Taylor Branch is an American author and historian best known for his award-winning trilogy of books chronicling the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. and some of the history of the American civil rights movement. The third and final volume of the 2,912-page trilogy — collectively called America in the King Years — was released in January 2006. His latest book, The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President (2009), is a memoir of his unprecedented eight-year project to gather a sitting president’s comprehensive oral history secretly on tape. Aside from writing, Taylor speaks before a wide variety of audiences. He began his career as a magazine journalist for The Washington Monthly in 1970, moving later to Harper’s and Esquire.
The Clinton Tapes
Wrestling History with the President
(Simon & Schuster, 2009)
A groundbreaking book about the modern presidency, The Clinton Tapes invites readers into private dialogue with a gifted, tormented, resilient President of the United States. Here is what President Clinton thought and felt but could not say in public.
This book rests upon a secret project, initiated by Clinton, to preserve for future historians an unfiltered record of presidential experience. During his eight years in office, between 1993 and 2001, Clinton answered questions and told stories in the White House, usually late at night. His friend Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch recorded seventy-nine of these dialogues to compile a trove of raw information about a presidency as it happened. Clinton drew upon the diary transcripts for his memoir in 2004.
Branch recorded his own detailed recollections immediately after each session, covering not only the subjects discussed but also the look and feel of each evening with the president. The text engages Clinton from many angles. Readers hear candid stories, feel buffeting pressures, and weigh vivid descriptions of the White House settings.
Branch's firsthand narrative is confessional, unsparing, and personal. The author admits straying at times from his primary role -- to collect raw material for future historians -- because his discussions with Clinton were unpredictable and intense. What should an objective prompter say when the President of the United States seeks advice, argues facts, or lodges complaints against the press? The dynamic relationship that emerges from these interviews is both affectionate and charged, with flashes of anger and humor. President Clinton drives the history, but this story is also about friends.
The Clinton Tapes highlights major events of Clinton's two terms, including wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, the failure of health care reform, peace initiatives on three continents, the anti-deficit crusade, and titanic political struggles from Whitewater to American history's second presidential impeachment trial. Along the way, Clinton delivers colorful portraits of countless political figures and world leaders from Nelson Mandela to Pope John Paul II.
These unprecedented White House dialogues will become a staple of presidential scholarship. Branch's masterly account opens a new window on a controversial era and Bill Clinton's eventual place among our chief executives.
At Canaan's Edge
America in the King Years 1965-68
(paperback: Simon & Schuster, 2007)
At Canaan's Edge concludes America in the King Years, a three-volume history that will endure as a masterpiece of storytelling on American race, violence, and democracy. Pulitzer Prize-winner and bestselling author Taylor Branch makes clear in this magisterial account of the civil rights movement that Martin Luther King, Jr., earned a place next to James Madison and Abraham Lincoln in the pantheon of American history.
In At Canaan's Edge, King and his movement stand at the zenith of America's defining story, one decade into an epic struggle for the promises of democracy. Branch opens with the authorities' violent suppression of a voting-rights march in Alabama on March 7, 1965. The quest to cross Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge engages the conscience of the world, strains the civil rights coalition, and embroils King in negotiations with all three branches of the U.S. government.
The marches from Selma coincide with the first landing of large U.S. combat units in South Vietnam. The escalation of the war severs the cooperation of King and President Lyndon Johnson after a collaboration that culminated in the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act.
After Selma, young pilgrims led by Stokely Carmichael take the movement into adjacent Lowndes County, Alabama, where not a single member of the black majority has tried to vote in the twentieth century. Freedom workers are murdered, but sharecroppers learn to read, dare to vote, and build their own political party. Carmichael leaves in frustration to proclaim his famous black power doctrine, taking the local panther ballot symbol to become an icon of armed rebellion.
Also after Selma, King takes nonviolence into Northern urban ghettoes. Integrated marches through Chicago expose hatreds and fears no less virulent than the Mississippi Klan's, but King's 1966 settlement with Mayor Richard Daley does not gain the kind of national response that generated victories from Birmingham and Selma. We watch King overrule his advisers to bring all his eloquence into dissent from the Vietnam War. We watch King make an embattled decision to concentrate his next campaign on a positive compact to address poverty. We reach Memphis, the garbage workers' strike, and King's assassination.
Parting the Waters provided an unsurpassed portrait of King's rise to greatness, beginning with the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and ending with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. In Pillar of Fire, theologians and college students braved the dangerous Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 as Malcolm X raised a militant new voice for racial separatism. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed segregation by race and mandated equal opportunity for women. From the pinnacle of winning the Nobel Peace Prize, King willed himself back to "the valley" of jail in his daunting Selma campaign.
At Canaan's Edge portrays King at the height of his moral power even as his worldly power is waning. It shows why his fidelity to freedom and nonviolence makes him a defining figure long beyond his brilliant life and violent end.
Pillar of Fire
America in the King Years 1963-65
(paperback: Simon & Schuster, 1999)
In Pillar of Fire, the second volume of his America in the King Years trilogy, Taylor Branch portrays the civil rights era at its zenith. The first volume, Parting the Waters, won the Pulitzer Prize for History. It is a monumental chronicle of a movement that stirred from Southern black churches to challenge the national conscience during the Eisenhower and Kennedy years. In this masterly continuation of the narrative, Branch recounts the climactic straggles as they commanded the national and international stage.
Pillar of Fire covers the far-flung upheavals of the years 1963 to 1965--Dallas, St. Augustine, Mississippi Freedom Summer, LBJ's Great Society and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Vietnam, Selma. And it provides a frank, revealing portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr.--haunted by blackmail, factionalism, and hatred while he tried to hold the nonviolent movement together as a dramatic force in history. Allies, rivals, and opponents addressed racial issues that went deeper than fair treatment at bus stops or lunch counters. Participants on all sides stretched themselves and their country to the breaking point over the meaning of simple words: dignity, equal votes, equal souls.
Branch's gallery of historic characters also includes:
Malcolm X, who challenged King's vision of nonviolent integration and lived under threat of death from the Nation of Islam.
Lyndon Johnson, who believed racial conflict was destroying his political base in the South and threatening his dream to end poverty.
J. Edgar Hoover, under whose direction the FBI, with Attorney General Robert Kennedy's approval, spied on King with wiretaps and bugs, and yet solved the most heinous racial crimes of the era.
Diane Nash, the passionate leader behind sit-ins and Freedom Rides, whose determination shaped the Selma voting rights movement.
Abraham Heschel, the Hasidic theologian who bonded with King in devotion to the Hebrew prophets.
Robert Moses, the Mississippi SNCC leader who finally came undone over the human suffering caused by his Freedom Summer.
Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper who commanded a powerful voice for the unlettered.
Pillar of Fire takes readers inside the dramas that shook every American institution, from the local pulpit to the Presidency. We disappear with courageous young people into Mississippi's feudal Parchman Penitentiary. We absorb the shock of a single Presidential election in 1964 that revolutionized the structure of partisan politics. We follow Northern rabbis summoned by King, and Mary Peabody, mother of the governor of Massachusetts, into the segregated jails of St. Augustine, Florida. We witness the Shakespearean conflicts between Lyndon Johnson and King and Hoover and Robert Kennedy.
Branch brings to bear fifteen years of research--archival investigation; nearly two thousand interviews; new primary sources, from FBI wiretaps to White House telephone recordings--in a seminal work of history. Pillar of Fire captures the intensity of the legendary King years, when the movement broke down walls between races, regions, sexes, and religions, and between America and the larger world. Its struggle to rescue and redeem, its victories and defeats, its failings and sacrifices gave rise to opposing tides that still dominate the national debate about justice and democratic government. The story of this movement is an incandescent chapter in America's distinctive quest for freedom.
WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE
Parting the Waters
America in the King Years, 1954-63
(Simon & Schuster, 1989)
The first book of a formidable two-volume social history, Parting the Waters is more than just a biography of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the decade preceding his emergence as a national figure. Branch's 880-page effort, which won the 1988 National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction, profiles the key players and events that helped shape the American social landscape following World War II but before the civil-rights movement of the 1960s reached its climax. The author then goes a step further, endeavoring to explain how the struggles evolved as they did by probing the influences of the main actors while discussing the manner in which events conspired to create fertile ground for change.
Moving from the fiery political baptism of Martin Luther King, Jr., to the corridors of Camelot where the Kennedy brothers weighed demands for justice against the deceptions of J. Edgar Hoover, here is a vivid tapestry of America, torn and finally transformed by a revolutionary struggle unequaled since the Civil War.
Taylor Branch provides an unsurpassed portrait of King's rise to greatness and illuminates the stunning courage and private conflict, the deals, maneuvers, betrayals, and rivalries that determined history behind closed doors, at boycotts and sit-ins, on bloody freedom rides, and through siege and murder.
Epic in scope and impact, Branch's chronicle definitively captures one of the nation's most crucial passages.
The Clinton Tapes
Wrestling History with the President
The New York Times
At the beginning of this odd, revealing and often delightful book, we find the newly minted President Bill Clinton in the White House with a group of Democratic senators, debating what to do about gays in the military. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who believes homosexuality is an abomination, launches into a gaseous disquisition on Julius Caesar’s supposed affair with King Nicomedes, which Byrd believes created a perception of weakness that led to the eventual failure of Caesar’s dictatorship. Other senators jump in to disagree, citing all sorts of sexual depravity during the Roman Empire’s long run. The president, rather than refocusing the debate on the executive or legislative options they had, notes that homosexuality had not made God’s “top-10 list of sins,” although bearing false witness and adultery had. This touches off another extensive round of baloney-slinging amongst the senators and their president. “I couldn’t tell,” Clinton later informs Taylor Branch, “whether Teddy Kennedy was going to start giggling or jump out the window.”
There are, as Clinton might say, a blue jillion such anecdotes in The Clinton Tapes. They range from heavy-duty insights into the relationship between Yasir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin to Elizabeth Taylor’s question about whether Clinton has checked out Sophia Loren’s breasts at a state dinner. (Clinton, typically, claims he didn’t inhale, then admits that his gaze had indeed wandered south.) The rowdy, discursive intellectual brilliance of the man is evident on almost every page, and so is the self- indulgence, self-pity and self- destructiveness — the magisterial excessiveness of every sort. Compared with the buttoned-up cool of the Oval Office’s current occupant, Bill Clinton is a one-man carnival — a magician, tightrope walker, juggler, mesmerist, hot-dog-eating contestant and burlesque show. You kind of miss the guy.
Unfortunately, there are some fairly serious structural problems in The Clinton Tapes that will dampen the casual reader’s pleasure. The biggest is that everything in the book is secondhand. We never actually hear Clinton talking, just Branch’s recollections of his eight years of conversations with the president — a secret project that somehow managed to remain secret until now. Clinton controls the tapes. Branch didn’t have the opportunity to listen to them while preparing this book — and Clinton will decide when and if they are made available to the public.
Branch is a historian by trade, and an excellent one, the acclaimed author of a three-volume biography of Martin Luther King Jr. He and Clinton sat down every month or so to record the president’s impressions of what was going on in his presidency; Branch took notes and also recorded his own account of the conversation driving home to Baltimore. Branch scrupulously reminds us about the limitations of this method and will even, at times, include sentences like this one about King Hussein of Jordan’s intervention into the Arab-Israeli peace talks: “Later, in dictation, I regretted my inability to recapture the force of Clinton’s language here.”
This is a frequent, and frustrating, motif. Clinton explodes torrentially over Whitewater or the Republicans in Congress — and Branch is left flailing, summarizing, attempting to recapture the moment. Since these are Branch’s recollections, he tends to dwell on the things he’s interested in — there is far more time spent on Clinton’s policy toward Haiti than on the details of such historic fights as those over Clinton’s 1993 budget plan, or the government shutdown battle of 1995.
Branch is a purposely modest interviewer, allowing the president to set the agenda (and usually letting him off the hook), but he will, at times, interject some sharp analysis. The press, for example, is a constant object of Clintonian tirades — often with good cause, since the news media’s scandal obsession produced a profoundly distorted sense of his presidency. Nothing came of Whitewater. And though the Lewinsky affair is indeed on God’s “top-10 list,” it was surely not an impeachable offense. Clinton sulks about this — Branch finds him wearing a “Trust me, I’m a reporter” T-shirt at Camp David and wonders about the self-pitying passivity: Clinton “treated bad publicity as a scourge to be endured rather than a problem to be dissected, managed, even positively transformed. . . . Unlike President Kennedy, who studiously had charmed reporters, and enjoyed feeding them stories, Clinton usually recoiled.” I wrote about the Clinton administration, favorably and unfavorably, for eight years, and always found this reticence a mystery, especially given the president’s ability to charm.
Branch’s friendship with Clinton does have significant advantages, though. It makes possible a remarkable portrait of White House life. Clinton’s relationship with the first lady seems incredibly strong (Branch even interrupts them when they are smooching, as I did once). And the president is a wildly devoted father, even to the point of having a screaming fight with Al Gore: the vice president wants Clinton to go to Japan to smooth a crisis, but Clinton re fuses because Chelsea needs his help studying for high school midterms. He is often encountered dressed casually, hanging out with his brother-in-law Hugh Rodham, watching college basketball or playing three-dimensional Scrabble. At one point, Clinton crows that he finished a New York Times crossword puzzle with an Elvis theme in nine minutes.
In the end, though, The Clinton Tapes will stand as an important work about American political life because of two dominant themes that emerge gradually — one about the man himself and the other about the nature of the current era. Clinton was a president who believed that government could help people live happier, more satisfying lives, and that America could help solve intractable issues like the Middle East crisis. He immersed himself in these issues, worked hard at them. His grasp of details — and his insights into the motivations of others — is breathtaking. As president, he proved a rare combination of fervent politician and devoted policy wonk...
-- by Joe Klein, a columnist for Time magazine, and author of Primary Colors and The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton
At Canaan’s Edge
At Canaan’s Edge is a deeply researched book that completes a superior narrative trilogy of America's civil rights struggles between 1954 and 1968.
-- James T. Patterson, The Washington Post
The engrossing final installment of Branch's three-volume biography of Martin Luther King Jr. maintains the high standards set in the previous volumes, the first of which won a Pulitzer Prize. Moving from the protest at Selma and the 1966 Meredith March through King's expanding political concern for the poor to his 1968 assassination in Memphis, Tenn., Branch gives us not only the civil rights leader's life but also the rapidly changing pulse of American culture and politics. The America we find in this last chapter of King's life is on fire--the Republican Party has begun to court white Southern voters; the Civil Rights movement itself has fractured; King sees bold challenges to his teaching of nonviolence in the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles. King himself has evolved, spreading his interests beyond civil rights to become a more outspoken critic of the Vietnam War and of poverty. A turning point in King's legacy, says Branch, was his housing actions in Chicago in the summer of 1966. This work "nationalized race," showing that it wasn't just a Southern problem, and ensured that King would go down in history as much more than a regional leader. As a literary work, Branch's biography is masterful. About midway through, the author begins to foreshadow King's death--by, for example, quoting his 1965 statement to a filmmaker: "I would willingly give my life for that which I think is right." If Branch indulges in predictable throat clearing about the lessons from King's life that endure in America today--well, that is to be expected. This magisterial book is a fitting tribute to a magisterial man. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
-- Publishers Weekly
Moving from the Selma march to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Branch completes his Pulitzer Prize-winning study of the Civil Rights Movement.
-- Library Journal
Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Pillar of Fire
...a powerful, surprising argument, never explicitly stated but implicitly clear, holding that the rebellions against the established order--which took their form in the civil-rights movement, the youth movement, the early stirrings of the women's movement and the middle class's changing self-definition through the 1960s--were inextricably linked.... It is Mr. Branch's achievement to display how the civil-rights pressures and the Cold War pressures were intertwined.
-- The Wall Street Journal, David M. Shribman
As he did in Parting the Waters, Branch brings to these events both a passion for their detail and a recognition of their larger historical significance. By giving King such epic treatment, Branch implies that he was an epic hero. Was he? The great merit of Branch's stunning accomplishment is to prove definitively that he was.
-- The New York Times Book Review, Alan Wolfe
Read Pillar of Fire for its detailed and captivating description of Sixties figures and ecumenical activism, but you will have to wait for the final volume of Branch's trilogy to understand how Dr. King personified postwar America.
-- The Philadelphia Inquirer, Herman Graham 3d
The great strength of this book is the way Branch zooms in on the dozens of local skirmishes, from Greenwood, Miss., to St. Augustine, Fla., through which the movement's shock troops waged their nonviolent campaigns…. though he amply covers the higher-stakes political events, he never allows them to eclipse his larger story: farmers and teachers, sharecroppers and dentists, prying their freedom loose from the grip of segregationist whites--and in so doing stripping away the racist restrictions that had always made the achievements of American democracy ring hollow.
-- Slate, David Greenberg
Rejecting continuity and ignoring chronology, it is an interwoven fabric of narratives, some of them quite new, many of them fascinating....
-- The Economist
Comprehensiveness does not necessarily mean readability, and it certainly does not mean it here in the second volume of Branch's proposed trilogy on the civil rights era in U.S. history, following Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 (1989). Although the previous volume was a best-seller and won the Pulitzer Prize--and for those reasons this follow-up volume will be in demand in libraries--readers will have to be dedicated to the subject to wade through this unimaginatively presented assemblage of facts. Branch's research is impeccable and his knowledge of his material solid as he focuses on the civil rights movement's "peak years," when, beginning with the campaign in Alabama, Martin Luther King Jr. took strides forward in his program to deliver equality to his race. But the prose is so airless, the reader will gasp for breath as the author chronicles King's struggles within his own movement for leadership, struggles within the entire black community for direction in achieving racial fairness, and confrontations with the federal government, particularly the FBI. The book is significant for marshaling so much information, particularly the profiles of all the many individuals involved in the race issues of that time, but it lacks fluidity. Brad Hooper
-- Booklist, January 1, 1998
Copyright© 1998, American Library Association. All rights reserved.
In this stirring follow-up to his Pulitzer Prize-winning 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.
-- Kirkus Reviews, January 1, 1998
Copyright ©1998, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
At the conclusion of Parting the Waters, his Pulitzer-prize winning 1988 book about Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil-rights movement, Taylor Branch offered some somber reflections. By the end of 1963, King had traveled a tortuous path from the obscurity of his Montgomery (Ala.) church to worldwide fame. The lunch-counter sit-ins, the Freedom Rides that sought to integrate interstate bus travel, police violence in Birmingham, the March on Washington, and the murder of John F. Kennedy were in the past. Ahead lay a widening struggle, said Branch: ''Nonviolence had come over him for a purpose that far transcended segregation. Having lifted him up among rulers, it would drive him back down to die among garbage workers in Memphis. King had crossed over as a patriarch like Moses into a land less bounded by race. To keep going, he became a Pillar of Fire.''
That phrase--a reference to the flame that, in the Book of Exodus, guides the Israelites from Egypt--is now the title of a second, painstakingly researched and broadly focused volume in what Branch projects as a trilogy. Judging only by the two published works, Branch has already written an indispensable account not just of King but of the events that he shaped and was shaped by.
Pillar of Fire is not light reading. Its complex, often-ugly story is also compelling and ultimately inspiring. Over 600, fact-filled pages (plus 91 pages of notes) are devoted to only three years, 1963-65, the crest of the civil-rights movement in the South. Branch knits together a staggering range of events and themes: the explosive Freedom Summer in Mississippi; political twists and turns in Washington; the expanding Vietnam war; the rise and fall of Malcolm X; and King's frequent doubts and uncertainty about what to do next.
The story retains its power to shock. Branch describes, for example, the unremitting brutality of local sheriffs in Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. Blacks and their white supporters were repeatedly clubbed and jailed, their houses, stores, churches, and synagogues bombed and burned. The Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964--during which hundreds of students poured into the state to take part in voter-registration drives--reached a horrendous climax when three young men, one local black and two white Northern volunteers, were murdered. This violence went on year after year, even after Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The FBI calculated that over a five-year period in southwest Mississippi, the Ku Klux Klan committed 9 murders, 75 church burnings, and at least 300 bombings and assaults.
Almost equally shocking was the stubborn short-sightedness of white leaders who gave police and vigilantes free rein. Gradually, these leaders, including businesspeople worried about economic damage to their communities, came to see that allowing black children to be beaten while the national press looked on was self-defeating.
More upsetting personally are the book's appalling quotes from FBI tapes of King taking part in sexual liaisons in various hotel rooms. That such tapes existed is known to many, but seeing the obscene words in cold print dismays and saddens.
Then there's the sordid story behind these tapes. Over many years, the FBI wiretapped King's home and office phones and put bugs in his hotel rooms. It was all part of a merciless campaign against King waged by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. The FBI constantly sought to undermine King with supporters, deny him awards and honorary degrees, and even sabotage an audience with Pope Paul VI. Its vendetta culminated in a package of tapes and other material, together with an ''anonymous'' letter urging King to commit suicide, that was sent to reporters, political and religious leaders, and King himself.
From this tumultuous background, King emerges as a heroic but deeply human figure, struggling frequently with depression, even despair. He won the loyalty of many but faced opposition at every turn, including within the movement. Roy Wilkins, head of the NAACP, for example, favored attacking racial discrimination in the courts and disliked sit-ins and demonstrations, which he felt yielded few results and angered potential white allies. On the left, King faced hostile fire from the more radical Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
King knew he could not avoid hard decisions. He recognized, for example, that most Americans tended to see racial discrimination as synonymous with Southern segregation--something fewer and fewer people were inclined to support. King knew these were not the only issues: As early as 1964, he was convinced that he must venture into Northern cities and take on the thornier matters of discrimination in jobs and housing. The risks, he knew, were great.
But doubts and worries did not turn King from his course. Committed and courageous, he drew strength from his conviction that nonviolent resistance would overcome both hatred and indifference. As the book closes, King is in Selma, preparing to lead the march to Montgomery that would confront Governor George Wallace. King has three more years to live, during which he stands, in Branch's words, ''At Canaan’s Edge.'' That, we are told, will be the title of the third and final volume of this magisterial work.
-- Jack Patterson, Newsweek
The title tells you everything you need to know. "America in the King Years," Taylor Branch's three-volume biography of Martin Luther King Jr., of which the new Pillar of Fire is the second installment, declares its ambition and conviction: Ambition to encompass far more than just King's life, and conviction that King, more than any other figure, shaped American life from the mid-'50s to the late '60s. Branch has embarked on an epic work that shows every sign of being equal to the moral, emotional and narrative complexity of the civil rights struggle, and Pillar of Fire can stand alongside the first volume, Parting the Waters, as one of the greatest achievements in American biography.
As Branch tells it, the movement's struggle continues to feel like the best story in American history. Perhaps because it's our nakedest moment, the time when large numbers of Americans, barely recognized as such by sanctioned power, dared to dream of what the country could be at its best, in the face of what it often was at its worst.
Pillar of Fire captures King and the civil rights movement at a fulcrum. The moments of highest triumph and widest influence following the March on Washington, the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and King's winning of the Nobel Peace Prize were also the times the movement faced the greatest violence, epitomized by the Mississippi murders of Goodman, Cheyney and Schwerner during Freedom Summer. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was also riven by an internal conflict over whether to stay true to its grass-roots beginnings or to become a slick political organization; Malcolm X was sowing doubts about the legitimacy of nonviolence; and Stokely Carmichael was shortly to introduce the concept of "Black Power." The territory Branch has to cover here is killingly large. Sometimes he abandons a thread when we want him to move on to a climax, and sometimes his clauses are a tad more convoluted than they need to be. But this is a remarkable job of clarity wrestled from massive detail.
Pillar of Fire extends the sympathy and piercing intelligence of the previous volume's psychological portrait of King. Branch also navigates the maddening and deeply moving contradictions of Malcolm X, and what can only be described as the cravenness of JFK. Terrified of losing the South, Kennedy relentlessly put politics first and stayed true to his narrow Cold War ethos by warning King of communist "infiltration" in the movement. But perhaps the most important part of Branch's book is his detailing of J. Edgar Hoover's surveillance of King, and the FBI's various disgusting smear tactics, including sending a package to King containing a tape with evidence of his extramarital affairs accompanied by a note suggesting he kill himself before the tape's contents become known. This material isn't new, but it feels revelatory here because it's been laid out as part of a narrative.
Given what the official channels of government and power brought to bear against the civil rights movement, and given what a sad story Branch is telling and our knowledge of what awaits at the end of the final volume, it's amazing that, reading it, you can still hear clearly the sweet transcendence of the freedom songs and mass meetings he describes. You come to the end of this volume weary, scarcely believing there can be more to come, and hungry for Branch's next volume.
-- Charles Taylor, Salon
Parting the Waters
A tour de force of research and synthesis, richer than any extant King biography or civil rights history, this will be the measure of all books to come.
-- Library Journal
....Mr. Branch's book deepens, expands and fulfills the memories of many of us and the history of a time of great change in the nation.
-- Charles McGrath, The New York Times Book of the Century
Branch continues his acclaimed trilogy on the Civil Rights era, begun with Parting the Waters (LJ 1/89).
-- Library Journal
(This work) is least successful when it attempts to be more than a history of the movement. Its references to major unrelated events of the period, such as the Hungarian revolt or the Suez crisis, are necessarily disconnected from the stories of the struggle for civil rights and become mere intermissions to the main attraction. Mr. Branch's burden--to cover, and bring together the scattered impressions that convey a movement--is awesome enough. Adding to the mix the nuances of the nation's history proved impossible. . . . Although Mr. Branch makes few harsh judgments, this is not a book about saints. It is a set of compelling portraits, placed in the excitement of a period when oppressed and powerless people moving together changed themselves and their country profoundly and permanently.
-- Eleanor Holmes Norton, The New York Times Book Review
Going far beyond David J. Garrow, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning King biography, Bearing the Cross, (BRD 1987) focuses primarily on politics, Branch offers a compelling approach to King as a moral and religious leader. Perhaps Branch's decisive improvement on Garrow is the stress he places on the black church--a largely invisible world to most white Americans that Branch evokes as few writers before. . . . As few writers can, Branch creates the illusion of reality. Deeply skeptical of those with power and suspicious of the anodyne gloss they put on events as they happen, Branch--in this regard, a model new historian--has searched out the hidden reality and often tragic human drama of the King years. On his best pages, the past, miraculously, seems to spring back to life. King himself appears human, all too human. Yet when the reader is done, his remarkable virtues and ordinary vices seem of a piece, the component parts of a coherent, towering personality.
-- Jim Miller, Newsweek
The personalities of the men and women who organized and led the Freedom Riders and lunch-counter sit-ins are drawn with clarity and perception. The battle cry 'We shall overcome' often takes on subtle meanings that illustrate the complexities of courageous acts. . . . Branch reinforces an already persuasive case that (J. Edgar)Hoover used his files to manipulate both (Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy), as well as Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who needed to protect his brother from scandal.
-- R.Z. Sheppard, Time
From Charlie Rose on PBS (2:04)
October 21, 2009
Taylor Branch discusses his book The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President.
The Clintons Off the Record During the Lewinsky Scandal (5:15)
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch discusses his account of President Clinton's confidential diary project, a unique collaboration, aimed to preserve the fullest record of a pivotal president. The Philadelphia Inquirer's Harold Jackson moderates. — National Constitution Center
America in the King Years (59:28)
January 31, 2008
Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Martin Luther King, Jr.,Taylor Branch explores America in the King years, 1965-68. Presented by the Walter H. Capps Center at UCSB.
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