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Pillar of Fire : America in the King Years 1963-65 Paperback – January 20, 1999
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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.
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.
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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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By 1963, America is a nation in growing turmoil. Segregation of the races is still the law of the Deep South, and an unwritten code in much of the rest of the country. African Americans are deprived of basic rights in all aspects of their lives. They can't vote, and they are denied access to equal opportunities for employment, education, housing, economic advancement and the use of public facilities. There is a rising tide of discontent among African Americans; they are becoming less willing to remain silent in their demands for equality, and more willing to fight...
During the two-year period covered in "Pillar of Fire," some of the most important battles for equal rights are fought at Birmingham, Alabama; Greenwood, Mississippi; St. Augustine, Florida; and other places throughout the United States. Branch points out that by this time, Martin Luther King, Jr. has become the de facto leader of America's civil rights movement. Although he holds no "official" leadership position, he is, in effect, the voice and face of equal rights for all people of color. This is mainly due to his courage in speaking out, his commitment to non-violent confrontation to achieve equal rights, and his willingness to endure physical dangers and hardships along with those who march for freedom and equality.
In "Pillar of Fire," Martin Luther King, Jr. is once again presented as the flawed but noble hero at the center of the epic battle for civil rights. Like its predecessor, "Parting the Waters," this book is a fabulously written, highly detailed account of a man and an era. It's a perfect combination of a brilliant biography and a penetrating study of one the most disturbing but important periods of twentieth century American history. Most highly recommended.
King’s commitment to nonviolence in the face of overwhelming provocation is stunning. Branch often embeds events in an avalanche of detail about day-to-day goings-on that can be somewhat deadening but serves to make the point that there was no inevitability to the ultimate triumph of King. Throughout his career, he was beset by criticism, rivalry, and divisiveness from both within and without his ranks. The forces arrayed against him were formidable. This book is one more argument toward solidifying J. Edgar Hoover’s status as one of the great villains of modern American history, with his underhanded and unconstitutional persecution and surveillance of King, even, at one point, sinking to the depths of having evidence of his infidelities sent to him along with a message urging him to commit suicide. Lyndon Johnson emerges as a pivotal figure, ever mindful of political reality but favorable toward black suffrage in a way that Kennedy wasn’t.
Writing in the early days of the Trump administration, I am reminded by this book that the most worrisome terrorists are the homegrown variety and encouraged by the precedent of citizens standing up to corrupt power and prevailing.
Taylor Branch does an excellent job of showing what the movement was like as well as the bitter times it lived through. MLK was a man, no question about it, but what a brilliant, courageous man he was! The movement featured a number of heroes and heroines but MLK stands out as uniquely qualified to speak for all the people, black and white
Now read Slavery by Another Name and a book by Lillian Smith, Killers of the Dream.