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Pillar of Fire : America in the King Years 1963-65 Current Events Civil Rights & Liberties Taylor Branch Simon & Schuster


30th June 2012 History Books 39 Comments

Pillar of Fire is the second volume of Taylor Branch’s magisterial three-volume history of America during the life of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Branch’s thesis, as he explains in the introduction, is that “King’s life is the best and most important metaphor for American history in the watershed postwar years,” but this is not just a biography. Instead it is a work of history, with King at its focal point. The tumultuous years that Branch covers saw the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the beginnings of American disillusionment with the war in Vietnam, and, of course, the civil rights movement that King led, a movement that transformed America as the nation finally tried to live up to the ideals on which it was founded.

Timeline of a Trilogy

Taylor Branch’s America in the King Years series is both a biography of Martin Luther King and a history of his age. No timeline can do justice to its wide cast of characters and its intricate web of incident, but here are some of the highlights, which might be useful as a scorecard to the trilogy’s nearly 3,000 pages.

King The King Years Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 May: At age 25, King gives his first sermon as pastor-designate of Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. 1954 May: French surrender to Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu. Unanimous Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board outlaws segregated public education. December: Rosa Parks is arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a public bus, leading to the Montgomery bus boycott, which King is drafted to lead. 1955 October: King spends his first night in jail, following his participation in an Atlanta sit-in. 1960 February: Four students attempting to integrate a Greensboro, North Carolina, lunch counter spark a national sit-in movement.
April: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee is founded.
November: Election of President John F. Kennedy May: The Freedom Rides begin, drawing violent responses as they challenge segregation throughout the South. King supports the riders during an overnight siege in Montgomery. 1961 July: SNCC worker Bob Moses arrives for his first summer of voter registration in rural Mississippi.
August: East German soldiers seal off West Berlin behind the Berlin Wall. March: J. Edgar Hoover authorizes the bugging of Stanley Levinson, King’s closest white advisor. 1962 September: James Meredith integrates the University of Mississippi under massive federal protection. April: King, imprisoned for demonstrating in Birmingham, writes the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
May: Images of police violence against marching children in Birmingham rivet the country.
August: King delivers his “I Have a Dream” speech before hundreds of thousands at the March on Washington.
September: The Ku Klux Klan bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church kills four young girls. 1963 June: Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers assassinated.
November: President Kennedy assassinated. Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65 November: Lyndon Johnson, in his first speech before Congress as president, promises to push through Kennedy’s proposed civil rights bill. March: King meets Malcolm X for the only time during Senate filibuster of civil rights legislation.
June: King joins St. Augustine, Florida, movement after months of protests and Klan violence.
October: King awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and campaigns for Johnson’s reelection.
November: Hoover calls King “the most notorious liar in the country” and the FBI sends King an anonymous “suicide package” containing scandalous surveillance tapes. 1964 January: Johnson announces his “War on Poverty.”
March: Malcolm X leaves the Nation of Islam following conflict with its leader, Elijah Muhammad.
June: Hundreds of volunteers arrive in the South for SNCC’s Freedom Summer, three of whom are soon murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
July: Johnson signs Civil Rights Act outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
August: Congress passes Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorizing military force in Vietnam. Democratic National Convention rebuffs the request by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to be seated in favor of all-white state delegation.
November: Johnson wins a landslide reelection. January: King’s first visit to Selma, Alabama, where mass meetings and demonstrations will build through the winter. 1965 February: Malcolm X speaks in Selma in support of movement, three weeks before his assassination in New York by Nation of Islam members. At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68 March: Voting rights movement in Selma peaks with “Bloody Sunday” police attacks and, two weeks later, a successful march of thousands to Montgomery.
August: King rebuffed by Los Angeles officials when he attempts to advocate reforms after the Watts riots. March: First U.S. combat troops arrive in South Vietnam. Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech makes his most direct embrace of the civil rights movement.
May: Vietnam “teach-in” protest in Berkeley attracts 30,000.
June: Influential federal Moynihan Report describes the “pathologies” of black family structure.
August: Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act. Five days later, the Watts riots begin in Los Angeles.
January: King moves his family into a Chicago slum apartment to mark his first sustained movement in a Northern city.
June: King and Stokely Carmichael continue James Meredith’s March Against Fear after Meredith is shot and wounded. Carmichael gives his first “black power” speech.
July: King’s marches for fair housing in Chicago face bombs, bricks, and “white power” shouts. 1966 February: Operation Rolling Thunder, massive U.S. bombing of North Vietnam, begins.
May: Stokely Carmichael wins the presidency of SNCC and quickly turns the organization away from nonviolence.
October: National Organization for Women founded, modeled after black civil rights groups. April: King’s speech against the Vietnam War at New York’s Riverside Church raises a storm of criticism
December: King announces plans for major campaign against poverty in Washington, D.C., for 1968. 1967 May: Huey Newton leads Black Panthers in armed demonstration in California state assembly.
June: Johnson nominates former NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court.
July: Riots in Newark and Detroit.
October: Massive mobilization against the Vietnam War in Washington, D.C. March: King joins strike of Memphis sanitation workers.
April: King gives his “Mountaintop” speech in Memphis. A day later, he is assassinated at the Lorraine Motel. 1968 January: In Tet Offensive, Communist guerillas stage a surprise coordinated attack across South Vietnam.
March: Johnson cites divisions in the country over the war for his decision not to seek reelection in 1968.

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.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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.

Pillar of Fire is the second volume of Taylor Branch’s magisterial three-volume history of America during the life of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Branch’s thesis, as he explains in the introduction, is that “King’s life is the best and most important metaphor for American history in the watershed postwar years,” but this is not just a biography. Instead it is a work of history, with King at its focal point. The tumultuous years that Branch covers saw the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the beginnings of American disillusionment with the war in Vietnam, and, of course, the civil rights movement that King led, a movement that transformed America as the nation finally tried to live up to the ideals on which it was founded.

Timeline of a Trilogy

Taylor Branch’s America in the King Years series is both a biography of Martin Luther King and a history of his age. No timeline can do justice to its wide cast of characters and its intricate web of incident, but here are some of the highlights, which might be useful as a scorecard to the trilogy’s nearly 3,000 pages.

King The King Years Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 May: At age 25, King gives his first sermon as pastor-designate of Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. 1954 May: French surrender to Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu. Unanimous Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board outlaws segregated public education. December: Rosa Parks is arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a public bus, leading to the Montgomery bus boycott, which King is drafted to lead. 1955 October: King spends his first night in jail, following his participation in an Atlanta sit-in. 1960 February: Four students attempting to integrate a Greensboro, North Carolina, lunch counter spark a national sit-in movement.
April: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee is founded.
November: Election of President John F. Kennedy May: The Freedom Rides begin, drawing violent responses as they challenge segregation throughout the South. King supports the riders during an overnight siege in Montgomery. 1961 July: SNCC worker Bob Moses arrives for his first summer of voter registration in rural Mississippi.
August: East German soldiers seal off West Berlin behind the Berlin Wall. March: J. Edgar Hoover authorizes the bugging of Stanley Levinson, King’s closest white advisor. 1962 September: James Meredith integrates the University of Mississippi under massive federal protection. April: King, imprisoned for demonstrating in Birmingham, writes the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
May: Images of police violence against marching children in Birmingham rivet the country.
August: King delivers his “I Have a Dream” speech before hundreds of thousands at the March on Washington.
September: The Ku Klux Klan bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church kills four young girls. 1963 June: Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers assassinated.
November: President Kennedy assassinated. Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65 November: Lyndon Johnson, in his first speech before Congress as president, promises to push through Kennedy’s proposed civil rights bill. March: King meets Malcolm X for the only time during Senate filibuster of civil rights legislation.
June: King joins St. Augustine, Florida, movement after months of protests and Klan violence.
October: King awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and campaigns for Johnson’s reelection.
November: Hoover calls King “the most notorious liar in the country” and the FBI sends King an anonymous “suicide package” containing scandalous surveillance tapes. 1964 January: Johnson announces his “War on Poverty.”
March: Malcolm X leaves the Nation of Islam following conflict with its leader, Elijah Muhammad.
June: Hundreds of volunteers arrive in the South for SNCC’s Freedom Summer, three of whom are soon murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
July: Johnson signs Civil Rights Act outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
August: Congress passes Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorizing military force in Vietnam. Democratic National Convention rebuffs the request by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to be seated in favor of all-white state delegation.
November: Johnson wins a landslide reelection. January: King’s first visit to Selma, Alabama, where mass meetings and demonstrations will build through the winter. 1965 February: Malcolm X speaks in Selma in support of movement, three weeks before his assassination in New York by Nation of Islam members. At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68 March: Voting rights movement in Selma peaks with “Bloody Sunday” police attacks and, two weeks later, a successful march of thousands to Montgomery.
August: King rebuffed by Los Angeles officials when he attempts to advocate reforms after the Watts riots. March: First U.S. combat troops arrive in South Vietnam. Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech makes his most direct embrace of the civil rights movement.
May: Vietnam “teach-in” protest in Berkeley attracts 30,000.
June: Influential federal Moynihan Report describes the “pathologies” of black family structure.
August: Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act. Five days later, the Watts riots begin in Los Angeles.
January: King moves his family into a Chicago slum apartment to mark his first sustained movement in a Northern city.
June: King and Stokely Carmichael continue James Meredith’s March Against Fear after Meredith is shot and wounded. Carmichael gives his first “black power” speech.
July: King’s marches for fair housing in Chicago face bombs, bricks, and “white power” shouts. 1966 February: Operation Rolling Thunder, massive U.S. bombing of North Vietnam, begins.
May: Stokely Carmichael wins the presidency of SNCC and quickly turns the organization away from nonviolence.
October: National Organization for Women founded, modeled after black civil rights groups. April: King’s speech against the Vietnam War at New York’s Riverside Church raises a storm of criticism
December: King announces plans for major campaign against poverty in Washington, D.C., for 1968. 1967 May: Huey Newton leads Black Panthers in armed demonstration in California state assembly.
June: Johnson nominates former NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court.
July: Riots in Newark and Detroit.
October: Massive mobilization against the Vietnam War in Washington, D.C. March: King joins strike of Memphis sanitation workers.
April: King gives his “Mountaintop” speech in Memphis. A day later, he is assassinated at the Lorraine Motel. 1968 January: In Tet Offensive, Communist guerillas stage a surprise coordinated attack across South Vietnam.
March: Johnson cites divisions in the country over the war for his decision not to seek reelection in 1968.

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

At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68

One of the greatest of American stories has found its great chronicler in Taylor Branch. Beginning with Parting the Waters in 1988, followed 10 years later by Pillar of Fire, and closing now with At Canaan’s Edge, Branch has given the short life of Martin Luther King Jr. and the nonviolent revolution he led the epic treatment they deserve. The three books of Branch’s America in the King Years trilogy are lyrical and dramatic, social history as much as biography, woven from the ever more complex strands of King’s movement, with portraits of figures like Lyndon Johnson, Bob Moses, J. Edgar Hoover, and Diane Nash as compelling as that of his central character.

King’s movement may have been nonviolent, but his times were not, and each of Branch’s volumes ends with an assassination: JFK, then Malcolm X, and finally King’s murder in Memphis. We know that’s where At Canaan’s Edge is headed, but it starts with King’s last great national success, the marches for voting rights in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. Once again, the violent response to nonviolent protest brought national attention and support to King’s cause, and within months his sometime ally Lyndon Johnson was able to push through the Voting Rights Act. But alongside those events, forces were gathering that would pull King’s movement apart and threaten his national leadership. The day after Selma’s “Bloody Sunday,” the first U.S. combat troops arrived in South Vietnam, while five days after the signing of the Voting Rights Act, the Watts riots began in Los Angeles. As the escalating carnage in Vietnam and the frustrating pace of reform at home drove many in the movement, most notably Stokely Carmichael, away from nonviolence, King kept to his most cherished principle and followed where its logic took him: to war protests that broke his alliance with Johnson and to a widening battle against poverty in the North as well as the South that caused both critics and allies to declare his movement unfocused and irrelevant.

Branch knows that you can’t tell King’s story without following these many threads, and he spends nearly as much time in Johnson’s war councils as he does in the equally fractious meetings of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Branch’s knotty, allusive style can be challenging, but it vividly evokes the density of those days and the countless demands on King’s manic stoicism. The whirlwind finally slows in the book’s final pages for a bittersweet tour through King’s last hours at the Lorraine Motel–King horsing around with his brother and friends and calling his mother (in between visits to his mistresses), Jesse Jackson rehearsing movement singers, an FBI agent watching through binoculars from across the street–that complete his work of humanizing a great man forever in danger of flattening into an icon. –Tom Nissley

Timeline of a Trilogy

Taylor Branch’s America in the King Years series is both a biography of Martin Luther King and a history of his age. No timeline can do justice to its wide cast of characters and its intricate web of incident, but here are some of the highlights, which might be useful as a scorecard to the trilogy’s nearly 3,000 pages.

King The King Years Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 May: At age 25, King gives his first sermon as pastor-designate of Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. 1954 May: French surrender to Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu. Unanimous Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board outlaws segregated public education. December: Rosa Parks is arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a public bus, leading to the Montgomery bus boycott, which King is drafted to lead. 1955 October: King spends his first night in jail, following his participation in an Atlanta sit-in. 1960 February: Four students attempting to integrate a Greensboro, North Carolina, lunch counter spark a national sit-in movement.
April: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee is founded.
November: Election of President John F. Kennedy May: The Freedom Rides begin, drawing violent responses as they challenge segregation throughout the South. King supports the riders during an overnight siege in Montgomery. 1961 July: SNCC worker Bob Moses arrives for his first summer of voter registration in rural Mississippi.
August: East German soldiers seal off West Berlin behind the Berlin Wall. March: J. Edgar Hoover authorizes the bugging of Stanley Levinson, King’s closest white advisor. 1962 September: James Meredith integrates the University of Mississippi under massive federal protection. April: King, imprisoned for demonstrating in Birmingham, writes the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
May: Images of police violence against marching children in Birmingham rivet the country.
August: King delivers his “I Have a Dream” speech before hundreds of thousands at the March on Washington.
September: The Ku Klux Klan bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church kills four young girls. 1963 June: Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers assassinated.
November: President Kennedy assassinated. Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65 November: Lyndon Johnson, in his first speech before Congress as president, promises to push through Kennedy’s proposed civil rights bill. March: King meets Malcolm X for the only time during Senate filibuster of civil rights legislation.
June: King joins St. Augustine, Florida, movement after months of protests and Klan violence.
October: King awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and campaigns for Johnson’s reelection.
November: Hoover calls King “the most notorious liar in the country” and the FBI sends King an anonymous “suicide package” containing scandalous surveillance tapes. 1964 January: Johnson announces his “War on Poverty.”
March: Malcolm X leaves the Nation of Islam following conflict with its leader, Elijah Muhammad.
June: Hundreds of volunteers arrive in the South for SNCC’s Freedom Summer, three of whom are soon murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
July: Johnson signs Civil Rights Act outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
August: Congress passes Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorizing military force in Vietnam. Democratic National Convention rebuffs the request by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to be seated in favor of all-white state delegation.
November: Johnson wins a landslide reelection. January: King’s first visit to Selma, Alabama, where mass meetings and demonstrations will build through the winter. 1965 February: Malcolm X speaks in Selma in support of movement, three weeks before his assassination in New York by Nation of Islam members. At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68 March: Voting rights movement in Selma peaks with “Bloody Sunday” police attacks and, two weeks later, a successful march of thousands to Montgomery.
August: King rebuffed by Los Angeles officials when he attempts to advocate reforms after the Watts riots. March: First U.S. combat troops arrive in South Vietnam. Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech makes his most direct embrace of the civil rights movement.
May: Vietnam “teach-in” protest in Berkeley attracts 30,000.
June: Influential federal Moynihan Report describes the “pathologies” of black family structure.
August: Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act. Five days later, the Watts riots begin in Los Angeles.
January: King moves his family into a Chicago slum apartment to mark his first sustained movement in a Northern city.
June: King and Stokely Carmichael continue James Meredith’s March Against Fear after Meredith is shot and wounded. Carmichael gives his first “black power” speech.
July: King’s marches for fair housing in Chicago face bombs, bricks, and “white power” shouts. 1966 February: Operation Rolling Thunder, massive U.S. bombing of North Vietnam, begins.
May: Stokely Carmichael wins the presidency of SNCC and quickly turns the organization away from nonviolence.
October: National Organization for Women founded, modeled after black civil rights groups. April: King’s speech against the Vietnam War at New York’s Riverside Church raises a storm of criticism
December: King announces plans for major campaign against poverty in Washington, D.C., for 1968. 1967 May: Huey Newton leads Black Panthers in armed demonstration in California state assembly.
June: Johnson nominates former NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court.
July: Riots in Newark and Detroit.
October: Massive mobilization against the Vietnam War in Washington, D.C. March: King joins strike of Memphis sanitation workers.
April: King gives his “Mountaintop” speech in Memphis. A day later, he is assassinated at the Lorraine Motel. 1968 January: In Tet Offensive, Communist guerillas stage a surprise coordinated attack across South Vietnam.
March: Johnson cites divisions in the country over the war for his decision not to seek reelection in 1968. –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

At Canaan’s Edge concludes America in the King Years, a three-volume history that will endure as a masterpiece of storytelling on American race, violence, and democracy. Pulitzer Prize-winner and bestselling author Taylor Branch makes clear in this magisterial account of the civil rights movement that Martin Luther King, Jr., earned a place next to James Madison and Abraham Lincoln in the pantheon of American history.

At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68










  • 39 responses to "Pillar of Fire : America in the King Years 1963-65 Current Events Civil Rights & Liberties Taylor Branch Simon & Schuster"

  • TangoTaco
    5:47 on June 30th, 2012
    Reply to comment

    I now have the difficult task of deciding if Pillar of Fire is, in fact, a better book than Taylor Branch’s masterful predecessor volume, Parting the Waters.

    It has been almost 10 years since Parting the Waters was published, and I had waited with growing impatience for the second of Branch’s three volume history of the civil rights movement.

    It is well worth the wait. Mixing an eye for telling detail with a gift for placing those details in context, Pillar is propulsively readable and informative. The years have dulled our recollection of the horrors that were visited upon the brave people, young and old, who broke the back of Jim Crow in the early 60′s.

    Pillar of Fire and Parting the Waters should be required reading for those who suggest that the grievances of Black Americans are largely imagined. The recitations of the evils of the Hoover FBI, alone, are instructive as to the abuses of power that infested that agency during Hoover’s reign.

    READ THIS BOOK!

  • Omkar Patil
    7:34 on June 30th, 2012
    Reply to comment

    This third and final volume of Branch Taylor’s trilogy is of all the three the most unambiguously tragic. At times, reading the previous two volumes, I was so heartbroken at the succession of tragic setbacks in the movement that I wondered when and where the great, decisive victories against segregation ended. And ACE is of all the three the one with the most devastating setbacks. It leaves one to ponder if the Civil Rights Movement eventually achieved its immediate goals so sweepingly precisely because the white power structure finally recognized –so to speak–that those goals were compatible with its continued flourishing.

    For readers interesting in buying this book: bear in mind that this trilogy is to all intents and purposes a biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. It is NOT a hagiography; Branch frequently mentions the roiling emotions and infidelities of MLK. When contemporary observers remark that a particular appearance or speech fell flat, Branch says so. Perhaps Branch knows this narrative technique is more effective at inspiring admiration than unalloyed praise would have been; perhaps not. But in truth, it’s difficult to imagine any sensitive reader not being filled with wonder that such a moral giant like King could even exist.

    Rather than duplicate the effort of the other reviewers (particularly the excellent review by G. Bestick, posted below on January 24, 2006), I want to comment on something that has not been addressed by the others. I believe the single most important theme in the trilogy was the exposition of King’s doctrine of “nonviolence.” I use quotes because “nonviolence” is such an inadequate word to describe the doctrine. Elsewhere, Branch alludes to King’s opposition to “enemy-ism,” in which King rejects lines of reasoning that culminate in demonization or vilification of one’s adversaries. First, King’s doctrine acknowledged the common humanity of all people; humans deviated in different paths of moral conduct depending on reasons that are compelling–perhaps irresistible–at the time. Perpetrators are also victims. Second, the resolution of injustice through violence was untenable; the oppressor in any relationship would always win any challenge that employed violence, if for no other reason than because the victorious liberator would become a new oppressor. Third, the practice of nonviolence required unusual discipline and courage, and King was able to transmit the latter through the force of his oratory.

    In POF (please see my review for that, also), the rival doctrine was belligerent posturing as practiced by the Nation of Islam and by the segregationist authorities. The upheaval of the ’64 elections tended to reflect the loss of face of an earlier generation of white elites, and their replacement by redneck “enforcers.” While the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) remained true to the principles of nonviolence, a major ally, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) repudiated nonviolence in favor of Black Power. The new SNCC was utterly ineffectual and quickly vanished. The Black Panthers was doomed from the start with its scorn of all “white” ideologies and its lack of any coherent replacement. New converts to the ideology of self-defensive violence like Charles Evers could not even bring themselves to target known killers; Byron de la Beckwith, universally known to have murdered Ever’s brother Medgar, was never threatened by the SNCC.

    White supremacist violence now became endemic; before, there were exceptional cases such as the 9/15/63 bombing of a church in Birmingham; but cases of ambush and murder proliferated dramatically after 1965. The destabilization of white supremacist violence now challenged the very survival of American institutions and Southern police forces increasingly intervened against their former Klan allies.

    Looming over everything was the Vietnam War, which for King was the most urgent injustice he faced. Johnson hated the war (Stanley Karnow’s *Vietnam* confirms this) but was unable to accept defeat in it; King was unable to compromise with a known evil, and the most conservative 60% of white American public opinion dreaded facing up to an unbeatable foe. Frustration and ambient racism further stimulated conservative support for the war, while the fiscal woes inflicted by the war extinguished every remaining trace of Johnson’s Great Society. The failure of progressive initiatives, when void of King’s own nonviolent doctrines, was universal and inevitable. At the time of his death, King was not so much defeated or even overwhelmed, as he was offset in a floodtide of squalid reaction.

    After King, the depressing deluge; and after that, his stunning achievements, like a field of tulip bulbs, bloomed amid the receding glacier. But the triumph of nonviolence was like the glimmers of lightning in a summer electric storm, flashing without warning in random corners of the sky.

  • Jolene Voss
    8:10 on June 30th, 2012
    Reply to comment

    With 30 other reviews for this book (so far), it would seem that everything that needs to be said about this book has been said already. And I would second the praise for the book. It is vital reading for any student of American history. It is well written; indeed, I felt the writing style was more literary and more suspenseful than PTW. The allocation of styles is sensible; the straightforward, conservative narrative style of PTW is helpful for readers new to the subject, while POF follows with a somewhat more daring style of narration, for readers now familiar with the main characters.

    What I believe other reviews have not really done is assess the book’s treatment of the subject matter, or what alternative choices Mr. Branch could have made. Readers would be advised to note this is essentially a biography of Martin Luther King, Jr, and not so much an account of the civil rights movement. Not only that, unlike Garrow’s *Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (Perennial Classics)*, it addresses MLK as a thinker and philosopher of nonviolence[*], not as a political actor. Every element in Branch’s books is marshaled to illustrate or test King’s doctrine of nonviolence. While Branch possibly had other motives, a lot of the criticisms of his book can be explained away with this hypothesis.

    (Examples of criticism include the meager attention to other characters in the Civil Rights Movement, brief references to the women, or lack of any sort of radical analysis. While Branch has responded to criticism of his male-centric account of this period, I will merely add that women–white or black–seldom posed a challenge to nonviolence. Likewise, Branch does not attempt to assess the forces driving racism itself, and what caused those forces suddenly to weaken or capitulate. This is about a philosophical approach.)

    The rival approach to King’s philosophy of nonviolence, during this period, was a posture of confrontation (adopted by the Nation of Islam and by King’s adversaries in Florida and Mississippi). “Posturing” is an intermediate stance between violence and nonviolence, and it was the choice of a surprising number of white adversaries still hoping to bluff their way out of a violent confrontation. At this time, the appeal to “states rights” had proven to be a legalistic shell game of evasion, and one doomed to end badly for the segregationists. At the same time, the Nation of Islam was adopting militant rhetoric it could not seriously dream of putting into practice. By adopting a discipline of confrontation and central control, the NOI was able to create an entirely new conception of the African American in the minds of white Americans, as a potentially fierce and truculent contender in America’s endless civic brawls.

    In both cases, the strategy of posturing violence was to collapse in internal struggles. The whites who sought to discourage King’s soul power in Mississippi pushed the envelope of posturing–of intimidation and belligerent confrontation–to the point that the ruling white caste began to lose face and succumbed to the enforcer “rednecks.” The NOI split along personality lines, with Malcolm X being driven from the inner circle of Elijah Muhammad, then forming a charismatic dissenting ummah of non-sectarian Muslims, and exposing the deep contradictions in the NOI’s radical pretensions.

    While the NOI plays a smaller role in the book than I have implied, it is fitting that the book begins with a NOI confrontation with the police, and ends with a deadly confrontation between NOI and its most famous ex-member, Malcolm X. The ideal of establishing Black Pride through a personality cult was to prove an unmitigated disaster for the NOI, while the ideal of defeating nonviolent action through constant state harassment was to severely wound the South’s ruling class.
    ___________________________________________________
    [*] In my review of *At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68 (America in the King Years)* I address King’s doctrine of “nonviolence” in more detail; but “nonviolence” is a very inadequate term to describe the concept.

  • ZeroHedge
    9:29 on June 30th, 2012
    Reply to comment

    As most other reviewers, I too was eager to get into Pillar of Fire after a friend recommended his first book to me, Parting the Waters. Although POF is an excellent, thoroughly written book by Branch, it just misses the superb quality of PTW. What PTW gave us about the backgrounds of the central figures and the story line of key incidents, I felt POF was missing some of that and that Branch just couldn’t get himself out of the White House documents. Not that I’m trying to dimiss JFK and LBJ’s civil rights commentary as frivilous, but I wanted more of the front line drama out of St. Augustine, Florida, Meridian, Mississippi and other hot spots. The other thing I wish Branch would have included was more about Malcom X’s background and how he became a muslim in prison.

    Aside from my nit-picking, I really enjoyed this book and will definitely read the third installment. Although the White House chapters were a bit too long at times, it was fascinating to learn of Hoover’s under-handed tactics to try and quell the movement and hunt out the ‘Communists’ that influenced MLK. I guess we had our very own NKVD police force right here in America during Hoover’s days in power. I had heard inklings of the black-mail suicide tape Hoover sent MLK and was glad Branch gave the full story. Another great aspect of Branch’s writings is how he touches on all of the movement groups such as SNCC, CORE, SCLC, etc. Branch gives Bob Moses’ actions in Mississippi the credit it deserves whereas so many other writers just seem to gloss over his contributions.

    Contrary to a few reviewer’s complaints, Branch’s writing style is NOT hard to follow (even though he jumps around quite a bit) and this is NOT a hard book to read. It reads like any other high-quality historical work so if you’re expecting it to read like Harry Potter, you might want to stick to Brokaw’s history books. Normally, I’d give a book like this five stars but because I know Branch can do better (like Parting the Waters), I can only give it four.

    On a side note, if any reader wants a better idea on who Taylor Branch is, check out Spike Lee’s documentary “4 Little Girls” on the Birmingham church bombing. Branch does some commentary work in it.

  • Jeff Schulz
    11:02 on June 30th, 2012
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    This second of Branch’s three-part work is wonderful. This book details the relationship between Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and other African-American Civil Rights groups better than any book I have read. The author is at his best when discussing the political movement MLK, rather than the personal MLK. But, this book is not a biography of MLK. It is, as the first, a history of a time period set around an influential individual, in this case, Dr. Martin Luther King. This book brings to life, the movement for equality, after it had broken out of its infancy to become of powerful force of civil and political change. This book is a must read for the reader who is interested in the civil rights movement!

  • lucky luke
    12:13 on June 30th, 2012
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    I read this book after having read Parting the Waters a few years ago. Pillar of Fire book is a hard read but worth the effort if you want to know about the years being discussed.

    I was born in 61 in Canada and had no clue about what segregation meant. The anecdotes in Parting the Waters gave me a better idea of why this was such a big deal — probably the lynch pin of modern American history.

    This second volume Pillar of Fire struck me with a different theme. Taylor Branch uses an artful juxtapositon and parallel of Malcom X and Martin Luther King. Playing these two men side by side helped me understand the strength of will it took to follow the path of non-violence on the part of King et al.

    The episodes of unrighteous racial oppression and police violence make your blood boil. On one hand we have Malcolm X –the man so like most of us — who reacts in anger and speaks of vengance. In contrast we have Martin Luther King who holds true to the message of non-violence and in so doing probably saved our nation from much bloodshed later on.

    The laborious detail can be overwhelming but is probably necessary to drive home the point.

  • Guinevere
    14:02 on June 30th, 2012
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    If you are a student of the civil rights movement in particular or the 1960s in general you must read Taylor Branch’s book on Martin Luther King. The book guides you momement by moment through King’s hardfought but peaceful successes at Montomery & Selma and throughout the South and as the movement moved north with less than peaceful outcomes in Watts, Detroit, New Jersey, etc. Very interesting and insightful read.

  • Supertino
    16:00 on June 30th, 2012
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    In concluding his three-volume masterpiece on America in the King Years, Taylor Branch’s tone is somber even before MLK’s assassination. Despite the significant achievements of these years, the civil rights agenda expanded so much that in some ways success seemed further from reach than ever.

    In this volume Branch tells how the movement sought to move beyond attaining voting and other legal rights for blacks in the south by taking the movement north for what we would now call economic justice. In Branch’s telling, the quest for improved housing and integrated education in Chicago is the highlight of this aspect of the movement, as are preparations for a poor people’s march on Washington.

    Amid the actual work of the movement are big distractions, especially the escalation of the Vietnam War. MLK opposed the war not only for reasons of conscience, but also for fear that it would deflect resources and attention from the civil rights movement. In Branch’s account the war doesn’t just loom in the background, but is an integral part of the story. In fact, I would argue that the author goes into too much detail about it. It’s true that the subtitle is “America in the King Years,” but to me it seems implicit that the subject is the civil rights movement rather than America as a whole.

    If MLK has to fight Vietnam’s shadow for political priority, he also has to fight for dominance within the movement itself. Not only are there rivalries within his SCLC, there are also contending forces from the rising Black Power movement with its repudiation of MLK’s non-violent methods. Besides undermining MLK’s dominance it also threatens white backlash, with Ronald Reagan’s victory in the California gubernatorial race attributed in part to the memory of the 1965 Watts riot. In this atmosphere it is a very depressed MLK who days before his death laments, “Maybe we just have to admit that the day of violence is here.”

    In an era when MLK is a national hero large enough to have his own holiday, it’s interesting to read of contemporary media attitudes towards him. For example, many reporters cited here seem patronizing and uncomprehending. Branch also administers a nice rebuke to the New York Times, which even then felt that blacks should serve liberalism rather than the other way around.

    Taylor Branch has completed the definitive account of this essential story. Remarkably, he has done it in a largely dispassionate way. For example, MLK’s flaws are discreetly noted, not hidden, but are never dramatized in a sensational way. Several characters of the time who are still active statesmen and activists (eg. Teddy Kennedy and Jesse Jackson) are portrayed in this book, but their futures are not anticipated; their significance is the role they played then. It has been some years since I read the first two volumes of this history, but my vague memories suggest that this one is more hectic, rather cinematic in construction. I found it a bit distracting at times, but perhaps this method was an apt way to follow these tumultuous days. One serious disappointment I had was that Simon & Schuster printed the book on surprisingly cheap paper for a trade hardback. It smells like a phone book. The previous two volumes were printed on heavier stock.

  • Britni Exley
    19:30 on June 30th, 2012
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    This final installment in the triptych of Dr. Martin Luther King’s life reads almost like a stream of consiousness piece. Engrossing in scope, yet intimate and fastidious in detail, it is gripping, compelling reading. I own “Parting the Waters”, and after having put it aside for awhile, I am reminded of the great service Taylor Branch has done with his nearly quarter-century of research; which bears fruit so powerfully in this concluding work.

  • Ositadimma Muodozie
    20:56 on June 30th, 2012
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    Few experiences are so painful and yet so important to American history as the civil rights movement of the 1960s. During this era, American individuals, institutions, and ideals were pushed to the limit and tried in times of conflict and controversy. The heart of this time, the middle of the 1960s, is carefully and comprehensively documented in this book, the 2nd work of a trilogy by Taylor Branch on the life of MLK Jr. and his role in American history.

    Drawing on literally hundreds of sources such as court documents, newspaper articles, interviews, police records, FBI wiretaps, diary entries, etc, etc… the author recreates the three pivotal years of 1963 – 1965. During this time, the civil rights movement pushed full force into the South, and during this time, the ugliness that was Southern segregation showed itself most fully and completely for all the world to see. Police beatings of demonstrators, assasinations of civil rights workers, jailings of MLK and other civil rights leaders, and the showdown in Congress over the Equal Rights Amendment are all shown in brutal detail in this book. Conversations, courtroom dramas and street showdowns are recreated for the reader to take in all their emotion and agony.

    In this book we see how white Northerners braved beatings to register Southern blacks to vote. We see how FBI agents disguised as door-to-door salesmen ingratiate themselves with the wives of Klansmen to gather info on Klan meetings. We see how LBJ, the master politician, slowly and brutally twist one congressman after another to vote for the ERA. We see the whole of America, from top to bottom, both black and white, face up to the challenge of integration and the evils of segregation. This book is an incredible retelling of America’s passage thru one of its most painful periods. Overall, a great history book and a great read for any one.

  • Preston D Lee
    22:14 on June 30th, 2012
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    The rather straight line story of the civil rights movement that is told in Parting the Waters becomes much more tangled and complex in Taylor Branch’s second book. Here the movement begins to intersect more directly with the other currents of social unrest in the country and the conflicts both within and outside of the movement blur the lines of clear right and wrong.

    This is a great piece of social history with the civil rights movement and MLK as the focus. The more success King achieved the more pressure he was under – both from his enemies and his supporters. This was a difficult time for the country and for all those who were – in whatever way – trying to change it. Branch does an invaluable job in trying to distill the mass of detail and the great complexity of the sociopolitical scene into a coherent story. It’s harder to do here than in the first book, but he manages nicely. Good job. Worth reading carefully.

  • Andrew Cheyne
    22:50 on June 30th, 2012
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    Branch’s first book of his King trilogy “Parting the Waters” is a massive and impressive work on the civil rights movement. Pillar of Fire doesn’t quite live up to it. Branch’s style of impressive, almost smothering detail, which worked so well in Waters seems almost rambling at times in Waters. His coverage of the origins of the Vietnam war, while historically significant, seems out of place in the context of a civil rights history. Still Pillar of Fire is an good work in an impressive trilogy.

  • lovinbeinmomma
    0:40 on July 1st, 2012
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    At Canaan’s Edge is the third and final volume in Taylor Branch’s classic work on the civil rights movement in the United States. We see Martin Luther King in his final few years. King like Moses of Israel would not live to see all of his dreams for equality for all of our nation’s citizens realized in his 39 years. D. King was a leader of incredible energy and brilliance. He
    did reach Canaan’s edge of glory before his assassination at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis in April, 1968.
    The book deals in incredible blow by blow detail with the march to Selma; the turbulence of the Vietnam conflict; the deterioration of the relationship between Dr. King and LBJ over the former’s
    strong condemnation of US policy in Vietnam. Also the opposition to nonviolence advocacy by King among the leaders of the African American leadership. King a Nobel Peace Prize winner died in Memphis fighting for justice for the poor and largely black garbage workers in that large city.
    This book shows prejudice against the blacks and the poor not only in the deep south but in Chicago, Detroit and throughout the nation. It sorrows the Christian soul to read of such injustice and blindness to the reality that we are all God’s
    children. As a Presbyterian pastor I was appalled at how white religious figures often turned a blind eye to cries for justice.
    Many in the reilgious community did support King and his movement and for that they deserve our thankfulness.
    Branch believes that King along with Lincoln and Madison should be our most admired leaders Dr. Martin Luther King was
    human; he had countless affairs and could be difficult to fellow associates but the man is, in my opinion, a true hero and a Moses for his oppressed people. Sermons and phrases from King such as “I have a dream” will live as long as the English language is spoken on this conflicted globe!
    The book deals not only with King but with such leaders as
    LBJ; Robert Kennedy and the racist governor George C. Wallace, Stokely Carmichael, Ralph Abernathy and countless local leaders.
    You will meet fascinating heroes and cads in these pages!
    This book is a classic and should be read by every American
    who cares about freedom and justice for all our citizens.
    Taylor Branch deserves the deep gratitude of all lovers of
    freedom for his lifetime devoted to this work of beautifully
    crafted prose about a terrible time of hatred, injustice and
    cruelty. Prejudice in America is not yet defeated but this book
    may help to eradicate its imprint on the souls of the aspiring
    generation. Indispensable!

  • Flora M. Brown
    2:35 on July 1st, 2012
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    I was lucky enough to discover this trilogy just when the third book (At Canaan’s Edge) was released. Much has been written in other reviews that I will not repeat, except to say that this is an incredibly gripping tale, told by a master historian and story teller, that provides unique insight into the people and dynamics of the Civil Rights movement in America in the 60′s.

    This book is especially worth reading if you think this is a story you already know well; because Branch manages to surprise you and extend your understanding without ever losing sight of the landmarks of well established facts.

    This truly is history as it should be written, and while the second book is admittedly a bit weaker than the first and third, they are all excellent and Branch more than deserves a second Pulitzer for the final book.

  • maxamed axmed
    4:23 on July 1st, 2012
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    May I not at all profanely note that nobody ever owned anybody, despite an Emanicipation Proclamation continuing the same lie akin to one Al Gore put in a book: war is right? It is presently helpful to have wondered whether Taylor Branch would have included a direct reference to the suggestion made amid Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech April 15, 1967, that the United States not have its citizens lying that everybody else’s policeman, even a so-called nonviolent one, could be a country.

  • Gradle Gardner
    5:05 on July 1st, 2012
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    Any follow up to Parting the Waters is destined to be anticlimatic. Concedingly, there are a few drawbacks to Pillar of Fire. Nonetheless, this is another classic work from Branch.

    General Remarks:

    1. About half of the first section of the book is a summary about the “tides” leading to the Birmingham campaign in 1963. Accordingly, it has a text book feel and it quite bland, especially if you just finished reading Parting the Waters. However, the summary will be beneficial if you need a memory jogger to prepare for the history to continue.

    2. Fortunately, mixed in with the summary is fresh narrative ranging from “Muslims in Los Angeles” to “LBJ in St. Augustine”

    3. The second section, “Freedom Summer,” is a return to vintage Branch. The author’s presentation of history is captivating. Branch somehow smoothly intertwines all perspectives and every angle in his depiction of freedom summer, zooming out to global standpoints and in for microscopic analyses of King’s conscience.

    4. Like Parting the Waters, Pillar is rife with suspense, plot turns, romance, treachery, violence, sex, and political intrigue. Even if this were a novel its literary value would merit reading it. But this stuff is true, amazingly, and contains a ton of documentation to prove it.

    5. Better yet, this book is philosophically stimulating, inspirational, educational, and utterly poignant.

    6. Ironically, this book should have been much longer. Character development could stand to be more thorough in places. Accordingly, some defining episodes (especially St. Augustine) seem rushed.

    Final comment: Branch provides an in depth, intimate portrait of the movement and its principal actors. Pillar of Fire is a rich mix of fascinating biography and political intrigue, captured within a multi-dimensional approach to history (intellectual, social, cultural, political, religious), and held together with a concentration on Martin Luther King.

  • olacakokadar
    7:06 on July 1st, 2012
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    Some reviewers point to the yawn-inspiring length and density of printed matter making up this effort. Not so much of a problem had it been engagingly written and/or illuminating. PTW was both of those things. I intended to use Mr. Branch’s book as a primary resource in conjunction with a paper I’m writing on women leaders in the Civil Rights Movement. Imagine my very predictable chagrin when women are barely mentioned. Pictures of Rosa Parks and Ella Baker are supplemented by thumbnail sketches while we are fed a dizzying amount of minutiae about a man whose hagiography is probably in the bottom drawer of the Pope’s desk. Minute by minute, we are led through King’s life, but the larger context in which he operated seems missing. Where is the strife between MLK, CORE, SNCC, SCLC, due to their different organizing philosophies and methods of producing change? Where are we now? The dearth of visible, radical black leadership we are experiencing may well be a response to the shots that still echo from the ’60′s to the present.

  • Eddy Cormon
    8:51 on July 1st, 2012
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    One customer-reviewer (pjdecaprio@bkb.com) kindly left this on a plane for someone else to find. Lucky for that person. The first 40 pages alone are worth the price of the book, to get a deep understanding of how small events and misunderstandings can get blown out of proportion to tragic consequenses. I certainly did not expect this to read like a novel. I anticipated a rich, informed description of one of the most significant periods in contemporary history, and was amply rewarded by Mr. Branch’s work. He is obviously passionate about the subject, but maintains detachment. And only by reading Representative John Lewis’s book, “Walking with the Wind”, did I come to know of Mr. Branch’s involvement in the movement. He doesn’t toot his own horn, but rather gives a wonderfully rich, compellingly written, moving account of one of the USA’s greatest social achievments. Thank you, Mr. Branch. Now, finish up the third one!

  • Commonsense
    10:44 on July 1st, 2012
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    This is the third volume of an epic history of King, the Civil Rights movement and America during a pivotal moment.

    In this volume Branch traces the last years of King, the years post-March on Washington, the years when many in the movement decided that non-violence was not the correct line. Our memory of King ends largely at the “I had a dream” speech and passes over these years when King, took the logical step of expanding his quest for justice to the North, against poverty and against Vietnam.

    Each step in that expansion cost King allies. Whites who were courageously against southern racism, turned out not to be so courageous when it applied to their own states. King’s opposition to Vietnam found opponents within the Black community. And no one wants to talk about class.

    Today it is common to contend that King `declined’ in these years, or became `irrelevant’, and we assume this is a judgment on King. Reading this book, I became even more convinced that the judgment is on us. King was faithful to his belief in God, in Christ and the non-violent way of the cross to the end, proving beyond any doubt his sincerity, his faith and his integrity. America took a profound wrong turn in those years, or perhaps, failed to grasp the opportunity presented to it.

    While this book is as meticulously researched, as detailed and as broad in vision as the previous two in the series, it suffers from occasional bouts of confused writing. Every 50 pages or so you have to read some incident twice or three times before it becomes clear. His account of the Memphis march and the final days of King curiously lack impact.

    Still, the story itself is compelling, and King’s gradual abandonment as he journeys in faithfulness towards his Golgotha is epic and cosmic in its meanings for our time.

  • J Corzine
    14:32 on July 1st, 2012
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    This book addresses subjects which should be known to all Americans, such as the FBI’s underhanded efforts to discredit Martin Luther King, Jr., and the unlawful interference by elected officials with African-Americans’ right to vote. The author clearly put monumental work into researching this book and his prior volume, Parting the Waters. Unfortunately, the obscure writing style and the inclusion of many details of limited relevance make the book a chore to read.

  • Paula Sean
    15:08 on July 1st, 2012
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    This book not only covers the height of King’s work, but also the events surrounding the assassination of Malcolm X with great detail. Read this, and you might begin to doubt Spike Lee’s version of events in his 1992 film on Malcolm X.

    This is not supposed to be a novel. It is not an easy read. This is NOT a watered down history book. People who want the light stuff, please refer to the books by Tom Brokaw or William Bennett.

  • Suarez
    16:07 on July 1st, 2012
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    Noting how the extreme right wing (Palin, Beck, Limbaugh and Fox News) are calling the President and the NAACP racist. I have a reading for them. Taylor Branch’s seminal study on the Civil Rights Movement in the US. If they read them ( and I would hope they could or would) they will realize their lilly white Tea Party Movement is on the wrong side of history. More on the side that believes if you tell a lie often enough some might believe it. By the way (for students of Beck University) the three volume study is in paperback.

    Andy Hanson

  • good grief
    18:34 on July 1st, 2012
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    Volume one of Branch’s biography of King, though interesting most of the time, suffers from Branch’s sometime tortuous syntax and lack of focus, it seems. _Parting the Waters_, overall, was excellent, but I only wish that it flowed always when it only flowed some of the time.

    Beginning now to read _Pillar of Fire_, volume two of the trilogy, I am again struck with Branch’s convoluted and twised syntax, which smooths itself out at some point only to become twisted once more. Also, volume two seems, at the start, to be extremely disjointed, hopping from place to place with no cohesive story. Most of the first 100 pages of _Pillar of Fire_ is a repeat of information already convered in volume one of the Trilogy.

    I expected volume two to begin right off with how the new Johnson Administration was going to approach the Civil Right’s Movement, and what further things good ol’ Hoover was going to work up. But so far– after 100 pages– the book still sits, apparently, in the Kennedy Administration, with very little referencing of King, the Kennedy Administration, or Hoover. Instead, volume two simply rehashes, in sometime tortuous syntax, old information.

    Nevertheless, I will continue to read volume two. The trilogy is very good, for the most part. Style is a thing the reader adapts to, after a few hours of reading. The only problem with Branch is that though I have accustomed myself to Branch’s stylitical quirks, it seems I am forever going in and out of catching his tempo and flow.

    Alan Bernardo

  • Eyal M.
    20:44 on July 1st, 2012
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    For many who were young during the turbulent 60s, this era has a mythical feel to it. Great figures have been romanticized, whether it was Kennedy and Camelot or Martin Luther King, Jr. and “I Have a Dream.” Taylor Branch has found a way to bring reality to those tales. He refuses to glamorize his subject; refuses to sanitize his main character. For an epic look at a story smack in the epicenter of American history, “At Canaan’s Edge” is the place to stand.

    Reviewer: Bob Kellemen, Ph.D., is the author of Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction .

  • Petco Coupons
    22:35 on July 1st, 2012
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    In the preface to his second book of a three-volume history of civil rights, author Taylor Branch writes, “I hope to sustain my thesis that King’s life is the best and most important metaphor for American history in the watershed postwar years.”

    I felt that Branch could not sustain that thesis and despite the scholarly scope of this work, gave it four out of five stars.

    King’s conviction that the nation must rise above its racist ideology in order to lay claim to democracy’s high ground, continues to be a powerful moral force during the years from 1963-65. Meanwhile, President Johnson recognizes that JFK’s strategy of compromises between an oppressed people and their oppressors, raised hopes on both sides without satisfying them, resulting in increased confrontation and militancy and giving rise to divisive figures such as Malcolm X and George Wallace.

    Besides sharing King’s faith in democratic ideals, Johnson sees his Presidency as his own “bully pulpit” and secures the vision of civil rights through raw political clout – another essential step along the road of democracy. King’s dynamic personal, religious and moral authority are no match for LBJ’s overwhelming political authority which results in the landmark reforms of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

    King didn’t – couldn’t – run for any political office or position. Branch’s thesis of King being a metaphor for this period of American history, when political power and action become the agents of change, is generously flawed.

  • Dale Waltrip
    0:19 on July 2nd, 2012
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    I have read both of Mr. Branch’s book and while this is the first book of this size and type that I’ve read I couldn’t put it down. It is excellent through and through. If you have any interest in this time period and subject, get this book and his other “Parting the Waters”.

  • CALI JAMAC
    1:56 on July 2nd, 2012
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    America, created as an experiment in individual freedom, embedded the legal right to own slaves in its founding charter. The working out of these contradictory impulses has been the central American story. This is the story that Taylor Branch tells in engrossing detail through his three volume history of “America in the King Years.”

    The Civil Rights Movement brought out the best and the worst in the American character; over almost 3,000 pages, Branch assembles the facts, interviews the survivors, and bears witness. The first volume, Parting the Waters, traces Martin Luther King’s rise from obscure Baptist preacher to a civil rights leader forged in the crucible of the Montgomery bus boycott. Pillar of Fire goes from JFK’s assassination to an abrupt, somewhat unsatisfactory ending at the beginning of the 1965 Selma campaign. At Canaan’s Edge starts with the triumph of the Montgomery march and ends with King’s assassination in 1968.

    The author describes his approach as a “narrative biographical history,” that uses King’s life to illuminate broad American themes. There’s more narrative than history in these volumes. Very seldom does Branch take the long view, or give us contextual exegeses. What he does give us is compelling, often brilliant reporting that features participant interviews, a deep dive into formerly classified documents, and a you-are-there look at the conversations, strategy sessions and public theater of the friends and foes of civil rights. These books aren’t exactly a King biography, a history of the Civil Rights Movement or a history of America during a time of wrenching change, and yet they’re all these things, the whole becoming greater than the sum of the parts.

    One of the many rewards of reading this trilogy is the skill with which Branch has resurrected the living, breathing King. We learn about an intellectual more at home parsing Reinhold Neibuhr’s philosophy than facing down rabid mobs of diehard segregationists. A holy man beset by common human lusts. An executive who dealt with PR, fundraising and staff squabbles. A preacher buffeted by the sectarian struggles in the Black Baptist Church. A politician weaving, often groping, through racial and cultural thickets toward goals that seemed impossibly distant. One comes away awed by the immensity of the burdens King assumed, and humbled by the grace with which he bore them.

    The books also chronicle the history of the Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1968. The relationships among the various civil rights groups were often tempestuous. The NAACP under Roy Wilkins thought King’s nonviolent demonstrations too radical. The young activists of SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) eventually dismissed King’s approach as too temperate. The leaders of his own Southern Christian Leadership Conference, James Bevel, Hosea Williams, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, were often at odds with King and each other over movement strategy and tactics. The brilliant, mercurial Malcolm X breaks free from the Nation of Islam, but they get him in the end. SNCC’s rise and demise get covered in sympathetic detail, from early sit-ins to the non-violent triumphs of 1964′s Freedom Summer Project up through the divisive times of Black Power separatism. In particular, SNCC leaders Bob Moses and Stokely Carmichael come across as courageous, committed activists who did lonely and dangerous voter registration work in the rural South when no one was watching and only their enemies cared.

    Another strand recounts the actions of America’s political leaders. John and Bobby Kennedy engaged in an excruciatingly complex dance between white southern politicians and civil rights leaders. JFK personally believed segregation was wrong, but didn’t want to lose the South for the Democrats by forcing integration through federal mandates. Although Bobby Kennedy became increasingly committed to civil rights, as Attorney General he allowed J Edgar Hoover to illegally bug King in order to save his brother from an incipient sex scandal. Hoover, a diehard segregationist, had an irrational hatred for King, and lost no opportunity to try and discredit him. Branch does a great job of revealing the extent of the FBI’s illegal wiretapping campaigns and their corrosive effect on both civil liberties and the rule of law.

    The tragedy of lost opportunity befell LBJ. He had the vision, commitment and skill to forge a national mandate to end segregation and begin to eradicate poverty. His domestic agenda got highjacked as he drifted deeper into a war he knew from the outset he couldn’t win. In one of his rare pullbacks to take the long view, Branch pinpoints 1966 as liberalism’s high water mark. After that, the white South deserted the Democrats over Civil Rights and FDR’s New Deal coalition fell apart. We’re still dealing with the aftershocks of this pivotal moment as we navigate through the less idealistic, more Darwinian terrain of George Bush’s America.

    Martin Luther King exhorted us to rise above moral expediency and sectarian passion and “live out the true meaning of our creed.” We never rose to the greatness he thought was in us, but his words and example still point the way for the work to be done. Taylor Branch has captured in indelible fashion the grace and heartbreak of King’s life and times.

  • Diana Snyder
    2:28 on July 2nd, 2012
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    This is a book which will catch you up, no matter how familiar you are with the events it relates. It pays more attention to Malcolm X than the standard news accounts of the period did, but that story is great interest–tho one doesn’t think it did much for the goals that King and his fellow workers had.

  • Anger Wade
    4:16 on July 2nd, 2012
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    Taylor Branch has written an epic novel (yes, Mr. I Left It On a Plane, this is a novel!), which gives the “inside scoop” on three critical years of the civil rights movement. As a high school history teacher, I found this book not only a fascinating read (though, don’t get me wrong, not “easy” like reading Grisham or some such pap)but one which made me go “oh, THAT’s why that happened” many times over. For example, the question of why the Republican Party in 1964 ceased (forever?) to be the Party of Lincoln…or what kind of pressures were on LBJ and MLK to support each other and yet not be SEEN as supporting each other…or what exactly WAS the deal with Malcolm X’s rift with the Black Muslims…or dozens of other questions finally, comprehensively, and interestingly answered!

  • Andrew Grey
    5:13 on July 2nd, 2012
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    This impressive history is best at emphasizing one of the most striking facts of the Civil Rights Movement: how so many people, over such a long period of time, in the face of so much violence–remained nonviolent. Unstated, but implied, is the fact that absent such nonviolence the gains won during the Movement would have been fewer and slower in coming. There is much else of interest here, too, e.g., the power dynamics at play among the Kennedys, LBJ, Hoover, and King, and also among the central figures within the Nation of Islam. My only beef: Branch doesn’t seem able to say “no” to any detail, no matter how trivial. As a result I often found myself asking why he was including such obscure, even bizarre, factoids–a phenomenom which distracted me from the otherwise fascinating material.

  • Pat Shuff
    9:01 on July 2nd, 2012
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    As usual I am finding myself engrossed by Taylor Branch’s scholarship and prose. I have not quite completed this epic book about MLK, but I soon will. I can’t put it down. MLK was one of the greatest human spirits to grace us with his presence. If you want a stunning, modern take on the power of MLK’s eternal power, watch and listen to the DVD “USA The Movie” which is infused with his prophetic voice in a unique, unforgettable way.

    Branch has done us a wonderful service by devoting the last 25 years of his life to chronicling MLK’s life and the life of America during the struggle for civil rights. As usual, Branch is detailed, infinitely knowledgeable and obviously deeply devoted to his work and his subject. I recommend this book –all of his trilogy actually — with great admiration and gratitude. Branch pieces together the inward and outward life of MLK in such a wonderful, well-researched project that is as impressive as it is eye-opening.

  • xiusrpcbb
    12:01 on July 2nd, 2012
    Reply to comment

    Martin Luther King’s spiritual revolution anchored “Parting the Waters” while President Johnson’s political revolution anchored “Pillar of Fire.” America’s moral revolution should have anchored this third and last book in Taylor Branch’s 3-volume chronicle of civil rights.

    Instead this book documents, in impressive and exhausting detail, MLKs opposition to the Vietnam War which he calls one of the “triplets of evil” along with racism and poverty. Branch makes MLKs antiwar stance a spiritual foil to LBJs political policies in support for it, essentially blending the themes of the previous books into this final work.

    He does so at the expense of his real story; America’s moral awakening for a spectrum of human rights, a potent force that emerged independent of – though directly inspired by – these two men. Branch’s literary vision of having MLK at the center of America’s moral arc is noble and ambitious but lacks credibility and for that reason, I gave this somber book (it’s not a hopeful work) three stars.

    Women (civil rights veteran Pauli Murray became a co-founder of NOW), youth (the right to vote), gays, students (the draft and campus politics), religious faiths and others were demanding their inclusion to the Great Society during the 1965-1968 years. All had their genesis in the civil rights movement – and benefited from LBJs landmark legislation – yet Branch offers no documentation that MLK tried to form coalitions with these groups or was even aware of their existence.

    MLKs unfortunate chauvinism and apparent isolation undermined his relevancy during this turbulent time – though not his legacy – more than his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War ever did. Focusing mainly on the Vietnam theory likewise undermines this book.

  • Ivy Patuto
    12:33 on July 2nd, 2012
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    I loved ‘Parting the Waters’ so much that I was not surprised to be somewhat disappointed by its successor. I suppose that Branch just could not bring off the heroic drama of his earlier book. However, let it be said straight away, that on its own this stands as a worthy book on the fight against segregration from 1963 to 1965, encompassing roughly the years from the March on Washington to after the ‘Freedom Summer’ in Mississippi and the Selma confrontation in Alabama.

    On the minus side, I found the early chapters downright confusing. Several incidents overlap with the earlier book, so that there is some duplication, and repetition. In some cases detail seemed over-elaborate, in others matters seemed to skip along in cursory fashion.

    However, the chapters on the Freedom Summer and the Selma conflict are up to the standard of ‘Parting the Waters’. Unfortunately, this begins halfway through the book, and it was only then I felt the same fascination with the earlier work.

    Narrative history has its problems – the writer convering a large subject must capture the epic sweep, while also the flavour of individual experience. Branch captured this magnificently in ‘Parting’.

    In particularly, the student of the SNCC together with Bob Moses are fascinating. King (and this was an issue I had with the earlier work) is a protagonist without any analysis – his character and achievements are taken for granted, so as a biographical assessment of a life, Branch is not adequate. However, I like the way ‘villains’ like J.Edgar Hoover did get their point of view, though in the case of this man, does anyone now see him as a colossus of law-enforcement, as his contemporaries did? A heavy hint of voyeurism arises from his obsession with King’s sex life.

    All told, worth buying and worth reading, and we await with eager expectation the next volume.

  • Ivy Patuto
    14:37 on July 2nd, 2012
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    Presenting an authentic and comprehensive picture of the mammoth civil rights movement in the United States in the post WWII era is a daunting task, yet noted author and journalist Taylor Branch has succeeded masterfully with this, the second of a planned three-volume history of the struggle of blacks in America to find justice, equality and parity with the mainstream white society. Detailing the final desperate years of the mature and charismatic Rev. Martin Luther King, Branch sets the stage for a wide range of events, personalities, and public issues. This is truly a wonderful read, fascinating, entertaining, and endlessly detailed in its description of people and events, and quite insightful in its chronicling of the fortune of those social forces that created, sustained, and accomplished the single most momentous feat of meaningful social action in our nation’s contemporary history.

    His range of subjects is necessarily wide and deep, and we find coverage of every aspect of the tumultuous struggle as it reaches into the final desperate efforts of the mature Martin Luther King, a man haunted by efforts at blackmail, internal bickering and dissension, and racist hatred as he continues the efforts to rectify the social evils of segregation and works toward greater civil rights and justice under the law. As in the first volume, this work at times borders on becoming a biography of Martin Luther King and his times, yet Branch so extends his coverage of the eddies and currents of the movement itself that it appears to be by far the most comprehensive and fair-minded treatment of the civil rights movement published to date. Indeed, in detailing these critical years of the movement, Branch offers a wonderfully recreated portrait of all of the participants in this momentous and historical struggle, illustrating just how close to the breaking point our society came during these fateful years, and therefore memorably engages the reader with every element of this and a thousand other personalities, issues, and events that helped to carve out the history of our country for almost twenty years.

    Here one finds a very detailed coverage of the rise of black firebrand Malcolm X and how he influenced the ongoing movement, of J. Edgar Hoover, perpetually obsessed with King and his sexual exploits, and of Lyndon Johnson, who, acting out of his concern for his dream for the Great Society, forcefully twisted the forces of the U.S. Congress toward accepting meaningful civil rights legislation. So too, do we find lesser known names and personalities covered, from Diane Nash to Robert Moses to Fannie Lou Hamer, all of who played critical and fateful roles in the unfolding of the civil rights movement. The names and places and events described here are legion, and one gets the sense that anyone who had a conscience was involved, and many of the names mentioned later went on to greater accomplishment and further noteworthy contribution in their public lives and careers.

    This, then, is a stupendous second book in a wonderful planned three-volume history of the civil rights movement in the United States; the first volume covered the period from the late 1950s when the first rumblings of the movement were sounded until just after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas in November of 1963. This second volume picks up the thread thereafter, extending out through the Johnson years and including aspects of the coalescence of the movement with the Vietnam anti-war protest. This is a wonderful book, and one I would consider essential reading for anyone with an interest in American history in the 20th century. I highly recommend both of the books already published, and I hope you appreciate reading them as much as I did while we wait for the arrival of the third and final volume. Enjoy!

  • kashfgkfhdgkl
    15:55 on July 2nd, 2012
    Reply to comment

    Parting The Waters won the Pulitzer Prize, and deservedly so. But whereas PTW starts slowly (with Dr. King’s upbringing, education, and entry into public life) and builds to the the Children’s March (as heart-wrenching as any battlefield story), “Pillar” seems to wander aimlessly through the next two years without much emotional involvement. The events leading up to the assasination of Malcom X are matter-of-fact, and the deed itself is almost an afterthought.

    Having said all that, “Pillar” is still an excellent account of those years, just not the brilliant narrative its predecessor was.

  • Cori Poletski
    18:56 on July 2nd, 2012
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    Taylor Branch has certainly done better work with his first Pulitzer Prize winning Civil Rights movement work, “Parting the Waters,’ but that doesn’t mean you should be brushing aside this good history writing in “Pillar of Fire.” There’s a quote out there…that I can’t seem to find right now…that says something to the effect of, “If we don’t learn from history, we will find ourselves repeating mistakes already made.” In the realm of social justice and American Civil Rights history there is no finer capturing of our society’s mistakes and the heroic struggle undertaken by civil rights movement leaders than the history written by Taylor Branch on the subject. The entire trilogy should be required reading for all liberal arts majors (all other under grad majors for that matter) as an education in the important history that shaped the America we know today.

    “Pillar of Fire,” captures just three years of the Civil Rights movement from 1963-1965, but they were chock-filled with pivital and formative events. Highlights from Branch’s book are the FBI-wrangling led by J. Edgar Hoover, the Mississippi Freedom Summer, assassinations of Malcom X and Medgar Evars, the mission creep of Vietnam, and the beginnings of tying in the civil rights movement protest to a larger anti-war protest movement. My criticism, though minor may it be, of “Pillar of Fire,” is that whereas Branch’s first work, “Parting the Waters,” read like a deftly crafted geniusly written page turner of a suspense novel, “Pillar of Fire,” comes across more like a traditional history book. Branch’s writing genius lies in his ability to bring together seemingly disparate events while mixing in elements of pop culture and everyday life to give you a good feel for the “sign of the times,” at that time. Where Branch was able to tie in the events in America pre-1965 and do it with panache in “Parting the Waters,” his efforts in “Pillar of Fire,” aren’t so focused. Call it a sophomore slump if you will, but “Pillar of Fire,” got a little too bogged down in White House and Capital Hill wankerings and didn’t focus on the immediacy of the drama of what was happening on the street down South during those years. Don’t let this deter you from reading “Pillar of Fire,” though…its just a minor Branch-ian misstep.

    Where Branch’s work really shines is his recounting of the odd and gangster and cult-like machinations of the Nation of Islam. He also captures the juxtaposition of Malcom X’s approach to Civil Rights versus MLK’s non-violent warfare approach quite nicely. In hindsight it seems MLK’s method of bringing about social justice change through sacrifice and love proved more lasting and effective. Also of interest is J. Edgar Hoover’s odd fixation on MLK’s personal life and using that to try to bring down the man and the movement. If people are concerned about the “Patriot Act,” today infringing on personal rights and intelligence oversight…just read what America was like in the 60′s with the Hoover-led FBI getting into everybody’s business.

    All in all, Branch’s “Pillar of Fire,” is a high quality read and well-written piece of history…a history that is integral to the fabric of America today. The Civil Rights movement was nothing short of a revolutionary and/or civil war in America and the re-telling of this history reveals it as such. Run, don’t walk, to get a hold of all of Branch’s books from Amazon to get up to speed on all things Civil Rights movement.
    –MMW

  • Doug White
    19:21 on July 2nd, 2012
    Reply to comment

    this is one of the best history books i’ve ever read. in fact, it transcends the history genre. canaan’s edge is first and foremost about one of the most courageous men in american history — martin luther king jr. of course, king didn’t lead the 60′s civil rights movement by himself — branch’s book shows the courage of many people known and unknown.
    it also casts other historical figures in a new light. primary among these, for me, is lyndon johnson, who comes thru in these pages as a brave supporter of civil rights, whose civil rights record was eclipsed by his mistakes with the vietnam war. beautifully written, moving, filled with people and powerful vignettes, this is a must read for all americans.

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