Shouts of "Allah-u Akbar!" and gunfire on a street in Los Angeles... Peaceful marches in the heart of the south... Violent extremism against white and black civil rights leaders... Police brutality, FBI surveillance and voting suppression...
Taylor Branch's "Pillar of Fire" opens with a fiery confrontation in South-Central LA in 1962 as Nation of Islam followers, police and civilians clash. Threaded throughout this book are themes of race, religion, war, abuse of power and assassination.
This second book in the trilogy about the history of the Civil Rights Movement continues Martin Luther King Jr.'s struggle and is interwoven with the life and death of Malcolm X. America was at a crossroads in the 1960s; the choice was between violence or nonviolence to bring about social change in the midst of fear of communism, growing conflict leading to war in Vietnam and misguided surveillance by the FBI. The surveillance was condemned by FBI Director James Comey in a very public and nuanced way last week.
Most of Branch's book centers on events in Mississippi, Florida, Georgia and Alabama, including Birmingham and Selma and in other key locations in the Deep South.
In the face of hate, beatings and murder, King, unlike Malcolm X, preached nonviolence:
"King urged his Savannah audience not to panic. 'We are on the move, and the burning of our churches will not deter us,' he cried. 'The bombing of our homes will not dissuade us. The beating and killing of our young people will not divert us ...' He preached a full rhythmic litany on marching that paused near ancient Jericho for a word of caution. There were 'no broad highways' or 'quick solutions' ahead, and 'it would be irresponsible' to say there were. 'Instead, the course we must follow lies through a maze of interrelated demands and counter demands, hopes and aspirations, fears and hatreds,' King said. 'But difficult and painful as it is, such a course must be charted.'"
|Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad and then disciple Malcolm X.|
Seeking to understand and overcome hate, King said the growing calls for violence fomented by Black Muslims "gives me greater responsibility to help get rid of conditions that created such misguided and bitter individuals." Bitterness, hate and violence would lead to the assassination of Malcolm X by Nation of Islam followers, ironically after Malcolm had turned away from some of his earlier vitriol against King.
Branch works chronologically through the history and personalities of the era concurrent with the Civil Rights Movement: Cuba and the Soviet missile crisis, JFK's assassination, LBJ's "hypersensitive and erratic" behavior, changing politics in the South, and the growing disparity of haves and have-nots as voting rights are curtailed. Speaking in Berlin, Germany, a city then still divided by communism, King said, "We see the giants. We see massive urban societies, dominated by well-entrenched political machines that see new voters as a threat to their power."
|King at the FBI after meeting with J. Edgar Hoover in 1964.|
Confrontation in the Gulf of Tonkin involving USS Maddox (DD-731), joined by USS C. Turner Joy (DD-951), led to "police action" overseas. National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy went to Vietnam and cabled LBJ that the country appeared to be "a civil war within a civil war."
Fifty years ago, at the same time that local actions by police in some southern states actively suppressed voting rights and freedom of assembly, "police action" in Vietnam, ostensibly in the name of freedom, continued to escalate.
|A fake letter created by the FBI suggesting King commit suicide.|
On the first anniversary of JFK's assassination, the FBI attempted to kill King's character with a "recording of sex groans and party jokes, together with a contrived anonymous letter calling King 'a great liability for all of us Negroes.'" The fake letter by the FBI urged King to kill himself. Ben Bradlee, editor of Newsweek at the time, became locked in the middle of Hoover's FBI war against King and a burgeoning scandal when he refused to name his sources.
Branch writes, "Not until 1975, three years after Hoover himself was dead, did congressional investigations begin to uncover in retrospect the outlines of the FBI's covert crusade."
Last week, FBI Director James B. Comey spoke "hard truths" involving race and law enforcement. His remarks were delivered at Healy Hall, named after the university's 29th President, Patrick Francis Healy, who was born into slavery, in Georgia, in 1834.
"There is a reason that I require all new agents and analysts to study the FBI’s interaction with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and to visit his memorial in Washington as part of their training. And there is a reason I keep on my desk a copy of Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s approval of J. Edgar Hoover’s request to wiretap Dr. King. It is a single page. The entire application is five sentences long, it is without fact or substance, and is predicated on the naked assertion that there is 'communist influence in the racial situation.' The reason I do those things is to ensure that we remember our mistakes and that we learn from them.
"One reason we cannot forget our law enforcement legacy is that the people we serve and protect cannot forget it, either. So we must talk about our history. It is a hard truth that lives on," Comey said.
|Watts riots in Los Angeles, 1965. (Photo from Library of Congress)|
"We must account for that inheritance. And we—especially those of us who enjoy the privilege that comes with being the majority—must confront the biases that are inescapable parts of the human condition. We must speak the truth about our shortcomings as law enforcement, and fight to be better. But as a country, we must also speak the truth to ourselves. Law enforcement is not the root cause of problems in our hardest hit neighborhoods. Police officers—people of enormous courage and integrity, in the main—are in those neighborhoods, risking their lives, to protect folks from offenders who are the product of problems that will not be solved by body cameras.
|J. Edgar Hoover (photo art from Jewishcurrents.org)|
"In the words of Dr. King, 'We must learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools.'
"We all have work to do—hard work, challenging work—and it will take time. We all need to talk and we all need to listen, not just about easy things, but about hard things, too. Relationships are hard. Relationships require work. So let’s begin that work. It is time to start seeing one another for who and what we really are. Peace, security, and understanding are worth the effort."
The full transcript of Comey's historic speech is available at FBI.gov.
As for Taylor Branch's masterful presentation in "Pillar of Fire," this review can only scratch the surface.
The Navy is mentioned several times in Branch's book. President Johnson ordered Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to deploy military helicopters and Navy Divers – "Navy Frogmen" – to assist in a search for three missing civil rights workers.
Some other revelations and insights within its pages:
- One of the last books Medgar Evers read before he was assassinated was Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird."
- Birmingham, Alabama became known as "Bombingham." Violence there was condemned by Russia and the Vatican, especially after four girls were killed in a church bombing by white supremacists.
- Author and activist James Baldwin called Selma, Alabama "one of the worst places I ever saw."
- Alex Haley, U.S. Coast Guard veteran and Malcolm X biographer, developed a bond with Malcom X over a "mutual love of Shakespeare."
- Malcolm X disparaged baseball great Jackie Robinson for not being more strident; Robinson returned the favor, saying Malcolm X was only interested in revenge and retaliation.
- Around the same time MLK was named for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Malcolm X was studying Islam at the University of Saudi Arabia, tutored in Sunni Islam.
- LBJ zealously read "The Rich Nations and the Poor Nations" by Barbara Ward, which inspired his slogan, "Great Society" focusing on poverty, education and environment.
- Civil rights demonstrators were tortured: hung by handcuffed arms at Parchman Penitentiary; put in concrete sweatboxes, chicken coops and miniature cells in St. Augustine, Florida; and beaten with blackjacks, kicked and shocked with cattle prods by police and sheriffs.
In 2011 Navy Reads featured a review of the first book in Branch's trilogy, "Parting the Waters," entitled "Deeply Rooted in the American Dream."