Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-1964 by Taylor Branch (Review)

Who Should Read This Book – People who are REALLY into American history and want a DEEP DIVE into the story of the Civil Rights movement.

What’s the Big Takeaway – Branch stays focused on the story and avoids drawing lessons for today, so any take-always are up to the reader. That said, I’d say the big takeaway is this history is quite recent and we’re still working towards King’s dream.

And a quote:

“In Selma, Martin Luther King confronted furies ahead. In order to win the vote, movement spirits in many small places would have to lift politics into history. Beyond the vote lay Vietnam, which would spoil the celebrations of freedom that had been set in train over the past two years. King’s inner course was fixed downward toward the sanitation workers of Memphis. It was his course, but it was getting lonely. Neither King nor the movement could turn America into a mass meeting, but for three more years they could look to a distant one, at Canaan’s edge” (613)

This book is thick and filled with lots of names. I’m not gonna lie and say I read every word. I could have used a bit more focus and a bit fewer names. But then it would be a different book and this book (this series) is one we need. Even if only professional historians read it closely and amateurs read it less closely, its fitting because we’re still living it.

After finishing, I looked up some of those names that all kind of run together – Bob Moses, Diane Nash, James Bevel – and a lot of them are still alive! Look at arguments about the filibuster and voting rights – we’re still in the same struggle and the way voter suppression is going, we may be going backwards.

Three points from the book:

  1. This is Malcolm X’s book. He did not appear in the first one but we got a lot of him here. His autobiography covered much of his life, but if I recall, was less about his later life after leaving the Nation of Islam. Branch picks up the story, without going into Malcom’s roots as much, so the autobiography would be a good supplement. I was surprised to learn Malcolm spoke at Selma at one point and how connected he was in 1964 and 1965 to King.
  2. 1964 Democratic Convention looms large. Prior to the 1960s the Democrat party was dominated by white southerners. This began to shift and the 1964 convention was huge. While most white Democrats said they’d stay in the party, a few said if the Democrats embraced black southerners they’d leave. And they did. Soon the parties would look like what they do today.
  3. Legacy – I was struck by the words and actions of so many sheriffs and politicians in the south, fighting against integration. This is what they are remembered for. That’s sad. May we be remembered not for our hate, but for our love.

Overall, a long book full of names that is a necessary and brilliant work of history.

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