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Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65 Hardcover – February 2, 1998

4.5 out of 5 stars 55 customer reviews

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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.

From Library Journal

Following Parting the Waters (LJ 1/89), his magnificent Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the Civil Rights years 1954-63, Branch's second volume of a projected trilogy takes the story through the heady years that saw the Southern Freedom Rides, Congressional battles over the Civil Rights acts, the March on Washington, the Birmingham bombing, and the assassinations of John Kennedy, Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X. Once more, Branch's national epic is knit together by the charismatic figure of Dr. King. We only think we know this story, which in Branch's masterly version seems freshened and newly impressive, told without cant or cliche.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 768 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (February 2, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684808196
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684808192
  • Product Dimensions: 1.5 x 6.8 x 10 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (55 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #146,733 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
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.
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Format: Paperback
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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Format: Paperback
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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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