Pillar of Fire : America in the King Years 1963-65
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28 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on January 19, 2001
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.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
HALL OF FAMEon December 14, 1999
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.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
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!
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on March 19, 2002
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.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on January 28, 1998
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!
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on July 28, 2000
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!
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on January 13, 2006
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.
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13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on July 7, 1999
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!
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on July 5, 1999
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.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on July 2, 1999
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!
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