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Pillar of Fire

Climbing the Mountain

Date: January 18, 1998, Late Edition - Final
Byline: By Alan Wolfe

Pillar of Fire
America in the King Years, 1963-65.
By Taylor Branch.
Illustrated. 746 pp. New York:
Simon & Schuster. $30.


To recount the life and times of Martin Luther King Jr. is to tell the story of how, more than 50 years after the century began, America finally became a modern society. It did so literally kicking and screaming, when not clubbing and killing. Our century's destiny has been to insure that the ideal of civic equality announced to the world in 1776 would become a reality. Just to help make that come about, King had to overcome the determined resistance of terrorists without conscience, politicians without backbone, rivals without foresight and an F.B.I. director so malicious that he would stop at nothing to destroy a man who believed in justice.

Taylor Branch has been working on Martin Luther King Jr.'s biography for more years than King was active in the movement for civil rights. ''Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63,'' the first volume in what is now planned as a trilogy, was published in 1988 and won the Pulitzer Prize for history. ''At Canaan's Edge,'' the final volume, will appear sometime in the future. For the time being, readers fascinated by the story of King and his country can follow events through 1965 in ''Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65.'' And what events they were. Branch's second volume begins and ends with violence: demonstrations in St. Augustine, Fla., and Selma, Ala. In between, John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the United States became deeply involved in Vietnam, Malcolm X broke with the Nation of Islam and paid for it with his life, and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and began furious lobbying for the even more important Voting Rights Act of 1965.

As he did in ''Parting the Waters,'' Branch brings to these events both a passion for their detail and a recognition of their larger historical significance. By giving King such epic treatment, Branch implies that he was an epic hero. Was he? The great merit of Branch's stunning accomplishment is to prove definitively that he was.

Like Odysseus, King had to break with comforts of home to undergo distant, threatening and often barely comprehensible adventures beyond. As Branch tells the story in the trilogy's opening volume, King was born in 1929 into a world unfamiliar to most white Americans: the black elite of the pre-World War II South. Black Baptist preachers in the former Confederate states, typified by King's father, were usually Republican in their politics and entrepreneurial in their ministries. The younger King fought against his father's insularity all his life. He left the South for the predominantly white Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pa., and then Boston University. When called to the ministry, King rejected the option of eventually becoming his father's successor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta in favor of Dexter Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. Unlike Odysseus, King showed no great desire to return home. Indeed, one measure of his accomplishment was that there was no longer a home to which he could return. By leading the campaign to abolish segregation, King not only destroyed the privileges Southern whites enjoyed through racism, he also toppled the complacent black isolationism in which his father had flourished.

All his life, King would be plagued by lesser black rivals who resented his success. One of the more fascinating stories told in Branch's first volume involved the power struggle between King and the Rev. J. H. Jackson of Olivet Baptist Church in Chicago, an acquaintance of King Sr. who, as president of the National Baptist Convention, was the most powerful African-American of his time. As effective as he may have been as a charismatic leader, King was no match for the wily Jackson, who not only defeated King's challenge to his leadership within the National Baptist Convention but, as Branch reports in this volume, spent $50,000 after King's death to have the entrance of his Chicago church moved around the corner so that it would no longer be on the newly named Martin Luther King Drive.

An underlying theme of ''Pillar of Fire'' is King's move to the national stage, which intensified the bitterness of his potential rivals. Branch tells us that Adam Clayton Powell's response to the killing of four children in a Birmingham, Ala., church -- surely the most despicable event of the civil rights era -- was to predict publicly that a civil rights bill would never pass Congress (and then to offer King a job in his church in New York). At a later point Powell asked the House of Representatives to ''forget about Mississippi for a while'' in order to concentrate on the tribulations of Adam Clayton Powell. Every time King was criticized as too militant for the conservative black elite, he would also be criticized as too timid for the bloody taste of Malcolm X, for whom the Mau Mau warrior -- ''He's not humble. He's not nonviolent. But he's free'' -- served as an appropriate model of black protest. Even King's closest advisers allowed their petty jealousies to stand in the way of his leadership. When King was in Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, Ralph Abernathy, his designated successor, insisted on riding in the same car, objecting, to the embarrassment of all, to the careful plans of the Norwegian protocol chief. ''Ralph's estrangement was much more worrisome to Martin than anything he thought J. Edgar Hoover might do,'' Andrew Young told Branch.

Had King actually known what Hoover was doing, he might have been more worried on that front. In August 1963, the F.B.I., in an internal memo, designated King ''the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation,'' and it began a campaign to tap his telephone and plant bugs in his hotel rooms as he traveled. The systematic character of the F.B.I. vendetta astonishes to this day. After the bureau learned of assassination threats against a number of prominent Americans, each was notified -- except King. The F.B.I. persuaded Marquette University not to award an honorary degree to King. Under F.B.I. prodding, Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York telephoned Pope Paul VI's Secretary of State in a vain effort to prevent a papal audience for King.

''I am amazed that the Pope gave an audience to such a degenerate,'' Hoover wrote after the meeting. Through his bugs, Hoover had picked up evidence of marital infidelity on King's part. ''This will destroy the burrhead,'' Hoover gloated. Doing its best to bring this prophecy about, the F.B.I. sent some of its damaging material to King along with an anonymous suggestion that he do the honorable thing and take his own life. King, of course, did himself no favors by making himself so vulnerable. ''When a man travels like you and I do,'' he once said to James Farmer, ''there are bound to be women,'' hardly a sufficient excuse for his actions. Still, Branch, in one of the few times he loses his dispassionate tone in favor of sarcasm, is right to remark that when the F.B.I. was called upon to investigate such things as bombings, it viewed those tasks ''as an irritating distraction from the serious business of intercepting King's sex life.''

During King's life, black Americans completed their passage from the Republican to the Democratic Party; 96 percent of the black vote went to Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Yet the persistence of quasi-feudal political arrangements in the South gave disproportionate influence to racist politicians bent on obstructing King's goals. John F. Kennedy, ever fearful of the power of Southern oligarchs, appointed outright segregationists to the Federal bench and shied away from any strong commitment to civil rights. Johnson's support for the passage of civil rights legislation dominates the second volume of Branch's trilogy in the way that Kennedy's political cowardice dominates the first. Still, King could never count on the backing of Democratic Party politicians. Branch reports Gov. Carl Sanders of Georgia as saying, ''It looks like we're turning the Democratic Party over to the nigras,'' when the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party demanded recognition at the 1964 Democratic convention in Atlantic City. Nor were Northern politicians welcoming of King. So new was the idea of massive black suffrage in American politics during the 1960's that King took care to campaign among blacks for Johnson in a way that would not arouse suspicion or resentment among whites.

Of all the obstacles to King's leadership, none was as paralyzing as the terror unleashed by racists in the South. As befits the time period he covers, Branch devotes considerable attention to the violence that took the lives of Lemuel Penn, James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, Vernon Dahmer and others who were in the wrong place at their rightful time. Segregation did not kill; people did. And just as we were made witness to the inhumanity of Mississippi's Parchman penitentiary in ''Parting the Waters,'' so in ''Pillar of Fire'' we learn through Branch's meticulous attention to detail who these murderers were, how they planned their deeds and how they too often escaped the consequences of their acts. Terrorism relied for its effectiveness on the racism of genteel society. Senator George Smathers of Florida told President Johnson that King must have organized most of the violence against himself, because ''he loves the headlines.'' Caught near a violent mob in Neshoba County, Miss., Branch recounts, Claude Sitton, a reporter for The New York Times, ducked into a furniture store that he knew to be owned by the uncle of Turner Catledge, the managing editor of his newspaper. ''I wouldn't lift one damn finger to help you,'' Catledge's uncle told him. Even after King won the Nobel Peace Prize, powerful white Atlantans tried unsuccessfully to stop a dinner in his honor. The South really was another country. To enter its precincts in search of goals as conservative as the right to vote or to drink a cup of coffee in a restaurant, individuals had to entertain the possibility that they would never come out alive. As horrible as slavery was, slaveholders could at least claim that the Constitution gave them sanction. That was no longer possible after passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. In this one way was segregation worse than slavery, for its practitioners not only showed enormous disrespect for human life but in the process corrupted the supreme law of the land.

Against all these forces, Martin Luther King Jr. managed to build upon America's religious and moral foundations to uphold the dignity of the individual. ''Mississippi has treated the Negro as if he is a thing instead of a person,'' King declared, echoing Immanuel Kant. On another occasion, he said of civil rights demonstrators: ''The patter of their feet as they walked through Jim Crow barriers in the great stride toward freedom is the thunder of the marching men of Joshua. And the world rocks beneath their tread. My people, my people, listen, listen, the battle is in our hands.'' In the aftermath of the Birmingham bombing, King spoke not of retribution but of redemption: ''We must not lose faith in our white brothers. Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and worth of all human personality.'' Words like these are rarely heard in American politics these days, because so few have the moral stature to utter them.

But King's accomplishments moved well beyond words. Without him, the United States might not have got the legislation that enabled it to become the democracy it had always proclaimed itself to be. After King, we argue how his dream can best be fulfilled. We forget how significant it is that we no longer argue about whether it should be fulfilled. Taylor Branch's treatment of King's life raises no new issues of historical reinterpretation. It uncovers no new documentary evidence. It tells no story that has not been told before. But it does something more important; it reminds us that there once arose in our midst a man who, as Odysseus' son, Telemachus, said of his father, ''more than all other men, was born for pain.'' America was lifted up because King would not lay his burden down. King's tragic sensibility was the direct opposite of today's feel-good therapeutics. ''If freedom is to be a reality,'' he told the 1964 annual convention of the United Synagogues of America, ''the Negro must be willing to suffer and to sacrifice and to work for it.'' For all the tribulations his enemies confronted him with, it is not those who foolishly and vainly stood in his way whom we remember, but Martin Luther King Jr., our century's epic hero.

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