Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Pillar of Fire (halfway through)

This book requires some extra concentration, so reading it before bed-time has resulted in my falling asleep many times.  However, I had a chance to put a significant dent into it this weekend, and I really learned in great detail about the civil rights era and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, impact on it.  The violence the book describes is astonishing, similar to the first installment, Parting the Waters, reviewed here.  The book opens with a very detailed account of a violent incident in Los Angeles, which accompanied the rise of Malcolm X to national prominence.  The first five chapters explore the connections between several disparate events, leading up to a climactic confrontation in Birmingham, Alabama, between King's non-violent volunteers (mostly youth) and police armed with dogs and fire hoses.  The main arc of the narrative centers around the national civil rights struggle, and the cast of characters is immense.  J. Edgar Hoover has a starring role as a vindictive, mean-spirited man haunted by the specter of American Communism well after its influence has waned.  The tape recordings he has made using wiretaps and bugs in hotel rooms and offices, including one of King's extra-marital affair and private observations about the Kennedys, are devastating to those who see King as a modern-day saint, but the overall picture he paints of a real human being both buffeted by events and shaping them is worth the shock to the system caused by the revelations in King's private life.  I have just reached the point of beginning the section on "Freedom Summer," a project to promote voting rights in Mississippi involving student volunteers from around the country, which spills over into national implications, and I am eagerly anticipating the rest of the book.  The story is complex and filled with surprises, so I am enjoying learning so much about this history, which is not so distant in the past.
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