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
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. --
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
A glorious account of extraordinary times.
Branch spins an intricate, seamless web of politics and personalities, ambition and imagination, triumph and tragedy.
The Washington Post Book World
A magisterial history of one of the most tumultuous periods in postwar America.
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
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).
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
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
One part biography, one part history, one part elegy…a vast panorama…powerful.
The Wall Street Journal
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.
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.