PILLAR OF FIRE by Taylor Branch
Kirkus Star


America in the King Years, 1963-1965
Email this review


In this stirring follow-up to his Pulitzer Prizewinning Parting the Waters (1988), Branch recalls the terror, dissension, and courage of the civil-rights movement at its zenith: the mid- 1960s agitation leading to landmark integration and voting-rights legislation. With deft narrative skill, Branch shows how the lives of individuals and the nation as a whole were transformed in such diverse settings as Birmingham, Ala., where legendary protests occurred; the LBJ White House; and South-Central L.A., where a 1962 shooting involving police and Black Muslims signaled the start of a decade of urban tensions. Memoirs, oral histories, interviews, and recently revealed FBI wiretaps enable Branch to trace the inexorable momentum of change almost day by day. He also details the overlapping goals, tactical disputes, and petty jealousies among and within major movement organizations, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the NAACP. Straddling a narrative filled with a novel's-worth of fascinating real-life characters are two spellbinding, tormented figures epitomizing two poles of protest: Martin Luther King Jr., unnerved by FBI surveillance of his philandering, so resentful of Kennedy caution over civil-rights advocacy that he cracked an obscene joke while watching the president's funeral, yet winning a Nobel Peace Prize; and Malcolm X, shattered by his discovery that mentor Elijah Muhammad had impregnated several secretaries, attempting on the fly to plot a new course away from the Nation of Islam before his assassination. Finally, Branch foreshadows the forces and events that were to stall the movement in the next few years: a Republican Party making inroads in the South during Barry Goldwater's otherwise disastrous campaign, the alienation of white liberals from militant blacks, and the Vietnam War. With a third volume to come, this history is taking pride of place among the dozens of fine chronicles of this time of tumult and moral witness in American history.

Pub Date: Feb. 2nd, 1998
ISBN: 0-684-80819-6
Page count: 704pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 1998


NonfictionTHE KING YEARS by Taylor Branch
by Taylor Branch
NonfictionTHE CLINTON TAPES by Taylor Branch
by Taylor Branch
NonfictionAT CANAAN’S EDGE by Taylor Branch
by Taylor Branch


NonfictionTHE HEAVENS MIGHT CRACK by Jason Sokol
by Jason Sokol
NonfictionDARKROOM by Lila Quintero Weaver
by Lila Quintero Weaver
NonfictionWRITING TO SAVE A LIFE by John Edgar Wideman
by John Edgar Wideman