Pillar of Fire.
Pillar of Fire America in the King Years, 1963-1965. Taylor Branch New York and London Simon and Schuster, 25.00 [pounds sterling] ISBN 0 684 80819 6
RELIGION, INTRIGUE AND VIOLENT DEATH stalk Pillar of Fire. It opens with the Los Angeles Police Department's assault on Temple No. 27 of the Nation of Islam in late 1962, an episode of escalating violence worthy of Elmore Leonard. It ends with a summary of later feuds inside the Nation, including the 1973 attack on the home of breakaway leader Hamaas Abdul-Khaalis, in whose absence the assassins `shot his wife and daughter in the head, executed two sons and a follower, and drowned three infants in a tub and sink.'
In the intervening pages, Taylor Branch deals with the Sunday School bombing in Birmingham, Alabama; J.F. Kennedy's assassination; the triple killings of the 1964 Freedom Summer; and the hunting down of Malik al-Shabazz (Malcolm X). One wonders how he will cope with the traumatic 1965-68 period in a projected third volume.
Readers familiar with his first instalment, Parting the Waters (1988), will know that Branch has a fine sense of the politics of religion. This explains the prominence he gives to Rabbi Abraham Heschel, a supporter of Martin Luther King and a key diplomat in Jewish-Catholic relations. Branch notes how uncomfortable Heschel made other rabbis, and draws a parallel with King's own excommunication by the `Negro Pope', the Reverend J. H. Jackson, president of the National Baptist Convention. The extensive treatment of the Nation of Islam, especially the struggles of Wallace Muhammed and Malcolm X to move the Nation to Sunni orthodoxy, brings the third great monotheistic religion within Branch's compass.
Branch has a journalist's love of intrigue. He recounts the CIA's involvement in the toppling of the South Vietnamese President Diem and his brother Nhu (and the grim pun that circulated: `No Nhus is good news.') But of all the plots he details, he follows the FBI's pursuit of Martin Luther King Jr. most assiduously. Like the Nation of Islam, the Bureau emerges as a dangerous cult led by an angry old hypocrite. Branch quotes some alleged, salacious remarks of King's from the still-classified FBI tapes, obtained from interviews with former FBI men. He acknowledges the bias of his sources but recognizes that complete silence about King's sexual escapades and raunchy conversation would be equally misleading.
It is worth stressing that this is neither a King biography nor a study of the Civil Rights movement. Pillar of Fire is more a snapshot of America in the mid-Sixties with details of TV shows, pop stars, and sports results. The virtue of this technique is to communicate the texture of the period, reminding the reader of how story-lines intersect and tangle. The challenge is to maintain a sense of coherence as well. Branch sees King's life as `the best and most important metaphor for American history in the watershed postwar years.' Certainly, it had intrigue, religion and violent death. But for long sections of this book, King seems quite peripheral, overshadowed by figures of equal complexity and tragedy, such as Malcolm X, Lyndon Johnson, and even J. Edgar Hoover. This was very much their America as well.
Peter J. Ling is Senior Lecturer in American Studies at the University of Nottingham.