Monday, August 09, 2010

Pillar of Fire (all the way through)

This remarkable volume, the second of three books, traces the middle stage of Martin Luther King, Jr's civil rights struggle and contextualizes the struggle as part of a grand arc of history -- an arc that "bends toward justice," to apply a quote from Dr. King himself.  The book describes efforts to gain rights we often take for granted now -- the right to vote, the right to eat in desegregated restaurants, the right to express ourselves without fear of government reprisal -- bringing the struggle to vivid life with well-researched details.  The narrative centers around the movement in the South, but brings in perspectives from around the country and begins to indict Northern racism as well as the institutional racism of the South.  Malcolm X's rise to national prominence begins with a violent episode in Los Angeles and ends with his death in Harlem.  The detailed account of the often violent struggle for control of the Nation of Islam that Malcolm X engages in and his changing understanding of Islam and the need for a more "militant" response is an interesting counterpoint to Martin Luther King's struggle to make decisions in the best interest of the non-violent movement.  President Lyndon Johnson's role in the book begins with a visit to St. Augustine, Florida, as Vice President, where he is the reason for an integrated dinner that sparks later movement activity, and ends with his battle for control of South Vietnam heading toward outright war.  Robert Kennedy, the Attorney General, and J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, spar toward the beginning of the book over turf within the White House, and Hoover's active opposition to King through FBI wiretaps is ultimately triumphant; these wiretaps are ultimately revelatory (see below) and essential to the history of the movement.  The wiretaps reveal the inner struggles of the King circle, as well as some personal failings of King's, and they also reveal the Hoover FBI's ability to use "extralegal" means to control what Hoover considered subversive activity.  The implacable opposition faced by nonviolent protesters attempting to overcome segregation astounded me with its vehemence, violence, and blatant injustice.  The pivotal summer of 1964 begins with the murder of three Mississippi civil rights workers, and the efforts to bring these murders to trial face stunning opposition -- Mississippi authorities claim the nonviolent workers were faking the disappearance until the bodies are discovered, and even after the discovery of bodies, Mississippi authorities blame the victims for the crime.  That outrage is just the beginning of the legal saga that is unwound in the epilogue of the book -- the FBI did get some convictions in the case after years of struggle, but no one goes to prison for life because of these murders.  There are numerous heroic stories of pioneers in the civil rights movement who suffer punishment for their involvement in the movement -- one particularly tough pill to swallow is the story of Vernon Dahmer, who is murdered at the end of years of providing support for the movement, after the voting rights act is passed in 1965, essentially for offering to pay the $2 poll tax for those who can't afford it.  The hero of the story, aside from Dr. King, is probably Bob Moses, the pioneering educator who begins a lonely campaign to bring voting rights to Mississippi in the early 1960s, then operates as a key leader in the "Freedom Summer" of 1964, which ultimately brought a Black delegation to the Democratic National Convention in a showdown that tested how far the country could go to accept Blacks voting in large numbers in the South.  Moses is one survivor in the epilogue who makes a positive impact in the 1990s.  Which does not mean this is a downer of a book -- gripping, yes, depressing in some ways, but also inspirational and true.  The research and detail make for a compelling read.  If you are willing and able to put in the time, it is well worth the read.
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