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An American Iliad

1.

Taylor Branch has spent twenty-four of his own years tracing fourteen years in the life of Martin Luther King. Only the computer made it possible to create the work in so short a time. King, going through his life, was always in just one place at one time; he saw only with his own eyes, spoke only with his own voice. But the forces that acted on him, helping or hurting his cause, sometimes with his knowledge, more often without it, were in many places, seeing with many eyes, speaking with many voices. These are all part of what King did, of what happened to him. They are part of his story; he is part of theirs. Branch aspires to know this large transaction in all its parts, and to convey that knowledge to us, in great detail.

This enormous ambition is greatly aided by one thing, and greatly hindered by another. He is aided by the fact that the sources for knowing about King are so plentiful. Branch has not only the reports of hundreds of people who were for or against King, reports gathered by himself not only from interviews but in the memoirs, news accounts, and archives of various individuals and agencies. He has newsreels, correspondence, and documents. Added to all this are two sources that would have been kept secret in the past, unavailable to any historian—the clandestine files of the FBI as it spied on King and reported (or misreported) his actions to its own agents or to officials in the executive branch, and the White House tapes Lyndon Johnson made of his phone calls to and about King. These make it possible for Branch to expose all the snares and traps that were laid for King as he made his way through these invisible obstacles.

The disadvantage that Branch must face is that the years (1965–1968) covered in Canaan’s Edge, the last of his three volumes,1 were cataclysmic years, a time of rapid and disorienting change. White supremacy was not the only thing being challenged. All kinds of authority came under criticism or attack. These were the years of Vietnam, of campus revolts, of the sexual revolution, of an aggressive youth culture, of a new feminism—so that “the Sixties” has become a swear word in some circles. It was a time of assassinations, church bombings, and self-incinerations, a period of burning draft cards and burning flags and burning ROTC buildings—a period of sit-ins, of ride-ins, of vote-ins, of march-ins, of teach-ins. Convulsive change wore many symbols and labels, in hair length, in clothing, in popular music. People felt that the nation had lost its moorings and was spinning in a maelstrom. J. Edgar Hoover was not alone in thinking that some evil forces must be acting in powerful but hidden ways. Hoover thought communism was the main driving force. Others thought it was something even more primordial and chaotic.

Branch must keep pace with all these forces as King moves through them, and they make their impact at each stage of his journey. Only in that way can he indicate the afflatus that was carrying King on and the enmity that was retarding him. The giddy expectation of change was an initial impulse that helped give his followers their hope for change. But it eventually outran his careful and nonviolent approach. People impatient for more rapid advances broke away from him, castigated him, planned to replace him, and partially defeated him by their defection into violent courses. Meanwhile his opponents blamed him for any number of changes that he had neither the desire nor the power to promote or control. In that sense, King is a lens through which Branch sees the whole of a particularly complex and confusing time. There have been many books written on the Sixties in general. I have not read all of them, but I have read many, and I venture that this is so far the best look at that entire subject. It is an essential tool for understanding what happened to and in America across that dizzying span of years.

If I were still teaching in an American Studies program, I can imagine a whole series of courses that might come out of this single volume and still not exhaust it. I reported on much of what Branch covers, and know many of the people in his story; but on practically every page I learned new (often disturbing) things. It is amazing how Branch can marshal so much material along so many tracks, moving it ahead stage by stage in coordination with King’s actions. Then I saw Branch in a three-hour television interview with C-SPAN and learned part of his secret. He showed the interviewer his computer with its expertly programmed chronological record of all the information he had acquired from so many sources—over 17,000 items arranged year by year, day by day. The book probably could not have been written—surely not in so relatively short a time—without the computer. But that does not explain how he was able to find all the material he fed into it.

Though the work is dauntingly long, Branch keeps up the energy of the writing throughout its great length, roughly a thousand pages for each of the three volumes. The only flaw in his writing is an occasional weakness for mixed metaphors. Otherwise he strives to emulate King’s struggle for control in the most emotional situations. Branch clearly admires the people, many of them obscure and uncelebrated, who risked their livelihood and property and lives to defy repression, but he is more a narrator than an advocate. Some say he should have engaged in more analysis of events, but he is wise to let facts speak for themselves. They are complex enough to prompt many kinds of interpretation, and he would bog down the complicated tale if he tried to adjudicate all their competing claims.

If he is good on the Sixties in general, he is especially good on the civil rights movement—which will surprise those who think that only a black can do justice to that great effort of the black people. There are special problems for insiders in this story. There have not been many accounts by those in Dr. King’s circle, because it is hard for them to be candid. Jesse Jackson had a book contract for years and has searched for ways to work with a ghostwriter. But he and others have been tongue-tied by what happened to Ralph Abernathy when he wrote in his book that Dr. King had extramarital affairs. This was an open secret by that time, but Abernathy was severely punished by the movement, and especially by Coretta King, as a “Judas.”

The movement was operating in what was in psychological effect a war zone, in constant fear, with ragged and often demoralized troops, formidable enemies, and a good deal of misinformation. There were nervous breakdowns, wild behavior, drunkenness, feuds and affairs, and theft of funds, which early and idealized accounts of the noble martyrs did not face up to. Branch, a religious man and a Southerner, can talk the language of the movement better than most whites, but even he was not trusted at the outset. Some of the most rational and observant members of the movement, men like Andrew Young and Harry Belafonte, would not talk to him for his first volume. But that volume proved that he had got so far inside the movement’s real meaning, and knew so much already about its weaknesses, that Young and Belafonte became some of his best sources for the next two books.

On sexual matters, Branch understands what many whites do not, that the sexual prowess of black preachers has been, for many of their flocks, a proof of their charisma. King himself said that he did not even know a black Baptist preacher who was chaste. Branch follows Othello’s advice, “nothing extenuate,” but he keeps matters in perspective. That is how he earned the confidence of others to get information his sources would be reluctant to use themselves—for instance, how members of King’s entourage on his trip to accept the Nobel Prize were found running after naked or near-naked prostitutes in the Oslo hotel on the night when he received the award. (Bayard Rustin had to talk hotel security people out of reporting them.)2

Branch also knows that the movement had a special reason for keeping its sexual affairs to itself—the lurid imaginings in white heads about interracial sex. Any white woman who participated in the movement—including nuns and female seminarians—was accused of being there only to have sex with blacks. J. Edgar Hoover fomented such fantasies. On March 25, 1965, at the end of the march to Montgomery, some marchers needed to be driven back to the point of origin in Selma, which meant going through dangerous Lowndes County. Viola Liuzzo, a white mother of five who had taken part in the march, owned one of the cars needed for this task. She retrieved her car, which had been used for movement business, from the nineteen-year-old black volunteer, Leroy Moton, who had been driving it. Then the two of them took a marcher to the airport and four more back to Selma. Liuzzo drove fast to elude a car following them—movement people were told to drive fast and stop for nothing in hostile territory.

Returning to Montgomery with Moton to shuttle more people, she was passed by a car while going through Lowndes County. The car had four Klansmen in it, one of whom shot her dead through the car window. Hoover dictated a memo on the event, saying “she was sitting very, very close to the Negro in the car;…it had the appearance of a necking party.” A necking party while going full speed through dangerous Lowndes County! At the trial of Liuzzo’s murderers, a defense lawyer asked the volunteer, “Leroy, was it part of your duties as transportation officer to make love to Mrs. Liuzzo?”

The verbal filth showered on civil rights workers cannot be exaggerated. When Richard Morrisroe, a priest shot in the back in Lowndes County when his friend the seminarian Jonathan Daniels was killed, came back to testify after he had recovered from his wounds, the prosecutor asked him to stand before the grand jury and lower his shirt to show all his wounds were in the back, none in front. A grand juror, allowed to question him, asked: “Did you kiss that nigger girl in the mouth?” When the murderers in Mississippi of the civil rights workers James Chaney, Charles Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were on trial, one of the grand jurors asked a prosecution witness if the three dead men had not recruited “young male Negroes to sign a pledge to rape a white woman once a week during the hot summer of 1964.”

  1. 1

    Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63 (Simon and Schuster, 1988) and Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963–65 (Simon and Schuster, 1998).

  2. 2

    Branch, Pillar of Fire, p. 543.

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