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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.”

Such questions were simply the top of a molten volcano of sexual hysteria. The Alabama legislature declared that Northern women who had joined the demonstrations would return home “as unwed expectant mothers.” Governor George Wallace told President Johnson that a black Selma policeman was improbably telling his white fellow officers that their wives were sleeping with the Montgomery marchers. On the march from Selma itself, rumors spread that a white woman had already slept “with forty-one niggers.” All this makes clear the real difference in attitudes on sex between the two sides. The racists were using it to inflame the forces of repression and terror. King’s lieutenants were not letting it deflect them from their nonviolent quest for justice.

2.

Pettus Bridge

Branch covered the first ten years of King’s public career in his preceding two volumes, taking his subject from the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The high points of that period were King’s founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, the defense of his nonviolent philosophy in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in 1963, his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington in the same year, and his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. By the time the third volume opens, in 1965, King has switched his emphasis from desegregation to the drive for voting rights in Selma, Alabama, a project on which the SCLC was cooperating with the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “Snick”), the organization formed in 1960 to give young blacks a stronger voice in the movement.

Branch begins At Canaan’s Edge with almost two hundred pages devoted to the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery. This was indeed a landmark event. It was the last large-scale victory for the civil rights activists, prompting President Johnson to throw his administration wholeheartedly behind the Voting Rights Act. Some see nothing but dispersal of energies and decline for the movement after this high point. Branch will show that this is too simplistic a reading of what happened, but he is right to dwell on the great victory that was won, against the odds, by what seemed at many stages like a misbegotten march. King was dragged into it. SNCC initially opposed it, and was then dragged into it. Federal marshals were dragged into it. At last the President was dragged into it. At any moment it might have proved the greatest debacle of the movement instead of one of its greatest triumphs.

The immediate idea of the march was to put pressure on George Wallace, the governor of Alabama who had opposed school integration and was now supporting local election registrars who kept Negroes from voting. (“Negroes” was still the accepted term during the time Branch covers, before “blacks” replaced it, so this was the term King always used.) There was no idea that Wallace could be shamed into virtue. King and others hoped that by dramatizing the injustices in Alabama, national indignation could lead to federal intervention enabling blacks to vote (this, of course, rallied the opposition as well, since the threat of federal power stirred atavistic Southern beliefs in “states’ rights”).

The march was hastily conceived, recklessly endorsed, confusingly put off, and then reauthorized. The idea was impulsively put forward by the brilliant but erratic Alabama preacher James Bevel, who proposed a march from Selma to Montgomery while speaking in memory of the murdered civil rights demonstrator Jimmie Lee Jackson; for several days, he continued to exhort his congregation to get ready to walk the fifty-four miles from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery. Though such a march would likely be extremely dangerous, requiring protesters to walk on exposed highways in rural Lowndes County, King in a Sunday sermon recklessly endorsed the idea and set the date for March 7, only four days away.

Such haste was against SCLC policy, as Andrew Young pointed out, hoping to delay the march. King was not even in Selma that Sunday—he was preaching in his Atlanta church, which his father had accused him of neglecting—and he would be criticized for launching the march while he was away. At first King agreed to a delay, then yielded to Bevel and to his SCLC aide Hosea Williams, who urged him to strike while feelings were running high. SNCC, which was trying to chart its own course away from the “personality cult” of King, voted to disapprove of the march. But since their own chairman, John Lewis, disagreed and said he was going to march anyway, the organization allowed members to participate so long as they did not present themselves as representing SNCC.

The anti-black forces opposed to the march were also in disarray. Governor Wallace was torn between letting the marchers go into dangerous territory and fail to reach their goal through harassment and lack of supplies, or blocking the march with troopers. Wilson Baker, Selma’s director of public safety, was for protecting the marchers. Sheriff Jim Clark and state police colonel Al Lingo were for stopping them with force. The marchers did not know, as they started to leave Selma over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, what the authorities had decided. They soon found out, as Lingo’s state police tear-gassed and charged them, beating them indiscriminately with clubs as the marchers piled up on the bridge or tried to make their way back from it. The ferocity of this onslaught, which left sixty-six people hospitalized, would shock the nation when it saw the march being stopped on television that night.

As so often, the blind racism of King’s opponents—in this case, the frenzied state troopers—rescued him. SNCC now had to rally around its injured chairman, John Lewis, beaten in the front ranks at the Pettus Bridge. (Columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak got things exactly backward, saying that King had been forced into the march by SNCC, a group they identified as “substantially infiltrated by beatnik left-wing revolutionaries, and—worst of all—by Communists.” Novak, who is good at leaks, probably got this misinformation directly or indirectly from Hoover.)

SNCC, belatedly joining King, learned again how useful he was to the movement. When King issued a call for religious leaders to join him in Selma for a renewed march on March 9, the outpouring of hundreds of clergy from many faiths clogged the airways. He had built up such a network of ecumenical religious trust that bishops and elders who had told their fellow believers not to take part in political activity declared this an exception. Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who first said he could not get there without violating Shabbat, consulted his teachings and found that one can work on Shabbat to save lives. On the march itself, Heschel said he “felt like my feet were praying.” Seminaries and convents allowed eager young priests and nuns to join in. The theologian Robert McAfee Brown, then teaching at Stanford, flew in from California. Though Branch does not indulge in such contemporary references, I thought instantly of the difference between this outpouring of religious support for the beaten marchers and the eruption of right-wing religiosity that sent President Bush hurrying to Washington to block a court order on Terri Schiavo’s condition. There was a time, not so long ago, when religion was a force for liberation in America.

King’s problems were not over when his holy army had assembled. US District Judge Frank M. Johnson, who had been a friend to the freedom movement, issued a temporary restraining order against the march on Montgomery, and John Doar of the Justice Department pleaded with King to honor it. King had relied on federal authority in the past, breaking local laws but never those of the nation itself. But King’s religious allies were invoking a higher law, and the determination to march ran high. The SNCC leaders, along with other activists who thought King too timorous, were now poised to make this a supreme demonstration of the need for boldness. There seemed no good way to act. Branch writes:

King’s worst fear was to lose everything—to march just short enough to lose momentum and cohesion within the movement, just far enough to break the injunction and lose any chance of federal alliance, just blindly enough to reap blame on all sides for getting mauled gratuitously in defeat.

Bombarded on all sides with contradictory advice, King kept silent on his intentions, but began the new march on March 9. On the far side of Pettus Bridge, a US marshal read Judge Johnson’s restraining order to King. After a suspenseful pause, King told those around him to return with him to the Selma church. There was grumbling and disappointment in the crowd, but it peaceably followed him. Only King had the moral authority at this point to turn the march back, such was the trust in his leadership. He hoped that the urgency expressed in the attempted march, plus his willingness to comply with the order, would hurry Judge Johnson’s decision to lift the ban. But his restive followers would have given him little time for this to work.

We will never know what might have happened, because once again the racists were their own worst enemies. That night, some white thugs clubbed two marchers as they left a Selma restaurant, killing one, the Unitarian minister James Reeb. This caused another outburst of shock and indignation, hardened the resolve of the marchers, and put extra pressures on Judge Johnson. More important, it made Lyndon Johnson throw all his considerable muscle behind a voting rights act, which he announced to Congress on March 15 in his one great speech, beautifully written by Richard Goodwin and ending with the movement’s own slogan: “We—shall—overcome.”

When Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach went before Judge Johnson, asking that the restraining order on the march be lifted, the judge said he would not do this unless his ruling that the protesters had a legal right to march would be backed by the federal government. Katzenbach replied, “Backed? Well, I think we can back it.” Not good enough: “I don’t care what you think.” The judge wanted assurance on the marchers’ safety. “All right, you have my assurance.” Still not good enough. “I don’t want your assurance, Mr. Katzenbach. I want it from the president.” He got it. The march went forward under full protection by the United States military, scouting ahead for snipers and disarming bombs planted on the roads. The march would still be dangerous, as Viola Liuzzo found on its last day, and Branch tells of all the problems along the way. But the Voting Rights Act was won.

It was important for Branch to dwell on this famous victory of the movement, since all the undercurrents, cross-purposes, accidents, bad luck turning into good luck, blockings, and then releases at many levels—all these were at least partly obscured to outside viewers. But they became obvious and crippling in what lay before King. Everything he did from this point on was strenuously opposed by at least some in his inner circle. The support of federal officials would blow uncertainly or, more and more, adversely. Many thought that he should stay where he belonged, in the South, talking about black issues. What right did he have to speak about poor whites, Chicago schools, or Vietnam?

On the other hand, many of his allies in the religious movement, both white and black, both Christians and Jews, were calling for him to join them—against the war, against poverty, against segregation in Northern schools—as they had joined him in the South. The young NAACP lawyer Marian Wright (now Marian Wright Edelman), at the suggestion of Robert Kennedy, proposed a Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, which aimed to get a $30 billion anti-poverty program from Congress and draw attention to the problems of the poor through large demonstrations. King had always proclaimed that his concerns could not stop at formal abolition of the color line. If so, what was desegregation all about? Activists in Chicago’s struggle against de facto school segregation called King to their city, where he held rallies through the summer of 1966. Though Mayor Daley in Chicago would prove a shrewder tactician than the Southern mayors and sheriffs he previously had come up against, it was necessary and inevitable that King should assert and prove that racism was not confined to the South. Actually, his choice of Chicago was not as dangerous as some other cities that were considered—Los Angeles, still radioactive after the Watts riot, or Boston, where later violence over busing would make the point dramatically.

But Branch sees the great theme running through all the apparent dissipation of energies at this time. King’s effort was not just about desegregation, or voting rights, or even racism. It was all and always about nonviolence. At a time when black militancy was growing, and white antiwar protesters in the SDS were veering toward bombing, he had to keep arguing that violence is self-defeating, just as he had in the earliest marches. And when the violence of Vietnam was tearing the nation apart, he would have been untrue to himself had he not spoken out against it. What he said has been validated by the ugly course of the war and its ignoble ending. Those who think he was not qualified to make a judgment on the war need only read what was being said and thought by the “experts” in the White House to see how totally in the dark were most of those who thought they had sound intelligence and political experience.

3.

LBJ

King’s most fraught relationship was with President Johnson—sometimes a source of strength for King, if an uncertain one; a puzzling absence at key points; a veiled if not bitter opponent by the end. It was mainly Vietnam that came between them. That is why some of King’s advisers thought he should stay away from what damaged his earlier good relations with the President. But Vietnam was destroying Johnson’s domestic program no matter what King said about it. The war devoured Johnson’s attention and tortured the strongest part of him, his political savvy. He knew that the war was bad for him politically, but could not do anything about that. On the very night of the tear gas and beatings at Pettus Bridge, Johnson discussed Vietnam with visitors at the White House: “I can’t get out. I can’t finish it with what I’ve got. So what the hell can I do?”

The parallel frustrations of King and Johnson make one very powerful strand running through Branch’s book. At the very moment when King was fluctuating over the march to Montgomery, Johnson was deciding whether to launch massive air strikes, though his own advisers said that it would just hold the line, not lead to victory. This problem made him resent what he saw as the intrusion of King’s problems. And at the very moment when King was deciding to go ahead with the march, he said, at Howard University, “The war is accomplishing nothing.” It is the very thing Johnson was being told, though he warned his conferees they could not breathe a word of that in public. Those who leaked news of the air strikes to The New York Times were, according to Johnson, “almost traitorous.”

King and Johnson were carried apart from each other despite the fact that they needed each other. At the best times, each made up for what the other lacked. The lack on either side was intensified as they were swept apart. Johnson wanted to prove that being a Southerner did not make him a racist, that he could actually use his Southern connections to advance civil rights. He saw himself as a Great Emancipator, and told guests at the White House, “The ghost of Lincoln is moving up and down the corridors rather regularly these days.” King, for his part, wanted to show that his non-violence was an appeal to law, not against it, that he could be responsible in confronting the past, that he could work with the highest authority in the land. Intermittently, these two men advanced each other’s agenda with skill on both sides. But they were communicating over accumulating obstacles, some of them piled up by J. Edgar Hoover.

Hoover was infuriated by the way Johnson was (in his eyes) abetting King’s lawlessness. The King–Johnson relationship was always, in fact, a triangular one, with Hoover playing one off against the other. Hoover was at first able to get King to drop his association with his supposedly “Communist” white adviser, Stanley Levison. King did this to assuage any doubts Robert Kennedy might have as attorney general when Johnson was still the vice-president. Kennedy had authorized the wiretapping of King because Hoover said this would turn up Communist ties. King broke off his communications with Levison in order to keep working with the Kennedys. But Levison had given King a perspective in the heat of events he did not get from the squabbling aides around him. In time he felt ashamed of the way he had let himself be blackmailed by Hoover, and resumed his conferences with Levison while Johnson was president. Of course, these talks were bugged or wiretapped by the FBI. This defiance of Hoover’s veto on Levison, reversing one of the director’s victories with the White House, just focused more tightly Hoover’s hatred of King.

King’s opposition to the Vietnam War gave Hoover greater leverage with Johnson, who was able to represent King’s opposition to the President on this point as treacherous, venal, and opportunistic. Characteristically, Hoover said King was just opposing the war to raise money for his civil rights organization, though in fact his position on the war dried up funds, especially after the launching of the Six-Day War, when Jewish contributors did not want to inhibit support for Israel’s war by opposing Johnson’s war. Wiretaps on King’s antiwar statements were excerpted by the FBI, interpreted as personal assaults on Johnson, and then channeled to the White House in a steady drip-drip of venom to poison Johnson’s mind on King. Hoover mounted the old charge that Communists, especially Stanley Levison, were using King to manipulate public opinion about the war in Vietnam. Hoover’s close associate Cartha “Deke” DeLoach would write in a memoir that Levison “aimed him [King] and pulled his trigger with apparent ease.”

4.

Vietnam

Of course, Branch had all but completed At Canaan’s Edge before the war in Iraq began. But no one reading his account now can fail to see resemblances between King’s protest against the war and those now criticizing (“almost traitorous”) what is going on in the Middle East. Even more striking are the defenses made for the present war and what was said to justify continuing the Vietnam struggle. In both cases, secrecy played a great part in making the war leaders unaccountable to the public. We can watch with a kind of fascinated horror what is going on today as it developed back then. When this volume begins, the American dead in Vietnam were only 402, but they mount inexorably as we read on. The very next year, the number would exceed 2,500—this after six years of combat. We have almost reached that number in Iraq after only three years of war.

The need to keep the American people from knowing what was going on was a constant concern. There were efforts to suppress or minimize the number of the dead—like the hiding of the caskets returned from Iraq. Johnson tried to obscure the first introduction of marines into Vietnam by calling them “MPs.” He used a quiet exercise of executive authority to expand the draft, to keep it out of Congress and the newspapers. When he authorized 100,000 new troops for Vietnam, he announced only 50,000. In Iraq, the government has kept the number and nature of contract agents secret, in order to understate our presence there.

Critics of the Vietnam War were timorous for a long time. Each began his criticism with the mantra that “we cannot withdraw instantly”—the same thing we hear now. It was said by Arthur Schlesinger, Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, and by King himself. But Johnson was soon lumping all his critics together as saboteurs of his good-faith efforts. He spurred Hoover on to find Communist ties in the peace movement. He fumed at the academic teach-ins with their type of professor, “the man with the beard…with no responsibility” talking to “the little shits on the campuses.” He complained to King that people “got the impression…that you’re against me in Vietnam…[but] I want peace as much as you do, and more so, because I’m the fellow that had to wake up this morning with fifty Marines killed.”

Though Johnson knew and resented the fact that he had been forced down a no-win road, he used every device he could to hide that fact, even drawing from his pocket a soldier’s letter, written to his “Mom,” praising the war effort. (Sound familiar?) This encouraged the many people who were ready to say that all the critics were undermining the troops. King was accused on CBS’s Face the Nation of encouraging the enemy. Senator Thomas Dodd of Connecticut issued a rebuke: “It is nothing short of arrogance when Dr. King takes it upon himself to thus undermine the policies of the President.” Citizens must just shut up and follow their betters. James Reston wrote in The New York Times that war critics “are not promoting peace but postponing it”—while Johnson was postponing a recognition of the reality in Vietnam with palliatives and delusive cures (interdiction, search-and-destroy, model villages, shield areas—many of the same tactics used or recommended in Iraq).

For a long time in the Iraq war, almost every doubt about it was prefaced with the assurance that “this is no Vietnam.” But it always was. The resemblances are all too clear. We were lied into both wars (the Tonkin Gulf attack, the WMD threat), with the expectation that we would be there a short time, welcomed as liberators, staving off a world threat (communism, terrorism). We went into Vietnam without understanding the culture, the national history, the relation of our puppets (largely Catholic Vietnamese) to the hated French colonizers. We thought we would be seen as different from the colonizers since we had what Pyle in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American calls “clean hands.” We went into Iraq not understanding the relation of the religious groups to Saddam’s secular government, or the relation of Iraq to Muslim powers.

One resemblance between the two wars, admittedly, is a kind of inverse one. In Vietnam we thought we could create two countries out of one, with two different cultural bases—Catholic in the South, Communist in the North. In Iraq we thought we could create one country out of what is in fact three. The Kurds and Sunnis and Shiites had only been held together by Saddam’s despotism. Remove that, and the three revert to their uncoerced differences. If we do not get a three-way war between them with oil at stake and terrorists from other countries joining it, the best we can hope for is a new despotism, of Shiites over the two minorities, but with this difference: Saddam’s was a secular despotism, the Shiites’ will be an Islamic fundamentalism. Our staying there does not thwart these results, any more than our staying in Vietnam thwarted the takeover by the North—it just makes the probable outcome all the more likely and more costly.

5.

Secrecy

But the great and overarching resemblance between Vietnam and Iraq is the way they were wrapped in unaccountability and secrecy. Johnson had a great exemplar of secrecy in J. Edgar Hoover. Branch admires the mature objectivity of the SCLC activist Diane Nash (to whom this volume is dedicated): asked whether she resented Hoover’s efforts against the movement, she said that, no, “I blame us.” The American people gave Hoover unchecked power, based on secrecy, for almost half a century. What can anyone expect but the misuse of that power? Since Hoover controlled the secrets, he could use or withhold the secrets, or feign what he had learned but “could not reveal.” He was at liberty to roam anywhere, rolling over citizens’ rights. After getting authority to tap King’s phones, he was forbidden to plant bugs in his rooms—but he did so anyway. His excuse? The same that President Bush uses for unauthorized NSA surveillance—there was not time to get authorization.

One of the first and most common uses of secrecy is to cover up one’s own misdeeds or mistakes. Hoover was embarrassed that one of his Ku Klux Klan “plants” was in the car with the man who murdered Viola Liuzzo. He hid this fact as long as he could, and then misrepresented the man’s role. He spread a series of lies to change the subject. He not only told Johnson that Liuzzo was in a high-speed “necking party,” but claimed that she “had indications of needle marks in her arms where she had been taking dope” (the only punctures were from the car’s shattered glass). Hoover tried to prevent the President from talking to Liuzzo’s husband (who could contradict his lies) by saying that he was a pretty bad man, “one of the Teamsters’ strong arm,” as if that were reason not to talk to a man who has lost his wife, the mother of his five children. Blackening reputations was an automatic reflex with Hoover.

One of the marvels of King’s life is that he stood up to probably the most intense and sustained of Hoover’s campaigns of character assassination. Hoover had King tapped (legally), bugged (illegally), deprived of advisers, vilified in planted stories, left unprotected in danger. He quietly undermined him in every available forum. He had colleges cancel honorary degrees, senators cancel honorary dinners. He tried to block the Ford Foundation from giving his program a grant. To prevent King’s receiving the Nobel Prize, he tried to provoke him into committing suicide before leaving for Oslo.3 He refused to inform King of death threats the FBI knew about, something the organization regularly did for others. Hoover had reached such a berserk extreme that he was hoping for an assassination. King was this crazed Ahab’s Great Black Whale.

6.

Heroism

How did King survive all this? He would not have, if he had ever stooped to returning hate for hate with Hoover. That would have tripped him up without fail. King said, “I refuse to hate,” and repeatedly told his allies that love was their only real weapon. That is the profound lesson in the power of nonviolence. Hate and violence are self-destructive. Whatever his other faults, fidelity to nonviolence was King’s one towering virtue. He frequently expressed disappointment with others—with Johnson, with Hoover, with many of his own followers or putative friends, with the white power structure. But he did not poison himself with enmity. Even his depressions were self-punitive rather than accusatory. That is the astounding record of the man. He lived with constant threats to his life, subject to vicious racist calumnies, ridiculed by former allies, stalked by Hoover’s agents, denounced by high government officials—yet he never lashed back with anger or violence.

His achievement can be measured against the honorable but less steady case of Stokely Carmichael, a leader in SNCC and its chairman during 1966 and 1967, whom Branch admires a great deal. Carmichael showed tremendous courage in the crucible of Lowndes County, registering voters in conditions of the greatest danger. For about six years he followed the nonviolent discipline officially mandated by SNCC and SCLC, though he was beaten and jailed. In time, the stress wore him down (he had earlier had a kind of nervous breakdown in Selma), and he began to proclaim “black power” in violent terms. He is remembered for his later excesses, not his earlier heroism.

Though Branch admires King’s greatness, this is no great man history. It is, rather, a great men and women history. And the greatest were often the least. Branch knows that King could have done nothing if poor and excluded blacks had not had the courage to shake off their servitude. The ones who joined the boycotts, the marches, the registration drives, did it at risk to their jobs, their property, their lives. Lowndes County, with a majority of black residents, did not have a single black voter when the SCLC went in to encourage people to take up their freedom. The outnumbered whites had kept them under by fear and reprisals. It took great pride in themselves for the blacks to defy generations of repression. I remember what a farmer marching to Montgomery told one of the SCLC people. Asked whether he thought the marchers would be able to win in Montgomery, he said “We won when we started.”

Having read through all of Branch’s volumes, I went back to view again the wonderful TV documentary series on the civil rights movement, Eyes on the Prize. Many of the people just briefly glimpsed in those TV shows seem like old friends after one has followed their stories through Branch’s books, which are as stuffed with vivid characters as a Russian novel. It was especially stirring to see the diminutive John Lewis bobbing up again and again wherever trouble was threatened. He was there through it all—sit-ins, freedom rides, marches, beatings, jailings. How astonished the cops manhandling him would have been could they have known that this calmly determined man would end up in the Congress of the United States.

In the TV series we experience again many of the murders inflicted on the blacks and their friends—the four children in the bombed church, as well as Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, Viola Liuzzo, and Jonathan Daniels. But Branch reminds us of many others killed in the struggle, most of them not often remembered—people like Samuel Younge, a SNCC organizer shot during an argument with a white gas station attendant who wouldn’t let him use the “whites only” bathroom; Vernon Dahmer, whose house was firebombed after he announced on the radio that he would be collecting voter registration forms and supplying poll tax loans to fellow Negroes; Ben Chester White, a sixty-five-year-old farm caretaker randomly picked up by a car full of Klan members under the pretext that they were hiring him to do chores, and shot nineteen times in the back seat of their car. With this roll of martyrs in mind, it seems almost miraculous to watch a film of the nameless poor, heartbreakingly turned out in their best clothes, marching into danger, being hosed and herded and beaten—and, incredibly, coming back for more. It reminds me of the end of Chesterton’s fantasy The Man Who Was Thursday, in which a band of revolutionaries discover that they were all recruited, unbeknownst to each other, by a benevolent man who foresaw their dangerous struggles. One of them asks if that man did not consider their actions ridiculous. He tells them what he saw: “Iliad after Iliad.”

Letters

Correction May 11, 2006

  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.

  3. 3

    Branch, Pillar of Fire, pp. 528–529, 556–557.

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