Originally created 02/22/98

`Pillar of Fire' takes new look at King years



Ever since Ronald Reagan came to power nearly 20 years ago, conservatives have taken a certain ribald delight in ridiculing the 1960s as the decade of the spoliation of America, 10 years of endless pot parties, flag-desecration, sexual abandon and other assorted debaucheries.

Such simplistic caricatures are now decisively put to rest by gifted Baltimore writer Taylor Branch in this much-anticipated second volume of a trilogy that began 10 years ago with the publication of his magisterial Parting the Waters. With Pillar of Fire, Mr. Branch demonstrates beyond dispute that the '60s merit a place in history as a watershed time, a time as supremely significant to black Americans as the fall of the Berlin wall was to those who groaned under communism.

At first, a reader might be daunted by the prospect of plowing through more than 600 pages that cover a scant two years of history. But it soon becomes apparent that Mr. Branch has an uncanny ability to penetrate the obscure nooks and crannies of the past to provide a new perspective on the '60s.

Parting the Waters ended with the high-water mark of the civil rights movement, the March on Washington in 1963, and the new volume picks up there. The work is not, as is often thought, a biography of Martin Luther King Jr. As the subtitle -- America in the King Years -- suggests, its scope is far more expansive.

Indeed, the most intriguing portions of the new volume deal with the complex interplay between King and Malcolm X, the cold-eyed realist who believed genuine freedom and self-respect could be attained only by wrenching power from the entrenched plutocrats.

In a curious way Malcolm provided a symbiotic support for King by implying that if the powers didn't heed King's call for nonviolent accommodation, then they would have to deal with incendiary Malcolm.

Equally fascinating is Mr. Branch 's account of Lyndon Johnson as the accidental president who grappled with the intractable problems of racial conflict at home and the war in Vietnam. Mr. Branch reveals the volcanic Johnson to be a man of such profound insecurity that his press secretary grew desperately afraid that the full extent of his mental instability would become known and defeat him.

Mr. Branch also reveals, in precise detail, the FBI wiretaps of King's private conversations in a way that exposed him to blackmail by a malevolent J. Edgar Hoover. These bugs contain not only ironclad evidence of King's personal moral lapses, but also include a grossly cynical and scatological remark King uttered as he watched, on television, a grieving Jackie Kennedy kneeling with her children beside the coffin of her slain husband.

And while comic relief may be a harsh word, there is a merciless account of the shenanigans of the ragtag entourage that went to Oslo in 1965 for King to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

In the preface to Pillar of Fire, Mr. Branch announces that he plans a third volume, to be titled At Canaan's Edge, thus continuing the metaphor of the biblical Moses. This concluding volume, presumably, will cover the final three years of King's life. And it could prove to be a challenge indeed, inasmuch as the King family has declared confessed assassin James Earl Ray to be an innocent man.

It has always been a bit of an irony that a white man born of a working-class Georgia family would become the defining historian of Martin Luther King's impact on America.