Pillar of Fire is the second volume of Taylor Branch's magisterial three-volume history of America during the life of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Branch's thesis, as he explains in the introduction, is that "King's life is the best and most important metaphor for American history in the watershed postwar years," but this is not just a biography. Instead it is a work of history, with King at its focal point. The tumultuous years that Branch covers saw the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the beginnings of American disillusionment with the war in Vietnam, and, of course, the civil rights movement that King led, a movement that transformed America as the nation finally tried to live up to the ideals on which it was founded.
Timeline of a Trilogy
Taylor Branch's America in the King Years series is both a biography of Martin Luther King and a history of his age. No timeline can do justice to its wide cast of characters and its intricate web of incident, but here are some of the highlights, which might be useful as a scorecard to the trilogy's nearly 3,000 pages.
King The King Years Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 May: At age 25, King gives his first sermon as pastor-designate of Montgomery's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. 1954 May: French surrender to Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu. Unanimous Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board outlaws segregated public education. December: Rosa Parks is arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a public bus, leading to the Montgomery bus boycott, which King is drafted to lead. 1955 October: King spends his first night in jail, following his participation in an Atlanta sit-in. 1960 February: Four students attempting to integrate a Greensboro, North Carolina, lunch counter spark a national sit-in movement.
April: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee is founded.
November: Election of President John F. Kennedy May: The Freedom Rides begin, drawing violent responses as they challenge segregation throughout the South. King supports the riders during an overnight siege in Montgomery. 1961 July: SNCC worker Bob Moses arrives for his first summer of voter registration in rural Mississippi.
August: East German soldiers seal off West Berlin behind the Berlin Wall. March: J. Edgar Hoover authorizes the bugging of Stanley Levinson, King's closest white advisor. 1962 September: James Meredith integrates the University of Mississippi under massive federal protection. April: King, imprisoned for demonstrating in Birmingham, writes the "Letter from Birmingham Jail."
May: Images of police violence against marching children in Birmingham rivet the country.
August: King delivers his "I Have a Dream" speech before hundreds of thousands at the March on Washington.
September: The Ku Klux Klan bombing of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church kills four young girls. 1963 June: Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers assassinated.
November: President Kennedy assassinated. Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65 November: Lyndon Johnson, in his first speech before Congress as president, promises to push through Kennedy's proposed civil rights bill. March: King meets Malcolm X for the only time during Senate filibuster of civil rights legislation.
June: King joins St. Augustine, Florida, movement after months of protests and Klan violence.
October: King awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and campaigns for Johnson's reelection.
November: Hoover calls King "the most notorious liar in the country" and the FBI sends King an anonymous "suicide package" containing scandalous surveillance tapes. 1964 January: Johnson announces his "War on Poverty."
March: Malcolm X leaves the Nation of Islam following conflict with its leader, Elijah Muhammad.
June: Hundreds of volunteers arrive in the South for SNCC's Freedom Summer, three of whom are soon murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
July: Johnson signs Civil Rights Act outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
August: Congress passes Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorizing military force in Vietnam. Democratic National Convention rebuffs the request by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to be seated in favor of all-white state delegation.
November: Johnson wins a landslide reelection. January: King's first visit to Selma, Alabama, where mass meetings and demonstrations will build through the winter. 1965 February: Malcolm X speaks in Selma in support of movement, three weeks before his assassination in New York by Nation of Islam members. At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68 March: Voting rights movement in Selma peaks with "Bloody Sunday" police attacks and, two weeks later, a successful march of thousands to Montgomery.
August: King rebuffed by Los Angeles officials when he attempts to advocate reforms after the Watts riots. March: First U.S. combat troops arrive in South Vietnam. Johnson's "We Shall Overcome" speech makes his most direct embrace of the civil rights movement.
May: Vietnam "teach-in" protest in Berkeley attracts 30,000.
June: Influential federal Moynihan Report describes the "pathologies" of black family structure.
August: Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act. Five days later, the Watts riots begin in Los Angeles.
January: King moves his family into a Chicago slum apartment to mark his first sustained movement in a Northern city.
June: King and Stokely Carmichael continue James Meredith's March Against Fear after Meredith is shot and wounded. Carmichael gives his first "black power" speech.
July: King's marches for fair housing in Chicago face bombs, bricks, and "white power" shouts. 1966 February: Operation Rolling Thunder, massive U.S. bombing of North Vietnam, begins.
May: Stokely Carmichael wins the presidency of SNCC and quickly turns the organization away from nonviolence.
October: National Organization for Women founded, modeled after black civil rights groups. April: King's speech against the Vietnam War at New York's Riverside Church raises a storm of criticism
December: King announces plans for major campaign against poverty in Washington, D.C., for 1968. 1967 May: Huey Newton leads Black Panthers in armed demonstration in California state assembly.
June: Johnson nominates former NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court.
July: Riots in Newark and Detroit.
October: Massive mobilization against the Vietnam War in Washington, D.C. March: King joins strike of Memphis sanitation workers.
April: King gives his "Mountaintop" speech in Memphis. A day later, he is assassinated at the Lorraine Motel. 1968 January: In Tet Offensive, Communist guerillas stage a surprise coordinated attack across South Vietnam.
March: Johnson cites divisions in the country over the war for his decision not to seek reelection in 1968.