Bravest and Best

Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-1965

by Taylor Branch
Simon and Schuster, 746 pp., $30.00

The Last Crusade: Martin Luther King, Jr., the FBI, and the Poor People's Campaign

by Gerald D. McKnight
Westview, 192 pp., $25.00

But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle

by Glenn T. Eskew
University of North Carolina Press, 434 pp., $19.95 (paper)


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…

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