Best Book review: Pillar of Fire, by Taylor Branch

Branch, Taylor, Pillar of Fire – America in the King years, 1963-1965 (vol. 2 of 3), 1997, Simon & Schuster  (NY, Londen, etc). ISBN 978 0 684 84809 9

4 stars


As stated in the introduction to my earlier review on Branch’s first volume: Parting the Waters, the fight for Civil Rights was an essential part of US History. It’s one of several US themes I like to read about and review in the segment: Book reviews on the History of the USA.

  • To get more insights in my overall reading preferences, go to My Books page on Goodreads.

After reading the first volume, in which Martin Luther King became the foremost link between his fellow African Americans & the authorities, I soon started reading Branch ’s second book on the King years, Pillar of Fire.

The second volume was published almost ten years after the first one. It doesn’t start where the former ended though. Instead, the first 200 pages of the second volume give a “summary” of the first volume.

Understandable because of the ten year gap maybe, but also surprisingly comprehensive. Although, I have to say it was a clear synopsis. Also, with some new elements in it. Two actors in secondary roles actually.

Two new characters, besides Martin Luther King

Although King and the Civil Right Movement stay in the lead, Branch ’s Pillar of Fire presents two other important players. Malcolm X and President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Malcolm X in many ways was an opponent of King. The rebel who protested the peaceful (Christian) means King used to “combat” segregation. Instead of turning the other cheek, Malcolm – as a muslim – preached physical resistence. Armed, if need be.

For many, mostly young people, he was and sometimes still is an example to follow. Surely, he became a martyr after he was murdered on February 19 1965. For most people though he was too much of revolutionary.

Ironically, Malcolm X wasn’t murdered by white segregationists – like King a few years later – but by his former brothers of the Nation of Islam.

Malcolm X with a young Mohammad Ali. Read about in Branch’s Pillar of Fire.
Malcolm X with a young Mohammad Ali. Initially they went along just fine, but their friendship ended when Malcolm broke with the Nation of Islam.
The Civil Right Law by LBJ

The other secondary role in this volume is played by Lyndon B. Johnson, who at the end of the first volume became president after John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas.

Faster then Kennedy could ever get things done, it was LBJ who got the Civil Rights Act through the House & Senate. On July 2 1964 he signed it, formally ending segregation in many public places, schools, restaurants, movie theaters and other places.

  • Just over a century after Abraham Lincoln formally ended Slavery on January 1 1863, the Emancipation Declaration.
Presidents Johnson hands Martin Luther King a pen after signing the Civil Rights Act 1964. Read about in Branch’s Pillar of Fire.
A historical moment. Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson hands Martin Luther King a pen after signing the Civil Rights Act 1964.

Johnson’s drive to get this law approved, together with the Law on Poverty, was partly born from his own poor upbringing in Texas. Partly because he simple thought segregation was something of the past.

The signing of the Act was a historic moment. Initially though it led to more violence. Still many people got killed, beaten up, falsely accused, imprisoned. Mostly black people, but also some white collaborators.

LBJ played a pivotal role in it all. Because of this fact alone you could consider him one of the best presidents the US ever had. Wasn’t it for the War in Vietnam, that escalated completely under his watch.

LBJ, the best president?
  • Was LBJ the best president the US ever had? I don’t know. I doubt it. But he surely was the most prepared president the US ever had. Climbing the political ladder through all it’s levels & stages. Playing the political game as a poker player.
  • Just read Robert A. Caro colossal work on the man, and decide for yourself. One of the best biographies I ever read. (Click on image, to read more).
Robert A. Caro work on Lyndon B. Johnson
Meanwhile… Martin Luther King goes on and on and on.

In the years covered in Branch’ s second volume: Pillar of Fire, 1963-1965, Martin L. King was the absolute figurehead of the Civil Rights Movements. Nationally and internationally. He traveled all over the US and to other continents to preach his famous sermons.

  • To my surprise King visited my country of birth, the Netherlands, the day I was born – August 16 1964. Holding a speech in Amsterdam.

He loved his primary role, but hated it too. He couldn’t stop being the leader though.

Through the years King got more and more confronted by the negative side of it all. The expectations on the one hand, mainly from the people he represented. On the other, the infighting, the criticism, the persecution by the FBI, the insults, the life treats.

A detailed, historical work

As the first volume, I consider Pillar of Fire by Taylor Branch primarily a historical work. Very detailed. From time to time too detailed. In the middle part of this second volume I lost myself a bit in too many names and too many grass root events (wherein the real heroes played their roles, courageous men & women).

My fault maybe. It doesn’t mean, it’s overdone. It’s simply a story that has to be told, in all its details. A story people have to know. As an important part of US and World History. For that, highly recommended.

Pillar of Fire : America in the King Years 1963-65


Other volumes

For a review on the first volume, click on title: Parting the waters or the cover.

Taylor Branch first volume Parting the Waters
Vol. 1 of Taylor Branch ’s work on America in the King Years, 1954-1963.

For a review on the third & last volume, click on title: At Canaans Edge or the cover.

Taylor Brack Volume 3 At Canaan’s Edge
Vol. 3 of Taylor Branch ’s work on America in the King Years, 1965-1968.
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