City Lit: They Were Kings

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Gossip writ large isn’t quite history, but it doesn’t hurt the sale of a history book.

Much of the talk about Taylor Branch’s Pillar of Fire, the middle passage in his astounding three-part history of the civil rights movement, focused on one salacious scrap of overheard conversation, if you could call it conversation. In 1964, one of J. Edgar Hoover’s bugs picked up Martin Luther King Jr.’s voice, above the purported sounds of extramarital sex, shouting: “I’m not a Negro tonight!”

Considering the incessant hand-wringing over the Clinton Affairs, it is remarkable that the revelations about an American saint had such a relatively short shelf life. Thirty-five years ago, the tapes would have derailed the Civil Rights Act and ensured that MLK’s name would never appear on the January page of calendars nationwide. But news of his sex life has done very little damage to his posthumous reputation.

There is a good reason for this. Bill Clinton had extramarital sex. Martin Luther King had extramarital sex and enough courage to challenge the moral and political temper of his times.

Branch is the most consistently valuable historian working today because of his refusal to peddle anecdotes or merely chronicle the acquisition of power for power’s sake. He rejects the ersatz theory of the Great Flaw–so, mercifully, there are none of the usual obligatory attempts to interview mistresses and bathroom attendants to discern the subject’s innermost character through his utterances in bed or enthroned. In fact, this book–like its predecessor nine years ago, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Parting the Waters–doesn’t seem much concerned with King as a protagonist at all.

Branch is more interested in telling the tale of overlooked people than in humanizing King. He takes a magnifying glass to history’s television set and examines the small, colorful dots one by one.

And that means slowing history into its component days. It is hard to imagine that inspecting any year in the 1990s at such a microscopic level would yield anything of comparable worth, but in the three years he describes–1963 through 1965–the world overturned itself in months, days, minutes. There are chapters on the assassination of JFK and the ascension of LBJ; the rise of the Nation of Islam; the excommunication and murder of Malcolm X; the FBI’s covert campaign against King; the murders of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney in Mississippi; the passage of the Civil Rights Bill; and the destructive war between integrationists and black nationalists.

These sections could have read like the Greatest Hits of the 1960s, except for Branch’s brilliance in showing small people as they steel themselves for great events.

In Pillar of Fire the most compelling stories reveal a delightful spark of human perversity in the face of bad odds. Take the tale of two mismatched friends from McComb, Mississippi, Clyde Kennard and Vernon Dahmer.

Kennard, an erudite University of Chicago student forced to come back home to work his family farm, made the mistake of trying to register at a nearby white college. Enraged, the local authorities arrested him and threw him into prison on trumped-up charges of stealing chicken feed. When Kennard became sick with colon cancer in jail–eventually it killed him–Dahmer, a stubborn fellow farmer, began tending to his friend’s chickens and his civil rights causes.

The offhandedly fearless Dahmer became a legend among the volunteers; he allowed them to sleep safely under his eaves–as long as they did their share of fieldwork. Writes Branch: “Dahmer pounded a meaty fist on two walls of his bedroom to jolt awake sons and SNCC workers on the other side. ‘Let’s go bulls!’ he hollered. They all tumbled out into the fields, and over breakfast several hours later Dahmer pressed [voter registration workers] for the results on the previous day’s canvassing–what area are you working, anybody ready to go down to the courthouse, how about the churches, any luck talking with the Negroes who come to the general store?”

In early 1965, Klansmen surrounded Dahmer’s house, poured gallons of gasoline through the windows and dropped their matches. Dahmer picked up his shotgun, herded his family to safety and began firing at the departing hooded figures. He saved everyone but himself.

Lying charred on his deathbed, Dahmer dismissed his own courage as if it were a bad business decision: “[H]e had always said that it was unwise to be too far out front,” Branch writes.

The difference between King’s times and our own is this: Our leaders survive by obeying the rule that Dahmer died breaking.

City Limits editor Glenn Thrush is a former reporter for the Birmingham Post-Herald.

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