Sunday, March 9, 2008

You. Are. There.


Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65
by Taylor Branch

Those of you who know me know that my favorite period of American history is the Civil Rights Movement. I never tire of reading about that era and the courageous people who brought such necessary and long overdue change to our nation within a relatively short period of time. It is appalling how ingrained racism was on the part of white people, and the lengths to which some people would go to maintain Jim Crow laws and customs. What really blows my mind is that the segregated world is so foreign to me (thank God), but that from a historical perspective it was not that long ago. Forty years - practically last week.

I have a substantial collection of civil rights related books, but Taylor Branch's are among the best. The first of this civil rights trilogy, Parting the Waters, won a Pulitzer prize. Pillar of Fire is the second, and At Canaan's Edge is the third. I read Parting the Waters (1954-63) about a year ago, and plan to read the third one in the not too distant future. If you enjoy reading history, this is great stuff. Branch's writing is not especially lyrical or poetic, but that's not its job. The job of this writing is to convey an important part of our nation's story with a sense of immediacy. Taylor succeeds admirably. Every single sentence is packed with information - his detail work is incredible. You really feel as if you are there, living the fear and the cruelty and the hopeful moments all over again. Given the emotional subject, this makes for intense reading.

These books are not straight biography of Martin Luther King Jr., although he is obviously a central figure. Rather, they are the biography of the Movement as a whole as it related to the United States government and to the country's wider population. Branch paints vivid portraits of many of the Civil Rights Movement people, including well known names as well as unknown people who found themselves swept up in the tide of justice and freedom. These lesser known characters are part of what makes the book so interesting - the bravery that ordinary people found within themselves is astounding. Many of these previously unknown participants were uneducated and became involved in the Movement with very little self-confidence. Nevertheless, they found their voices when the situation called them to, and Taylor honors their sacrifices and courage with his writing.

Pillar of Fire gives us a window into the political processes that both helped and hurt the cause of civil rights. We see multi-faceted portraits of John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and the infamous J. Edgar Hoover, among others. This volume also provides insight into the infighting of the Nation of Islam that led to the assassination of Malcolm X. Endlessly fascinating stuff.

One theme that emerges from the whole saga of Civil Rights is the devastation caused by ignorance. I like to hope that I would not have been a segregationist, even if I had grown up in Itta Bena, Mississippi in the 1950s. I like to hope that. The truth is, though, that I do not know who I would be if I had not had opportunities for education and travel and widely varied cultural experiences that I have had in my life. Without excusing any of the atrocities committed by white people in that turbulent time, I have to think that a great many of them simply did not know any better. They had lived a certain way (albeit an unjust way) for so long that it was difficult for them to question it, or to see the absurdities of sending American soldiers to fight for democracy in far flung corners of the world while at the same time denying it to some of our hardest working citizens.

It is easy to have wisdom when looking back four decades, but Taylor's books remind us of the necessity to continue raising questions and seeking justice, regardless of the time and place in which we live. He does credit to many, many people who fought a nonviolent war on terror and prevailed.

Reverent Reader

5 Comments:

At 3/10/08, 5:37 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looking forward to reading this...I loved Parting the Waters. They are a commitment but well worth it!

Erin

 
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