When the Israelites fled Egypt, God parted the waters of the sea and went before them in the form of a cloud to show them the way and of a pillar of fire to light their path by night. So says Exodus. Parting the Waters was the title of Volume One of Taylor Branch’s huge, sprawling history of the civil rights movement, published ten years ago. Now we have Volume Two, titled Pillar of Fire.
What Branch wants us to take from these biblical titles is fairly obvious, I think. Among black Christians the story of Israel’s captivity in Egypt always spoke eloquently of their own situation in the United States. They had been brought in chains, sold as chattels, and condemned to generations of forced servitude. One of their songs familiar even to whites was a lament for a people “way down in Egypt’s land, oppressed so hard they could not stand.” Its refrain, “Let my people go,” paraphrased God’s instruction to Moses: “Tell Old Pharaoh, ‘Let my people go.”‘
Egypt’s land when the civil rights movement began was the United States. A century after Lincoln, inhuman treatment was still the daily experience of black Americans. In this American Egypt, Old Pharaoh was no single human being, but an interlocked network of white authority figures. These ranged from the president and Congress of the United States to the FBI’s national police apparatus down through local school boards and church officers all the way to backwater Dixie’s white-sheet set and decadent courts routinely excusing white thugs for murder. The Ku Klux Klan flourished, and not only in the South. Branch describes a Klan cross-burning ceremonial in St. Augustine, Florida, where the crowd was addressed by “a traveling celebrity Klansman” from California, the Reverend Connie Lynch, founder of the National States Rights Party. Four black girls had just been killed by a Sunday church bomber in Birmingham.
…Lynch dismissed squeamishness about the Birmingham church bombing, saying the four young girls had been “old enough to have venereal diseases” and were no more human or innocent than rattlesnakes. “So I kill ’em all,” he shouted, “and if it’s four less niggers tonight, then good for whoever planted the bomb. We’re all better off.”
Parting the Waters dealt with Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement from 1954 to 1963, part of an era Branch calls “the King years.” In Pillar of Fire the time frame is much shorter, extending only from January of 1963 to the later part of 1965. Short though the time span is, these were years packed with great events that were to change the course of history. Branch seems determined to reconstruct a day-by-day record of absolutely everything that took place. This makes for a very long book that is not always easy reading. Trying to include everything means including a good deal that is comparatively dull or trivial. Trying to give an utterly fair, deadpan account of events sometimes produces sentences so confusing that Branch’s editor seems to have been yawning when they slipped by.
Its defects, however, cannot diminish the grandeur of this book. I think of H.L. Mencken’s judgment on Theodore Dreiser. Like Dreiser’s, Branch’s writing sometimes seems so plain and plodding that you wonder how he could have had a moment’s pleasure in the act of creation, but, also as with Dreiser, the final, cumulative effect is overpowering. The sheer volume of fascinating stories accounts for this success.
We learn a great deal about the Black Muslims, their adulterous leader, Elijah Muhammad, and the murder of Malcolm X. The Vietnam War, soon to be a serious impediment to the civil rights movement, begins to develop. The war on poverty is launched. A landmark Supreme Court ruling on press freedom is issued. Harlem’s playboy congressman, Adam Clayton Powell, loses a libel suit. We spend a depressing amount of time watching J. Edgar Hoover’s half-demented struggle to preserve a dying past. President Kennedy is murdered and succeeded by the human hurricane that was Lyndon Johnson before Vietnam ruined him.
Branch is trying to write modern American history on an epic scale. It is not merely the story of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement that he wants to tell. He is aiming for a big score: a full-length portrait of the United States during a crucial moment in its existence. His preface says the focus of his story is not Martin Luther King, but “the King years.” In one of his rare lapses into meaningless pop jargon, Branch says he sees King’s life as a “metaphor”—“the best and most important metaphor for American history in the watershed postwar years.”
But what about those biblical titles? Is it America that God is leading out of captivity with his pillar of fire? Surely not. What grips us in Pillar of Fire is the melodrama of the civil rights movement, the bravery of the people who made it, the cruelty of the people who hated it, and in the end the nobility of Martin Luther King, who always knew he might be murdered at any moment, and always expected to be, and yet persisted.
Tales of heroism and villainy abound. There is the twenty-seven-year-old New Yorker Bob Moses running a one-man voter-registration drive in McComb, Mississippi.
For trying to escort would-be voters to register, he had been arrested more than once, pummeled by a courthouse mob, and beaten severely near a town square in open daylight by a cousin of the Amite County sheriff. Still bleeding, he walked into the courthouse to file criminal charges, then testified against the cousin, and, until the local prosecutor advised him to flee for his life before a jury brought in the customary verdict of acquittal, continued doggedly to behave as though he possessed the natural rights of a white person. This presumption shocked Mississippi people more than the blood and terror.
There are the benighted sheriffs and police chiefs—Eugene T. “Bull” Connor of Birmingham, Jim Clark of Selma, Lawrence Rainey of Neshoba County, Mississippi—faithfully supporting the Hollywood image of the South as a land of Gothic horrors. Under their management, dogs are set upon demonstrators, high-pressure fire hoses turned against children, unarmed people punched and clubbed and kicked, houses dynamited, skulls fractured, churches burned, murders committed.
We visit Mississippi’s infamous Parchman Penitentiary to which thirteen workers in a voter-registration campaign have been sentenced after the town of Greenwood loses its patience with them:
Normally sullen guards greeted them expressly as recalcitrants to be broken, saying, “You’re going to pay me.” Shorn of hair from head to foot, every patch of stubble slathered in bluish delousing grease, they were marked apart from other inmates—the thirteen males crammed into cell number seven of the death house built around Mississippi’s gas chamber, with seven sleeping on the floor and one on the toilet. From there, guards shuffled them in more or less random punishment between isolation cells and the sweatbox, six feet square without lights or windows, vented only by a crack under the door.
…The punishment [for singing freedom songs to keep up their spirits] came to be hanging in handcuffs from a horizontal bar of his cell door. A guard informally sentenced Douglas MacArthur Cotton to stretch beneath the handcuffs for forty-eight hours but took pity on him after three. Willy Carnell hung sleepless for a full thirty hours. Watkins and others lost track of how long they hung, but all of them, still singing or not, eventually gave way to helplessness and let their wastes fall down their prison-issue trouser legs.
Long before King, everybody had known that America had a serious race problem, but there never seemed to be a convenient time for dealing with it. So much other serious business was always calling for immediate attention. Presidents especially were cruelly harried by other matters. The cold war, for instance. Taking on the race problem would have been highly inconvenient when survival of the free world was at stake. There were the newly warlike Chinese. You couldn’t put Chairman Mao on the back burner, could you? He had the atom bomb. And what about the infestation of Communist conspirators working to destroy American democracy from within? Here was a truly dangerous domestic problem, and it consumed most of the political energy available for domestic problem-solving. Always, of course, another election lurked just over the horizon. What could be more inconvenient than taking on the race problem at election time? It was especially inconvenient for a Democratic president—John Kennedy, for example—who needed that solid bloc of Southern segregationist votes to keep him in the White House.
In the 1950s, stirrings on the race front began to disturb the White House. In 1954 the Supreme Court shocked the nation by declaring unanimously, in Brown v. Board of Education, that school segregation was unconstitutional. President Eisenhower was not happy about it. He hewed to the old saw about the uselessness of trying to change hearts and minds by passing laws. The architect of the Brown decision was Chief Justice Earl Warren, an Eisenhower appointee. Later Eisenhower said the Warren appointment was one of his biggest mistakes.
After its decision, the Court itself seemed dazed by what it had done and issued a mystifying order stating only that desegregation should proceed “with all deliberate speed.” This was widely translated to mean, “No need for anybody to hurry.”
In 1955 Washington was disturbed again when Rosa Parks set off the Montgomery bus boycott by refusing to give up her seat to a white man. When Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas ordered his National Guard to stop the desegregation of a Little Rock high school, Eisenhower had to send the army to Little Rock to enforce the law, but he hated having to do it.
It was during President Kennedy’s term that the “freedom rides” occurred, the student sit-ins, the black boycotts, the nonviolent demonstrations in Albany, Georgia, and the white rioting incited by James Meredith’s admission to the University of Mississippi. Neither the President nor his brother Robert, his attorney general, had spent much time pondering the politics of race. As members of a wealthy and sheltered white elite, they had little sense of the black experience or of middle-class white passions either. Race was not a thing they had expected to deal with when Jack was stumping the country pledging to “get this country moving again.” They were absorbed by the Soviet threat to America; they saw the race problem primarily as a threat to Jack’s reelection. The Kennedys’ search for wiggle room between the South’s racist white Democrats and the black disturbers of the status quo brought King to despair in 1963.
After nearly three years, his relationship with President Kennedy had run out of room. Although the movement needed federal intervention more than ever, realism told King he could not pressure President Kennedy an inch further. Brooding, he took the young Justice Department lawyer Thelton Henderson privately aside [during a strategy conference]. “I’m concerned about having you in my meetings…. I’m worried that the Kennedys only want to know in advance if we’re going to do something,” he told Henderson. “Then they act to stop us. But they don’t act when the whites do something. They just let us take another beating.”
In his uneasiness about race, John Kennedy was not much different from most Americans of his generation. They had come of age in a time when Gone with the Wind was America’s favorite movie and J. Edgar Hoover an American hero. The movie romanticized a slave society destroyed by brutal invaders, outside agitators, and dangerous black brutes. Hoover had been fighting for years to prevent a similar catastrophe from ever striking America again. In the 1930s he had saved us from John Dillinger and crime; in the 1940s, from Nazi spies. By the 1950s he was going after Communist conspirators and their dupes. Now he concentrated on blacks who were demanding equal justice under law.
By the 1960s all Washington took it for granted that, besides keeping an eye on the Reds, Hoover had everyone of any consequence under FBI surveillance. He certainly had a dossier on John Kennedy, and, as we now know, Kennedy was a rich subject for dossier compilers. Kennedy surely knew it, too. The day after the 1960 election, Kennedy made his very first presidential announcement: he had decided to reappoint Hoover as FBI director and Allen Dulles as head of the CIA.
Branch sees Kennedy as a cold warrior to whom civil rights became a distracting nuisance, as well as a political irritation. The question whether a Democratic president could “reduce the historic estrangement of Negroes” without losing his Southern white base “remained secondary to the national passions of the Cold War.”
Kennedy had won his office as a modern champion against Cold War enemies, pledging to redress a “missile gap” created by Republican laxity in the face of ominous Soviet advances…. President Eisenhower remarked that it was militarily “fantastic,” “crazy,” and “unconscionable” for the United States to have built some five thousand weapons averaging a hundred times the power of the Hiroshima bomb, be cranking out two more thermonuclear bombs every calendar day, and still push for more. Yet the respected commander of D-Day resigned himself as “only one person,” helpless against the tide of arms.
At his first press briefing as President Kennedy’s incoming Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara had disclosed that the celebrated missile gap did not exist after all. He retracted the statement under sharp public attack, and privately offered Kennedy his resignation. Remarkably, McNamara survived to swiftly remove Eisenhower’s internal brakes on the development of strategic weapons.
The arms race roared ahead.
Lyndon Johnson was a different case. A harsh Texas youth had opened his eyes to injustices suffered by Mexicans. As Senate Democratic leader itching to be president, he had gone along with the Senate’s powerful Southern committee chairmen, and it galled him that this political necessity had made it impossible for him ever to be nominated for the presidency. Now Johnson, thrust into the presidency, could at last show the world where he stood on race. He immediately made it clear that the full strength of the federal government would be placed behind the civil rights movement. For years American society had urged blacks to be patient, assuring them that equal rights would come later. With Johnson, the national policy abruptly changed from “later” to “now.”
In 1964 he forced enactment of the first real civil rights bill since Reconstruction. In 1965 came the Voting Rights Act, which was to change everything and, eventually, transform once rabidly segregationist politicians into seekers of black votes.
Even Johnson’s most passionate liberal enemies were forced to ponder the possibility that, on the race issue at least, he was one of them. The surest evidence lies in a recorded private conversation with Senator Richard B. Russell, leader of the Senate’s Southern bloc. A master of Senate procedure and politics, Russell had taught the young Johnson the arts that made him Senate majority leader very early in his career. They had never been personally closer than during Johnson’s time in the White House. They talked daily about everything. Johnson spoke of it as a father-son relationship. On civil rights, however, Johnson was leaving the family, and he didn’t hesitate to speak plainly. He and Russell had canvassed the hopelessness of his situation in Vietnam—Russell was chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee—then turned to Johnson’s civil rights bill.
“I’m not going to cavil and I’m not going to compromise,” he told Russell. “I’m going to pass it just as it is, Dick, and if you get in my way I’m going to run you down. I just want you to know that because I care about you.”
Russell replied: “Mr. President, you may be right. But if you do run over me, it will not only cost you the South, it will cost you the election.”
Johnson was taking the risk despite knowing that the Democratic Party would pay a heavy price. Branch quotes him talking to his staff after signing the civil rights bill: “I think we just gave the South to the Republicans.”
Bill Moyers recalled Johnson saying that he had delivered the South to the Republicans “for your lifetime and for mine.” …In their direst visions, after the Goldwater convention followed hard upon the civil rights bill, neither established experts nor shell-shocked Negro Republicans anticipated a wholesale switch of party identification down to the roots of congressional and local offices.
This, of course, describes the American political scene today. The old solid Democratic South is now solidly Republican. For a brief moment under Johnson, the race problem had not been treated as an inconvenience, and the political consequences were shattering. Then Johnson began his descent into the bottomless pit of Vietnam, and everything began to fall apart. Martin Luther King had reservations about Vietnam. Johnson was displeased. King’s reservations turned into outright opposition. Johnson was furious.
Pillar of Fire ends in 1965, before the break became irreparable, but The Last Crusade, by Gerald D. McKnight, takes King’s story to the end with the Memphis murder in 1968. McKnight is interested mainly in the Poor People’s Campaign, which originated in 1967. By then King had lost faith in the existing political system. There had been a summer of rioting in Northern cities. It was now obvious that the black situation in the urban North was as desperate, in its own way, as it had been in the rural South. Bloody race violence in Detroit and Newark left King despondent, saying, “There were dark days before, but this is the darkest.”
“For King,” McKnight says,
Vietnam-era America was in the throes of a profound moral and political crisis. Its credibility abroad was crumbling, its cities were convulsed by rioting, and its values were corrupted by materialism. The national leadership, especially Congress, responded with trivial and half-hearted measures and searched for scapegoats while stolidly resisting real solutions.
He now saw race, war, and poverty as evils inextricably bound and decided that all three must be tackled as one. He angered Johnson by denouncing the Vietnam War. He outraged the Congress and scared many a Washington dweller with plans for a Poor People’s Campaign to bring the lower-income masses to Washington. Comfortable people tend always to be scared and angered when confronted by large-scale display of the economy’s bottom-feeders. It reminds us of what comfortable people would rather forget: that it’s ugly, mean, and dangerous down there.
In the jargon of the Sixties, King had been “radicalized.” To many in that dismal age, “radicalized” people were hellbent on overthrowing the government and destroying “the American way of life.” And so, in a way, King seemed finally to have made the paranoidal Hoover a prophet. He was now that dangerous character Hoover had visualized long ago after learning that one of King’s associates had been a Communist. Near the end of his life, King had become a revolutionary.
And so we come to J. Edgar Hoover. There is an immense literature about his single-minded determination to destroy King. David J. Garrow did the first heavy lifting on this subject with The FBI and Martin Luther King in 1981.* Branch cites it extensively and adds some new data of his own but, unlike Garrow, makes no attempt to explain the forces that drove Hoover. Analysis and interpretation are not Branch’s style. He is a show-don’t-tell historian, content to assemble mountains of fact, then let the reader make of them what he will. One misses an analysis of Hoover. What a wonderful time Macaulay would have had with this terrifying old tyrant whose eyes and ears were everywhere.
Branch is no Macaulay, and obviously doesn’t wish to be. He is content to present Hoover in bits and pieces. Was he a racist? Branch has an oral history fragment with Bobby Kennedy saying Hoover believed the brains of black people were twenty percent smaller than whites’. There is the moment, after hearing tapes of King’s amatory evening in the Willard Hotel, when Hoover gloats, “This will destroy the burrhead.” To speed up King’s destruction, he has FBI well-poisoners concoct an anonymous letter, mail it to King with the tape, and urge him to kill himself.
Hoover prowls Branch’s book like an ogre. Now he is letting President Kennedy know that his extramarital sex life is an open book to the FBI. Now he is exploiting President Johnson’s feud with Bobby Kennedy to destroy the attorney general’s power. His aide, Cartha D. DeLoach, presents him with a document describing King as “a vicious liar” who uses “deceit, lies and treachery as propaganda to further his own causes,” and Hoover writes, “I concur.”
Hoover learns that one Ellen Rometsch from Communist East Germany is one of John Kennedy’s sex partners and alerts Bobby, who has her spirited out of the country. Then Bobby must go to Hoover, asking him to persuade congressmen not to leak the story. Bobby assumes that Hoover has ways of making congressmen not talk. They don’t.
Hoover is also watching the CIA. He notifies the White House that the agency has sought the cooperation of three Mafia godfathers in murdering Fidel Castro. One of them, he reveals, is Sam Giancana, and Giancana’s mistress, Hoover lets the White House know, has been sharing the President’s bed. Hoover suggests the President end the affair.
Here Branch steps out of character briefly to pass a judgment and allow himself a small sigh of amazement:
This was sordid business—gangster-spy assassination plots, molls and Mata Haris in the President’s bed, blackmail between branches of government—all beyond the era’s capacity for cynical imagination.
Garrow’s book attempts to explain Hoover in cultural terms, suggesting that he was not an idiosyncratic wild man but a reasonable expression of one important part of American society:
…The essence of the Bureau’s social role has been not to attack critics, Communists, blacks, or leftists per se, but to repress all perceived threats to the dominant, status-quo-oriented political culture…. The Bureau was not a deviant institution in American society, but actually a most representative and faithful one…. The enemies chosen by the F.B.I. were the same targets that much of American society would have selected as its own foes. American popular thought long has had strong themes of nativism, xenophobia, and ethnocentrism. These very same qualities were writ large in the F.B.I.
In “the King years” many Americans were angry and fearful about long-haired youth, rock music, campus rebellions, free-speech agitators, rising drug use, the casual new sexual code, and opposition to the Vietnam War. All this looked to many like an assault on America itself, an effort to destroy a successful, orderly society symbolized by short haircuts, the Ozzie-and-Harriet family, the Glenn Miller Band, respect for professors and presidents, and readiness to say, “My country, right or wrong!” The civil rights movement, of course, was part of this assault on the old order. Millions who liked things the way they used to be might well have thought Hoover was doing the Lord’s work.
Branch finds that while King was Hoover’s prime black target, Malcolm X and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam were also under surveillance. Branch deals extensively with the split between Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad, even devoting his opening chapter to a bloody battle between Muslims and police at a temple in South-Central Los Angeles. Malcolm’s open declarations of hostility toward white America suggest an era of violence that might have been, were it not for convictions of black Southerners that they could succeed only by following Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence. This required them to take the white man’s clubbing without striking back. Malcolm had no patience with people willing to submit to brutality.
Branch’s Malcolm is an angry, highly principled man becoming seriously devoted to the Islamic faith and, as he does, becoming disgusted with the corruption surrounding Elijah Muhammad. He allows, however, for the possibility that Malcolm may also have been trying to overthrow the old man and take over. Branch tells us very little about the religious aspect of the Nation and nothing at all about its origins. Elijah Muhammad, born Elijah Poole in rural Georgia, was its absolute master when Malcolm appeared. It had been founded in the 1930s by one Wallace D. Fard. Elijah Poole, “humiliated into alcoholism by relief lines,” was one of Fard’s most zealous followers. There seems to have been a violent struggle for the succession during which Poole sometimes had to hide out from murderous competitors.
Branch introduces Elijah after the shoot-out with the Los Angeles police at the Muslim temple. Malcolm had persuaded two high-powered lawyers of the black bourgeoisie to defend the Muslims charged with assaulting the police. They were astonished when they met the Nation’s leader. They found
a wizened, wheezy old man of sixty-four years—to them a field hand in a fez, plainly ignorant and inarticulate as he mumbled thanks for helping “my mens.” Utterly astonished that Muhammad held any authority over someone of Malcolm X’s polished commitment, the lawyers avoided each other’s eyes to keep from laughing impolitely at the attendants who constantly uttered obeisance to the “Holy Apostle.”
One wants to know more about Wallace Fard. Branch says only that he was a “mysterious silk dealer” who “disappeared.” Transformed into Elijah Muhammad, Poole became tyrannical; as he aged, the Nation was threatened by various crises. His oldest son, Elijah Jr., saw it being torn by “threats, thefts, scandals, plots, betrayals, and rampant fears that Malcolm X might usurp the entire structure if the sickly old man died soon.”
Malcolm learned that Elijah had sired illegitimate children by two of his former secretaries, who were demanding recognition and support. Malcolm cultivated Wallace Muhammad, Elijah’s seventh child, who was spiritually committed to the religious principles of Islam and repelled by what was happening in the Nation. “The corrupt hypocrites high in the organization,” he said, “throw people out for smoking a cigarette while they themselves were drinking champagne and going to orgies.”
Wallace confessed that several of his own relatives prospered off the Nation without knowing the first thing about Islam. His stories about power struggles over jewelry and real estate touched a nerve, and the two men [Wallace and Malcolm] fell into collusion.
Malcolm made a life-threatening move when he tried to publicize Elijah Muhammad’s illicit sexual relationships, and was finally murdered for it. Three trained killers gunned him down as he spoke to a New York audience. Elijah Muhammad had apparently declared a fatwa against him before then, for Branch tells of Malcolm being pursued with gunfire in wild car chases through the streets.
Malcolm had hoped to stir up public anger about Muhammad’s abuse of Islamic principle. Publicity might produce enough anger to turn the old man out, but nobody who mattered much was bothering to listen, except J. Edgar Hoover. He had known about the bastard children three years before Malcolm and had also tried, without success, to draw public attention to them.
Generating public attention had become the key to victory in political struggles, and no one knew it better than King. Branch suggests that King’s decision to attack segregation in Birmingham was based on a calculation that it was the place most likely to provide him with the national attention the movement desperately needed. If so, television can claim to have played a heroic role in the movement.
By 1963 television was radically changing American culture. Political success now required television exposure. The public tended to pay attention to what television paid attention to. The way to stir up public interest was to interest television, and the way to interest television was to exploit its need for brief dramas that could be shown in pictures with high emotional impact. Television trafficked in feelings. Its interviewers were constantly asking, “How does it feel?” “How do you feel?” “What does (or did) it feel like?” Its nature was to stir audience emotions—the quicker, the better. Time for television was big money. It wanted brief moments dramatic enough to produce public emotions.
Before 1963 the people comprising the civil rights movement had enjoyed only occasional successes at capturing national attention. In Albany, Georgia, a shrewd sheriff had cleverly avoided situations conducive to the kind of violence that makes dramatic television. The Albany campaign had begun late in 1961, dragged unsuccessfully into 1962, and ran out of gas. By late 1962 King seemed to have failed in the attempt to arouse enough public passion to force the Kennedys to intervene. Then, late that winter, he decided to take the struggle to Birmingham. Here was a crossing of the Rubicon.
The hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation came and went with no gesture of support from Kennedy. King met with his ten closest associates and told them, Branch writes, that “there was no easy button to push, no executive alliance to be made.”
All the dignified routes had been closed off. The only paths he saw led either to retreat or forward over the cliff, and, haunted by fear that the integrationist mandate of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision and the energy of the Kennedy years would soon dissipate, King disclosed his resolve to take a calculated leap…a staged, nonviolent assault on Birmingham, the symbolic bastion of segregation—a city that combined the plantation attitudes of the surrounding Alabama counties with the bare-knuckled politics of its steel-mill economy, personified in both aspects by the local police commissioner, Eugene T. “Bull” Connor.
Instead of avoiding risks, or grumbling about the moral obtuseness in the press, King’s forces would embrace the public drama of a showdown between King and Bull Connor.
Connor rewarded him with a confrontation that was irresistible to television. Birmingham, Connor, snarling police dogs, jailed children, a jailed King—suddenly the civil rights movement was a major item on the national agenda. “Bull” Connor’s dumbness became a blessing for the movement.
Glenn T. Eskew’s But for Birmingham differs about Birmingham. His is a valuable academic study of Birmingham society, economics, and politics, and though written in clotted thesis prose, provides a more complex view of the city in 1963 than we are accustomed to. He points out that white Birmingham was not a unified citadel of bigotry, but that a substantial part of its white population, including important business interests, wanted a moderate settlement. Among these elements, “Bull” Connor was disliked if not detested.
Eskew has an especially good portrait of Connor, including the hilarious story of his being impeached after a Birmingham detective, accompanied by a news photographer, caught him in a hotel room with his secretary. We learn that, like Ronald Reagan, Connor had a youthful career broadcasting baseball games on the basis of a few skimpy facts about balls and strikes telegraphed into a radio studio.
Eskew also has a nice reconstruction of the critical moment when King in Birmingham decides to defy the court’s injunction against marching, though he knows it will expose him to whatever risk a hated black agitator might face in the Birmingham jail.
If he declined to march, he would forever be a failure. As he later observed, “What would be the verdict of the country about a man who had encouraged hundreds of people to make a stunning sacrifice and then excused himself?” Feeling the “deepest quiet” he had ever experienced, King looked out at the expressions of those gathered in the motel suite and came “face to face with himself.” He felt “alone in that crowded room.” In despair, King broke away to pray for an answer. As he “stood in the center of the floor” in the adjoining chamber, he recalled, “I think I was standing also in the center of all that my life had brought me to be.” …He changed into a new pair of dungarees and stepped back into the suite, announcing, “The path is clear to me. I’ve got to march.”
King’s life may or may not be Branch’s “important metaphor” for American history since the end of World War II. Surely, however, he was the bravest of those who walked those gaudy years and probably the best.
April 9, 1998