for it is percolated, like coffee -- for years before it built into a mass movement. There was no way for anyone to predict in the early 1950s that it would catch fire over where people sat on buses. There certainly wasn't any way of predicting in 1960 that college students would ignite a contagious phase at the sit-ins and lunch counters. My point is that this kind of social movement takes a long time to build, and I think we are just now getting to the point that people might be getting a first faith or confidence that they can accomplish things of that nature again. If so, there will probably be years of groping and percolation ahead before it can build into a similar mass movement.


Darren from Birmingham, AL: Hi. Do you feel that the Civil Rights Act would not have been passed had JFK not been killed?

Taylor Branch: That's an interesting question. It has many parts. It could be looked at as whether JFK himself could have passed the law. The answer is probably no. The question also could mean, Was the emotional trauma of the assassination necessary to shake the nation to pass the law? The answer is probably yes. And without the assassination, there wouldn't have been Lyndon Johnson as president, and I'm not sure the law could have been passed without his skill and commitment. I don't like second-guessing in history, but we are online, so I'd probably guess that it would have been very difficult to pass that law had Kennedy lived.


Marco from Oakland, CA: I read about PILLAR OF FIRE in Newsweek magazine and couldn't help but be struck by the fact that exclamations King said while having sex are even on record. How do you know this? Where did you get this information from?

Taylor Branch: That's covered thoroughly in the book. I can summarize it here by saying that it comes from my conversations with people who listened to the tapes. It was one of my most painful and difficult judgments as an author about whether or not to include it in the book. Parenthetically, I thought it was interesting that Newsweek highlighted several of the salacious parts of the book and then stated accurately that they make up only a tiny portion of the material. That's journalism.


Justine from Nashville, TN: Did you encounter any barriers to government information in your research? We're looking forward to your visit to Nashville next month.

Taylor Branch: Thank you. I'm looking forward to coming to Nashville. Yes, there are still many categories of information that are classified with no good excuse really for material that's 35 years old. Still, there's an awful lot of material available in various libraries and archives. I have to say that the FBI wiretap records, while objectionable and unjust as a practice, are invaluable for the historical record. Another parenthetical comment: The phone recordings of President Kennedy and President Johnson are also an invaluable record that have been newly released. And I very much doubt that we will see that kind of record from more modern presidents. They are too paranoid. While it's questionable to record your telephone conversations, there's nothing like it to record a presidency. President Clinton today can't even keep a private diary for fear that it might be subpoenaed. This bodes ill for future history.


Larry from Pflugerville, TX: I've been anxiously waiting for your second volume, and of course I'm reading it now. PARTING THE WATERS was just an excellent read. Do you anticipate taking that long for volume three? How did you decide on the title for volume three so soon?

Taylor Branch: I hope volume three doesn't take nine years. My editor would have a heart attack. And I'm getting older. But if it does take nine years, I'm going to stick it out because I love the material. I'm optimistic that it won't because while the middle 1960s exploded with energy and political conflict, the movement, the portion of it that centered around the discipline and faith of the movement I'm following, steadily narrowed. And I think that will make the next book not so difficult to command in the writing. The difficulty in this book was that the movement was still constantly expanding, and everything was happening at once. As to titles, the first title I ever had for the book when I thought there were only going to be two was PILLAR OF FIRE, because I thought it was a strong metaphor for an epic movement that achieved freedom but then was consumed by its own energy, like a pillar of fire in the wilderness, and leaves us only its light to study years later. This of course is biblical, from the Exodus story. All three of these stories now are from Exodus. I came up with PARTING THE WATERS after PILLAR OF FIRE as a way of describing the early rise and success of the liberation movement. Because I already had PILLAR OF FIRE, you might notice that "pillar of fire" are the last three words of PARTING THE WATERS. Similarly, the phrase "at Canaan's edge" closes this new book. What I'm trying to suggest parallel to the Moses story is that in real life, like Moses and like King, we only get a glimpse over into Canaan. That's where I wanted to leave the story.


Lenny from Atlanta: How did you receive Spike Lee's movie adaptation of THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MALCOLM X? Specifically, what was your reaction to the artistic license to which Lee evidently entitled himself in order to avoid implicating Louis X, aka Louis Farrakhan, in the betrayal and ultimate assassination of Malcolm X, to which Malcolm X makes explicit and repeated reference in his own account (the Haley version)?

Taylor Branch: This opens up a lot of issues. First, having tried for years to get a film version of PARTING THE WATERS made to no avail so far, I greatly respect Spike Lee for the sheer tenacity that I know it took to get "Malcolm X" financed and made. Having said that, his film glossed over the entire last few years of Malcolm X and the dynamics of his struggle inside the nation of Islam. To a lesser degree, though, Malcolm's autobiography did the same thing. There are only hints of what I found to be a gripping and astonishing internal struggle somewhere between "The Godfather" and the Book of Joshua. Some of the material in PILLAR OF FIRE that is the most startling to me has to do with that struggle and the religious side of Malcolm, which is almost entirely overlooked. There's so much more to say on this. But a lot of it is new and a lot of it is in my book, so I hope people will be interested in that part of the story.


Barrie from Westchester: Good evening, Mr. Branch. Please tell us the difference between the Reverend King as a private man versus the public figure. Thank you.

Taylor Branch: This is really a whole book's question, or really three books for me. I think I'll only mention one outstanding characteristic is that the private King had a fantastic sense of humor and was a gifted mimic. Other than that, I'd have to let the book speak, because even ideas of the "public" King are subject to wildly different interpretations and images.


Jonah from Athens, GA: King's bond [with] Rabbi Abraham Heschel seems like quite a contrast from the bond between Jewish and African American leaders today. What was the force behind this bond between Heschel and King, and how was it sustained?

Taylor Branch: That's a new subject in the sense that the bond between Heschel and King has not been widely developed or recognized. A lot of it was that Heschel was a very unusual man for his time who had tremendous effect not only on King but on Catholic and Protestant leaders of many kinds. Your question is a huge subject. I'll leave it with one comment: I think that the heart of their bond was a common devotion to the example of the Hebrew prophets and a belief that the Hebrew prophets -- not Greek or French philosophers -- invented some of the basic convictions of democratic belief as well as religious belief. Beyond that idea, the interaction between King and Heschel is an odyssey of marches, ordeals, and inspiration that was a privilege for me to research and write.


Damon from Clover, SC: This year much has been made about the tense relationship between LBJ and RFK (MUTUAL CONTEMPT and TAKING CHARGE). How did this affect both men's support of the Civil Rights Act?

Taylor Branch: Very little. And I frankly think the animosity between the two has been a little bit overdone. I'm not denying that there was ferocious and for us entertaining animosity when the two of them imagined their highest ambitions to be threatened by the other. But that wasn't at every moment. There were, I believe, genuine moments of cooperation and even sympathy between them. And they were both genuinely devoted to the enormous and by no means assured task of passing the Civil Rights Bill. Even their wildest paranoid animosity toward each other never interfered with the common goal of passing that bill.


Johnson from Las Vegas: Hi, Mr. Branch. Has Coretta Scott King had any response to any of your books -- PARTING THE WATERS or PILLAR OF FIRE?

Taylor Branch: Not PILLAR OF FIRE yet. After all, the book technically isn't published yet and officially won't be so for a week or so. I did go see Mrs. King after PARTING THE WATERS and have seen her son Dexter more recently. They've both been very kind and complimentary. We have had differences about the access to research material and over the campaign to free James Earl Ray, but we try not to let those things interfere with the ongoing writing of the movement's history.


Henry from Illinois: If I recall right, you originally thought of this as a two-volume project. Now it will be three volumes. At what point did you decide to go for three volumes?

Taylor Branch: It is worse than that. It was originally supposed to be one volume. I made the decision that it wouldn't fit in one book in about 1986. The publisher made the decision this time that 1965 was a good cut-off point for a second volume. Frankly I was very reluctant at first, but now I'm glad they insisted. I know it won't be four volumes. [laughs] I'm sorry for taking so long, but I can only blame the fascination of the material and the courage of the people who made the history.


Magda from New York City: I'd like to know if there will be an audio version of this book? I went to a local Barnes & Noble and couldn't find it. Do you have any information?

Taylor Branch: Yes. This is all new to me. My books take so long that technology changes between volumes. Here I am online talking to you, telling you that I didn't even know there was such a thing as audio books until last month when Simon and Schuster Audio Books, a new division, showed me the script for the audio version of PARTING THE WATERS, the first volume, which should be getting into the stores very soon. I'm reading on my desk right now the proposed script for the audio version of PILLAR OF FIRE, which they will record next week and hope to have in the stores in a month or so. Both audio versions are read by Joe Morton and CeCe H. Pounder. Joe Morton is the poor fellow who had to blow himself out in "Terminator 2" -- he's an actor. Pounder is an actress who played Dr. Angela Hicks on NBC's "ER." Anyway this is new to me, but these audio versions of both volumes should be available soon. They are substantially abridged versions of the book. Please be advised of that. But they give a very good sense of what the book is about.


Eric from Oakland: As I understand, the declassified FBI files on Martin Luther King Jr. seem to indicate that the real purpose, or at least the primary purpose, of the investigation was not in fact to undermine the civil rights movement but to keep a close eye on a certain right-hand man of King's who was a known Soviet conspirator, and to gauge his influence upon King. King's involvement with the civil rights movement was of only secondary importance to the FBI. This is a very apologetic account, to be sure, but has it any validity?

Taylor Branch: Almost none.


Reginald Moses from Maryland: Do you see a trend through the Bay of Pigs, the backroom resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis (removal of NATO warheads from Turkey), Robert Kennedy wiretapping MLK, and the incident at the Gulf of Tonkin? Was there a virulent strain of antidemocratic governance during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations? Could it happen again?

Taylor Branch: I would put it more broadly that there was a virulent strain of antidemocratic covert practice in government through the entire cold war, beginning in the 1940s, that became more corrupt as decades passed and seemed even more corrupt than that as the actual cold war dangers faded.


Carlyle from Rochester, MN: If you had access to Martin Luther King Jr. for an hour or so (let's say in some parallel universe), what would you ask him?

Taylor Branch: It would be a treasured hour for me. I think I'd ask him mostly about the early period before 1960, because I think that's where most of his personal mysteries lie or were born. But it would take me a month to get prepared for such an encounter. I can scarcely organize my thoughts about that because I feel so close to his life and yet so amazed by the thought of being able to talk with him from this point in history. One thing that does come to mind as an afterthought is that I've always theorized that like most people in the '60s, he would have had some period of burnout or breakdown had he lived. And I wonder whether he himself would agree and would predict that he would have recovered to address the most difficult issues since, such as Africa, South Africa, abortion, and retreat of hope in American politics. I think he would, as long as we are speculating.


Aaron from Eugene, OR: You seem to have devoted your life to covering this period of history. Why? Do you feel it has some reflection on race relations today?

Taylor Branch: Absolutely it does. I think this history has widely and deeply affected our country's current politics today, to the extent that I don't think you can really understand contemporary politics without absorbing the dramatic changes from this era.


Moderator: Thank you so much for joining us online to discuss PILLAR OF FIRE, Mr. Branch. We hope you'll join us again when AT CANAAN'S EDGE comes out. Any final comments?

Taylor Branch: I just hope readers feel a portion of my wonderment at the reach and command and inspiration of these stories.


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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 5, 2010

    Highly Recommended - Paragon of historical research on MLK, Jr.

    One of trilogy on life of MLK, Jr. The research by Taylor Branch when distilled through his wonderful writing style provides the reader, whether you lived through the period or are looking back at a time of change, about the impact that King and his non-violent movement had on this nation, its leaders and its constituents. Read the three in order for a better understanding of King and the times that changed a nation.

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