Second epic volume by Taylor Branch

January 18, 1998|By Ray Jenkins | Ray Jenkins,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65," by Taylor Branch. Simon and Schuster. 746 pages. $30.

Ever since Ronald Reagan came to power nearly 20 years ago, conservatives have taken a certain ribald delight in ridiculing the 1960s as the decade of the spoliation of America, 10 years of endless pot parties, flag-desecration, sexual abandon, and other assorted debaucheries.

Such simplistic caricatures are now decisively put to rest by the gifted Baltimore writer Taylor Branch in this much-anticipated second volume of a trilogy that began 10 years ago with the publication of his magisterial "Parting the Waters." With "Pillar of Fire," Branch demonstrates beyond dispute that the Sixties merit a place in history as a watershed time, a time as supremely significant to black Americans as was the fall of the Berlin wall to those who groaned under communism.

At first bounce, a reader might be daunted by the prospect of plowing through more than 600 pages that cover a scant two years of history. But it soon becomes apparent that Branch has an uncanny ability to penetrate the most obscure nooks and crannies of the past to provide a whole new perspective on the Sixties, even for those who covered the turbulent time as journalists. Indeed, far from being tedious, the narrative moves with such head-spinning velocity that at times one almost yearns for a bit of respite from the pace.

"Parting the Waters" ended with the high-water mark of the civil rights movement, the March on Washington in 1963, and the new volume picks up there. The work is not, as is often thought, a biography of Martin Luther King Jr. As the subtitle suggests -"America in the King Years" - its scope is far more expansive.

Indeed, the most intriguing portions of the new volume deal with the complex interplay between King, the starry-eyed idealist with an almost naive faith in the power of Christian love and American democracy, and Malcolm X, the cold-eyed realist who believed genuine freedom and self-respect could be attained only by wrenching power, under palpable threat of violence, from the entrenched plutocrats.

In a curious way, the enigmatic and often sinister Malcolm provided a symbiotic support for King by implying that if the powers didn't heed King's call for nonviolent accommodation, then they would have to deal with incendiary Malcolm in the battles to come. Interestingly, the two cautious adversaries seem to have had only one brief and apprehensive meeting.

Equally fascinating is Branch's account of Lyndon Johnson as the accidental president who grappled with the intractable problems of racial conflict at home and the war in Vietnam abroad. Branch reveals the volcanic Johnson to be, just beneath the protective armor of bravado and bullyism, a man of such profound insecurity that his press secretary grew desperately afraid that the full extent of his mental instability would become known and defeat him.

Branch also reveals, for the first time in precise detail, the FBI wiretaps of King's private conversations in a way that exposed ++ him to blackmail by a malevolent J. Edgar Hoover. These bugs, alas, contain not only ironclad evidence of King's personal moral lapses, but also include a grossly cynical and scatological remark King uttered offhandedly as he watched, on television, a grieving Jackie Kennedy kneeling with her children beside the coffin of her slain husband.

And while comic relief may be a harsh word, there is a merciless account of the shenanigans of the ragtag entourage that went to Oslo in 1965 for King to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, antic behavior that deeply embarrassed King but which he was unable to control because of his lifelong propensity for indecision and, at times, failure of nerve.

In the preface to "Pillar of Fire," Branch announces that he plans ++ yet a third volume to be titled "At Canaan's Edge," thus continuing the metaphor of the biblical Moses. This concluding volume, presumably, will cover the final three years of King's brief life. And it could prove to be a challenge indeed, inasmuch as the King family, in an act that can only be called monumentally mischievous, has already declared the confessed

assassin James Earl Ray to be an innocent man.

It has always been a bit of an irony that a white man born of a working-class Georgia family would become the defining historian of Martin Luther King's impact on America. Given the unassailable weight of the evidence, it is impossible to see how Branch could come to any other conclusion but that James Earl Ray killed Martin Luther King. And this could, in the end, put this sensitive and sympathetic writer at odds with the King family, and perhaps the American black community in general.

Ray Jenkins, who retired in 1992 as editorial page editor of The Evening Sun, covered the civil rights movement for the Montgomery Advertiser, which he edited and worked at for 20 years.

Pub Date: 1/18/98

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