Pillar of Fire
This is the second of three books by Taylor Branch that tells the story of US history through the biography of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement at large. Covering the years 1963-65, and published 12 years or so later, Taylor Branch spends the first quarter of this history doing two things. One, Branch has to go back and recast 1963 in a few ways. For one, we need to remember about the complicated and uncomfortable relationship between King and the Kennedy administration. This is important because when Kennedy is assassinated, and Johnson becomes president, we need to know exactly where King and Johnson stand, as we move toward the next few years. Two, Branch brings us up to speed on the rise of Black nationalism, and specifically the Nation of Islam. While Malcolm X’s autobiography is well-known territory, it has gaps and limits. Its limits include what Malcolm X didn’t know, whether it came out after his death or was about his death. And gaps, because Malcolm X is a person telling his own story, and that’s not the only story or the only way to tell that story. It’s also important that we understand who Malcolm X is, what relationship he has to the nation, and how well-known he was, so that we he makes his “Chickens Coming Home to Roost” speech, it’s not just about what reactions this elicited, but the scope of that speech etc.
From here, we spend a lot of time on the following few topics: the FBI’s cointelpro surveillance of King, their attempts to destroy him politically, or worse to try to get him to kill himself; the passage of the Voting Rights Bill; and voter registration drives in Selma and surroundings.
For reasons that are not really Branch’s fault, this book feels less hefty than the first one, mostly because he doesn’t tell the history of the previous 150 years to start us off, but once it gets going, it gets going.
At Canaan’s Edge
This is not really a full review of this book because unfortunately I only have an abridged audiobook version. The full version is likely as satisfying, detailed, and gripping as the previous two books, one presumes, but alas. This abridged version is still very good. Instead of the split narration of Prentice Onayemi and Janina Edwards, we get a singular narration by Joe Morton. If you’ve ever listened to an audiobook by Joe Morton, well, you know what you’re in for, a solid and impressive narration of course. I do miss the other voices.
This book covers two major things extensively, while covering other events in more abridged versions: the Selma march and the death of King. That speaks to how they structured this concise version, and of course speaks to how we tend to think of King and his legacy, in abridgments. That’s I guess a kind of irony of this shortened version, that King’s legacy is so abridged to suit very specific purposes, some perfectly sound and noble, and others nefarious (such as scolding Black people every year and of course lying about King’s ideas — especially lying that he supported colorblind policies and hugs and bullshit like that). But Branch’s books have been a real testament to capturing a full reckoning of King’s life and work, and what this also means is denying a teleological structure to his work. We all know John Lewis and his later life, in which the radical activist youth had to find some kind of balance within a system to enact change because the work is always different. There’s a tendency to suggest by mainstream sources that King’s work is complete, which is either a lie (often a lie) or a misreading or a too hopeful or too cynical look at what he did.