BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Taylor Branch,
author of "Pillar Of Fire: America in the
King Years 1966-65," when did you first
get to be interested in Martin Luther
Mr. TAYLOR BRANCH, AUTHOR, "PILAR OF FIRE": When I was
in high school. As a young fellow growing up in Atlanta,
Georgia, not interested in anything except football and girls,
really, working in my father's dry-cleaning plant. But I saw
the photographs of the dogs and fire hoses in
Birmingham in the spring of '63 when I was a junior in high
school, and I asked my first political question, `How can this
be, and what is it made of?' And it kind of--my parents didn't
have an answer. They were--and it became kind of a
quest to find out about it. I just sensed the enormous
power in that, and it changed the direction of my life's
interests when I wasn't looking for it to happen.
LAMB:How many years of your life have you spent thinking
and writing about these years?
Mr. BRANCH: I started after--I got into a book career in the
late '70s, after magazine journalism. I wanted to write about
this period 'cause I still hadn't answered the question, `What
was it made of?' And I started in 1981 with what was
proposed to be a three-year history of America in the King
years, and it's now been 16 years. And I've done it in two
volumes, and it's now projected to be a trilogy. It
will be a trilogy; I'll finish it. But I'll probably have 20 years in
it. It's definitely turning into my life's work, but I'm--major
work, but I'm thankful for the privilege of writing about
LAMB:The first book, "Parting the Waters," 1,064 pages. This
book, "Pillar Of Fire," 746 pages. What's been your approach?
Mr. BRANCH: Storytelling--to do it in storytelling. One of
the reasons I wanted to do it was that I knew this had an
enormous impact, somewhat like the Civil War and
Reconstruction period a century before. But most of the books
I read seemed to me analytical and argumentative,
reinventing new labels of analysis. And I felt that they
didn't have the power to really describe what happened at the
personal level, which is where I think we really learn about
race across the divisions that we have.
And so I really resolved from some lessons out of my
experience that I wanted to try to keep it at a storytelling
level and follow the stories wherever they went. I just didn't
know that there would be so many of them or that they would
be from such broad context; that I'd be chronicling
King's relationship with Rabbi Abraham Heschel or something
like--you know, these are things that I didn't--had no way of
anticipating. So I just kind of--I followed storytelling, but
it tumbled me off into more worlds than I'd planned on.
LAMB:I may have miscounted, but I counted 27 different FBI
files that you've gotten into in the back that you list. What
value have they been to this book, and how would they be
different if you--how would this book be different if you didn't
get in those files?
Mr. BRANCH: Well, I think they're good primary material, quite
apart from the ethics of whether they should have been done
or not. Invasive wiretaps are pretty basic primary,
biographical material. And there are many more files there,
actually, but these are the ones in which there is basic
primary material. And FBI material gathered at the ground
level tends to be, I think, very reliable, and the people that
have been wiretapped that I've gone to, like Bayard Rustin or
Clarence Jones and shown these conversations, they
say they are. It's--when it gets massaged up through FBI
headquarters and put to political use the
material starts getting distorted.
But there's nothing better than a verbatim wiretap transcript
of somebody's entire telephone life, you know. That's very,
very revealing and primary, often quite--showing quite
the opposite character effect of what the wiretaps are
premised on. The wiretaps will be premised on the fact
that--the suspicion that this person would be talking to Boris,
his Soviet agent, as a spy all the time and, in fact, what you'll
get is somebody talking about going to jail and the freedom
movement and quite--quite noble characters.
LAMB:Where do you go to get the files, and how hard is it to
Mr. BRANCH: It's not hard to get. They're in the FBI reading
room not far from here in the J. Edgar Hoover
Building. They're in the basement of a windowless room
and you have to read them under supervision, and you
can't leave even to go to the bathroom without an escort.
You can't leave the building without taking in a half an hour or
more going one way or another. So after a time I build up
discipline that I plan to go in at 8:30 in the morning and take
no break for lunch or bathroom, just going through the
documents enough--'cause usually there's a lot of boilerplate
in 'em and a lot of valuable stuff and you have to look at a
document just long enough to know whether you want to
copy it or not.
LAMB:And you can copy it?
Mr. BRANCH: You can copy them, yes. But, of course, a lot of
times on the non-wiretap materials, believe it or not, they
have fewer deletions in them than the more political ones that
are trying to make political use of it. And I think that is
material that's redacted and blocked out. Some of them
have--are heavily redacted, generally to disguise the political
use being made of them.
LAMB:Can you ever listen to them if you want to?
Mr. BRANCH: They have none. They have no tapes like that.
Mr. BRANCH: They're gone. They don't exist. Now on
other--sometimes there are police recordings. Ralph
Abernathy's famous doohickey speech that he gave in Selma
was recorded by the Selma police and then fell into law
enforcement's hands, which was actually what they thought
at the time--the people in the civil rights movement thought.
It was the police making all the intrusions, and they saw the
FBI as their friends, which, relatively speaking, they
were--the FBI agents on the ground. So it's a very complex
period. You have the--a hostile political part of the FBI and
a relatively friendly, crime-fighting part of the FBI
co-existing at a time when the movement is under constant
danger, the various scattered movements throughout the
LAMB:"Parting the Waters," your first book, was published in
Mr. BRANCH: Right at the end of 1988.
LAMB:What was the period that you discussed?
Mr. BRANCH: '54 to '63. That is, '54, the year of the Brown
decision, the year that the Supreme Court unanimously said,
in effect, that racial segregation and separation is in conflict
with the American Constitution, kind of renewing the challenge
of the Civil War period about slavery being
in conflict with the premise of equal citizenship. Though that's
'54, I'm going to '68 when that movement, built on
that premise, largely dissolved. And it's the same year Dr. King
LAMB:I have a battered copy of "Parting the Waters." This is
the paperback version. You won a Pulitzer Prize for this. How
many hardback copies did you sell and how many of these
paperbacks up to today?
Mr. BRANCH: Golly Moses, I would have to talk to my publisher
or my--it would only be a rough estimate of roughly 100,000
hardbacks and 200,000 or maybe 300,000 paperbacks, which
is--you know, it's peanuts for Stephen King, but it's a lot for a
big--a big, thick history book based on a subject that makes
some people uncomfortable. But other people--for me, at
least, it's a great leavening transformation to read
about the bravery of these people, the American story.
There are a lot of black heroes and there are a lot of
white heroes, too. It's a cross-cultural drama.
LAMB:Now you credit--I think it's an outfit called Lyndhurst of
Mr. BRANCH: Yes.
LAMB:...and MacArthur of Chicago and the Ford Foundation
as places that have given you money over the years. Is that
Mr. BRANCH: Yes. After "Parting the Waters" came out,
'cause this book has taken nine years. The Ford
Foundation gave me my first and only research grant that I
used to hire somebody for two years to help me transcribe my
interviews. Lyndhurst and the MacArthur Foundation gave me
just kind of sustenance grants because--divided over nine
years--and I have to pay for all my travel to the LBJ Library
and all the scattered places that I have to go to do my
research, it is expensive to--even doing it by myself.
LAMB:Have you made a living off of all this? I mean, is it
possible? Or did you have to do other things?
Mr. BRANCH: At the end of "Parting the Waters," I had to get
two part-time jobs on the side because I didn't have these
grants then and I had no standing or reputation. This time I
didn't have to do much work on the side partly because we've
had a frustrated effort to try to get "Parting the Waters"
made into a film. And every once and awhile Hollywood would
bail me out with some money for an option that ultimately
didn't pan out--you know, to break my heart again trying to
make it a film. But I have managed to, with my wife and I
working, keep our kids in school.
LAMB:What's your wife do?
Mr. BRANCH: She's just taken a job as--for nine years she
was a speechwriter to the mayor of Baltimore, and just in
January, last month, took a job as one of Mrs. Clinton's two
speechwriters. So she moved down here right into the eye of
the new storm and is writing speeches for Mrs. Clinton.
LAMB:And you've had a special relationship with the president
over the years?
Mr. BRANCH: Well, a very special relationship in a sense that
we were roommates and partners in the 1972 presidential
campaign in Texas. We lived together. And he brought his
then-new girlfriend Hillary. And so we had a very close
association then. And then I didn't see him for 20 years, from
'72 to '92, until he was elected president and called and said,
`Congratulations for your Pulitzer in history. I would
love to talk to you about how to preserve historical materials
and what you've noticed from the presidential libraries
you've worked in.' And on that basis we have talked a good
bit while he's been president to renew our acquaintanceship
after a 20-year hiatus.
LAMB:Have you had any discussions with him about his whole
Mr. BRANCH: Absolutely. Yes, I have.
LAMB:What did you recommend to him?
Mr. BRANCH: I think this is a great thing. I personally
think from the work that I've done that our racial
dialogue in America, our discourse is far behind our objective
reality and where we are; that if you study this period and
you see how parochial, how limited, how much violence there
was, how unaccustomed a lot of white people were even to
meeting somebody from a different denomination almost or a
different section of the country, there's--and the--ads in the
newspapers were divided not only by race, but by sex; `Help
wanted, female,' and jobs were--you know, for
women, were secretaries and teachers.
We've lifted up a whole new reality, not to minimize the
severe problems that still are here. But what, to me, is lacking
is our dialogue, is kind of the scarcity of
universal voices talking about what we have in common in
America, speaking across these lines, which is what we had
And, to me, if these people could be confidant and hope
during the civil rights movement facing segregation, and,
really, apartheid in the South and all kinds of narrowness and
violence, we need to restore that sense of dialogue now
because our problems, relatively speaking, I believe, are
much less. And we are--this movement has lifted American
values all around the world and miracles in South Africa
and singing "We Shall Overcome" when the Berlin Wall went
down and forming the model for Tiananmen Square, the
demonstration. We have a lot to be proud of as far as the
way we have lifted up our objective relations, stretched
ourselves to not just be a white Protestant country.
And--but our dialogue lags behind. And I think that's what
needs to be restored. We've got a lot of poison against
our public purpose.
LAMB:Did you ever meet Martin Luther King?
Mr. BRANCH: Never did. Grew up in the same town--that's
what I'm--talking about how unconscious I was of this. I
grew up in Atlanta, the same city he was in. I kind of noticed
it. My father had a lot of black employees at the time at the
dry-cleaning plant. The only time I ever heard it mentioned
was--he had a--one of his favorite employees, he had a
bet on the Atlanta Crackers baseball games every day, and
sometimes my dad would take me to those games in the '50s.
And we would have to separate at Ponce de Leon ballpark in
Atlanta, 'cause Peter had to go sit in the colored section. And
that's the only time I ever--my dad would say, `I don't
But he wouldn't invite comment because it was like--it was
dangerous. There was nothing you could do about it. It was
kind of like ominous clouds, but, you know, you couldn't
do anything about the weather. So I grew up in that
atmosphere, which was quite common in the South. And not
until Birmingham, really, did it break through and occur to me
that there really could be something done about it on the
strength of the courage of these people, many of whom
were--you know, in Birmingham, they were girls and little kids.
They were eight, nine, 10 years old marching to jail and
having the fire hoses turned on them. And that made a
very powerful impression on me. But by the time I got caught
up and interested in it, Dr. King was dead. I went to college
and he was killed before I finished college.
LAMB:Where'd you go to school?
Mr. BRANCH: Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
LAMB:And is your father and mother still alive?
Mr. BRANCH: Yes, they are, still in Atlanta.
LAMB:Still in the business?
Mr. BRANCH: No, he's retired now, but...
LAMB:And his business was what kind of dry cleaning?
Mr. BRANCH: Dry cleaning and laundry; had lots of them all
across Atlanta--carriage cleaners.
LAMB:How about your mom? What'd she do?
Mr. BRANCH: She helped in the--we all helped in the laundry.
It was kind of a family business, and then she later went into
real estate a little bit.
LAMB:And you live now where?
Mr. BRANCH: In Baltimore, Maryland, after living here in
Washington for a number of years.
LAMB:If we saw you in your environment where
you're putting all this together and actually writing it, what
would it look like?
Mr. BRANCH: It's a little cubbyhole in the roost of a turret
of an old Victorian house with files that spread all the
way down through--into the basement--fireproof files that go
all over the place accumulated over these 16 years. But
where I actually write is right up in the top in a turret
that's--would be claustrophobic, except I put in two skylights
that look out and let in a lot of light.
LAMB:How much time do you spend there? How long does
it--you know, do you have any idea how many hours you took
to write 1,600 pages?
Mr. BRANCH: Absolutely none. But my discipline is that if I
don't start at 5:00 in the morning and do what I call `stew'
for a while, then days can get away from me. If I start after I
break to take the kids to school, I have to get going in the
morning and sit for a certain number of hours a day. I can't
start at 5 and go into the evening the way I did when I first
started 'cause I'm getting a little older. I don't have quite the
But I do--I believe in routine because to assimilate this--you
know, this is a period here in '63, '65 for "Pillar Of Fire" where
everything's happening at once. You know, Freedom Summer
and Vietnam and Malcolm X and all these things are happening
at once. And every time I shift--my goal is to allow the reader
to experience that smoothly, to go from one world to another.
And every time I shift, I have to get out a new batch of
research materials and that sort of thing. And so I find that I
really have to maintain a certain discipline to maintain--to keep
up the concentration level.
LAMB:What do you write on?
Mr. BRANCH: Computer. I started out 20 years ago writing on
a legal pad and moved to a typewriter. But to keep these
footnotes--by the way, 'cause several hundred of the--my
books are long. I don't--but several hundred of the pages that
you're talking about in the length of these books, that
includes the notes. And I do--the computer to me is
invaluable not just for editing but for keeping track of the
source notes that I think that it's vital in a subject like this to
provide to readers.
LAMB:What did you do to get the sense of what it all
sounded like? Did you watch any film, listen to any
audio, anything like that?
Mr. BRANCH: I did. A lot of sermons
are preserved. Unfortunately, much of the
broadcast resources are not there and that's sad
because this is--as I said, you know, television footage of
Birmingham awakened me as a kid. It's hard to find that. You
can't go in the library and look up film research from that
period 'cause that--after all, this is before videotape. This is
back with film. And a lot of that stuff has disintegrated and is
Occasionally people would make tapes of mass meetings,
which is a great institution when it was kind of the
engine of the civil rights movement when they have a meeting
in a church and they would--it would be part religious
ceremony, part rally, part information, part--because they
didn't have newspapers of their own. Occasionally there
are tapes of mass meetings, and as I said, some of these
LAMB:Let me--and I'm going to ask you to keep it short if
you can 'cause there's a lot of them. And I just want to get a
flavor of who these people are, but just define who these
folks are. I wrote a whole bunch down. Bob Moses?
Mr. BRANCH: Bob Moses was the leader of the southern voting
rights movement in Mississippi, a gentle philosophical
character, essentially the father of Freedom Summer, very
moral character, ultimately had a breakdown and then has
since in the past 10 years revived to a new career.
Mr. BRANCH: All over the country teaching eighth-graders how
to do first-year algebra, which he says is the dividing line
between whether you have a chance in life or not, much like
the right to vote was in Mississippi in the '60s.
Mr. BRANCH: Firebrand Birmingham preacher who personalized
the duel with Bull Connor to--he was the lieutenant who
invited Dr. King into Birmingham for the climactic showdown in
LAMB:Who was Bull Connor?
Mr. BRANCH: Bull Connor was the police chief and director of
public safety in Birmingham who kind of personified
segregation in Birmingham, the city that was most like
Cape Town in South Africa.
Mr. BRANCH: John Lewis, young man grew up stuttering,
preaching to chickens in rural Alabama, went to college in
Nashville, became a freedom writer on one of the shock
troops and the most devoted of King's followers among the
students and is now a congressman from--he's my mom and
dad's congressman from the 5th District in Atlanta.
Mr. BRANCH: James Bevel, the John the Baptist of the--friend
of John Lewis', out of the Nashville movement with his
wife Diane Nash who was kind of a straw boss of the freedom
rides--became kids in their early 20s who led the freedom
rides, then went on to recommend the use of children when
the Birmingham movement was suffocated. And later in
testament to the children who were bombed in Birmingham in
1963, they really devised as their response to that bombing
what became the Selma voting rights movement to win the
right to vote for minorities across the South.
Mr. BRANCH: Harry Wachtel, Dr. King's lawyer, one of the
early corporate and merger lawyers in New York City whose
conscience stirred him because his company owned some of
the lunch counter places in the South to come and volunteer
his services for Dr. King. And he became the only
white fella with his wife who went on the Nobel Peace Prize
trip and a devoted career--for the rest of his career, kind of
a--one of the lawyers who served Dr. King in the
LAMB:And you write about the Nobel Peace Prize trip and
we'll--hopefully we can talk about it before...
Mr. BRANCH: Yes.
LAMB:...this is over. Stanley Levison.
Mr. BRANCH: Called Harry Wachtel's twin, they were two
Jewish lawyers from New York who served Dr. King. Stanley
much closer and more--and early back into the '50s. Harry
came on--along later. And he really was--because of
allegations about him in 1953, the year of the Rosenberg trial
and that sort of thing, the FBI has evidence or claimed to
have evidence that he was a Soviet agent.
The evidence is still secret almost 50 years later, long after
the sources--and Levison died more than 20 years later. But
10 years later in 1963, the allegations from 1953 that Levison
had been a Soviet agent or a member of the Communist Party
serving the Soviet Union in 1953 became the premise for the
wiretap first on him, and then when they never discovered
any contact with any Soviet contact, then they
wiretapped--advocated wiretaps on Dr. King, on Bayard
Rustin, on other lawyers, on Clarence Jones, on Wachtel.
All of the wiretaps that became the information base for the
persecutions of the civil rights bill were premised on contact
with this one fellow, Stanley Levison. And he's the best case
of what I'm talking about of having his verbatim conversations
refute the premise on which the wiretaps were based. In
other words, it's mostly because of that buttressing the
testimony of his friends that I'm absolutely confident that he
is an unsung patriot of the American experience in the 20th
LAMB:Not a Communist ever?
Mr. BRANCH: Not a Communist.
LAMB:Where is he now?
Mr. BRANCH: He died in the mid-1970s.
Mr. BRANCH: Dr. King's black New York lawyer, in many
respects the model for "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." He
grew up the son of chauffeurs to the Lippincott family and
married the daughter of W.W. Norton in the
Waldorf-Astoria; married a white lady in the 1950s,
was kind of an entertainment lawyer, very, very
successful--and then was converted by an early sermon of
Dr. King and became one of his devote--another of the
devoted lawyers working for him.
He's the one who took the letter from Birmingham jail piece by
piece on toilet paper and written around the margins of
newspapers out of the Birmingham jail when Dr. King was
writing it in solitary, Clarence visiting him as a--you know, as
LAMB:Is that letter, by the way, stowed away somewhere in
Mr. BRANCH: Not that part of it.
LAMB:The Birmingham letter is not?
Mr. BRANCH: No, not that part of it. It doesn't exist as far as
I know. I think it was thrown away.
LAMB:You mentioned earlier Bayard Rustin.
Mr. BRANCH: Yeah.
LAMB:Who was he?
Mr. BRANCH: Bayard Rustin was the great troubadour of the
early movement, grew up--vagabond singing with Leadbelly in
the '30s. He was a member of the Communist Party in the
'30s. He was also gay at a time when that was not even
whispered about and was--but a great student of
non-violence. Traveled all over the world doing non-violence,
a Gandhian--he was an early Gandhian, but he
was--had been a Communist, then became a pacifist and he
was really the architect of the March on Washington. He was
the administrator for it. And it made such an impression on the
world when it happened that, really, his suspect background
was all but forgiven. He became kind of a respectable figure
in media circles toward the end of his career. He's now
Mr. BRANCH: James Forman, executive director of this Student
Non-Violent coordinating committee of which Bob Moses was
the primary operator down in Mississippi. Forman was kind of
the organizer who kept it together, and he now lives here in
Washington. Later on when the students came in
conflict with King, Forman to some degree
personified the student criticisms of Martin Luther King and
other leaders as being preachers preoccupied with leaders and
leadership and meeting presidents and that sort of thing.
LAMB:I could go on, but I want to ask you about some--it
appeared to me as I read through it that you had individuals
vs. other individuals. For instance, Martin Luther King vs.
Ralph Abernathy. Maybe you don't look at it quite that way,
but what was their relationship?
Mr. BRANCH: Very, very close. No secrets from one another.
But there was an undercurrent of jealousy from
Abernathy because he had been with Dr. King all along. He
had an amazing hold over audiences. He was a
very comic and gifted preacher, but he resented Dr. King's
sophistication and he was kind of starved for status, as many
black people were during that period, to the point that he
made incidents and it became a burden for Dr. King to carry.
Even at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, Abernathy refused
to get in the second limousine, according to protocol, when all
of the Nobel officials were lined up there and mortified not
only Dr. King but a lot of the people with him, so there were
conflicts there. This was a classical kind of ego conflict that
Ralph Abernathy wanted to be as sophisticated as Dr. King.
So there's a Don Quixote-Sancho Panza quality there.
LAMB:And when he sat in that chair right before he died and
did this show, they were all angry with him--the...
Mr. BRANCH: Yes.
LAMB:...civil rights movement. Why?
Mr. BRANCH: They were angry because he's was one of
the first people close to Dr. King to acknowledge the fact that
he had had extramarital affairs, which is kind of an object of
denial among many of the people around him. Since
then, there've been lots of others who've acknowledged that.
And, in fact, they--a woman even wrote a book about her
relationship with Dr. King. So the fact that there were
extramarital affairs is no longer as sensitive, but it was
seen--coming from Abernathy, it was seen as a betrayal.
LAMB:Elijah Muhammad vs. Malcolm X.
Mr. BRANCH: Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of
Islam--or, really, the first major head of it--coined all of the
doctrines of white devils and of a sectarian view of Islam and
a very domineering fund-raising sect of true believers of which
Malcolm X was one, until in this period he decided that there
were a number of corruptions within it, as Malcolm was always
remaking himself, studying history, changing, turning himself
inside out. And he decided that it was corrupt, not only
religiously, that it was not the--a true version of Islam,
but financially that it was fleecing its members and violent and
using violence and that Elijah Muhammad was having affairs
and producing children by his secretary. So it's corrupt in
every sense that you find in the Bible.
And so you have a violent struggle of Malcolm knowing that
he's marked for death for trying to reform the Nation of Islam.
And yet at the same time America is awakening only to
interest in him as a figure about the races. So to me, it's
a--it's an astonishing trail to follow. Malcolm being shot at in
city after city and tracked and trying to--desperate ploys to
save himself and yet come out on a stage at a--you know, at
Radcliffe or at a--at a predominantly white college and talk
about race relations with his mind spinning not talking about
that. Most of us, if people were trying to shoot us, that's all
we'd be talking about.
LAMB:Who of all the people you write about are still alive
that you've gotten the closest to?
Mr. BRANCH: Well, I'm--my best friends from
this period are people like Julian Bond, whom I've known since
the '60s and John Lewis. I met Vernon Jordan
back in this period, when he was registering voters
back in the '60s. But the one who made the biggest
impression on me, who's not alive--actually, it's Septima Clark
I dedicated the book to her 'cause she...
Mr. BRANCH: The first book, because she was a--just
an utterly inspirational literacy teacher who invented methods
that I think are still being studied around the world for
teaching adults literacy. And I guess Diane Nash--I just saw
in early February, a few weeks ago in Chicago. And
she was the leader of the Freedom Rides, came down from the
South, a beauty queen from Chicago and an early leader of
the going-to-jail movement that I think basically provided a
lot of the backbone to the early student movement, right on
through the Freedom Rides and being beaten up there, into
jail. She had her first baby in jail almost and then in
Birmingham with the children with her husband Bevel, who
tragically left her. Bevel was one of the rascals in the
movement. He was a genius. He'd have all these ideas, but he
did abuse Diane. And right up to Selma, which was their
idea--on the night before Bevel gave the speech
proposing the Selma-to-Montgomery march into history, this
young--he struck her and their marriage fell apart.
So Diane is both a heroine and an unsung hero, and to some
degree, a victim of the great--this was like going through a
war. There were a lot of damaged people from it. And I'd
say probably she's the one I admire and am closest to
that--who hasn't gotten her due.
LAMB:J. Edgar Hoover vs. Robert F. Kennedy.
Mr. BRANCH: That's a Shakespearean wrestling match. There's
no way of simplifying that. Hoover was a skilled bureaucrat.
He was also, to some degree, a bully in that he would try
to get his way, but he was a gossip. And he--people who
really stood up to him could back him off. Bobby Kennedy
never did. And I think this is a younger, not mature,
Bobby Kennedy who feels heavily the burden of having to
defend his brother, the president, Jack Kennedy, who's--was
vulnerable because he was having affairs with people in the
Mafia and even an East German woman and that sort of thing.
Bobby Kennedy had to have Hoover's help to protect his
brother, and it compromised him in this three- or four-way
dance he's doing to try to protect the Kennedy's political
position in the South and the alliance with Martin
Luther King. It's like riding razors, and ultimately, I believe,
Hoover, without ever saying, `You've got to do this for that.'
They're far too skilled bureaucrats for that. They would say,
`OK, I'll help you over here keep down the scandal against
your brother, but I'm very concerned about Martin Luther
King, and we need this wiretap.' And ultimately, Robert
Kennedy signed that wiretap, knowing that he was
surrendering with it any pretense of controlling J. Edgar
Hoover. So it's a very, very complex political wrestling match.
LAMB:How did they use the wiretaps and what did
they learn through them about Martin Luther King and the rest
of the group?
Mr. BRANCH: They used the wiretaps primarily for advance
notice of King's travel plans. `Hello, I'm flying to Chicago. I'll
be in the such-and-such hotel. I'm flying to New York.'
LAMB:And where did they put those taps?
Mr. BRANCH: They put the taps on his home...
Mr. BRANCH: In Atlanta. They put the taps on his offices,
both in Atlanta and in New York. And Hoover, being a
bureaucrat, included a very clever phrase in there,
`Permission to mount technical surveillance'--that is
wiretaps--`on Dr. King's home office and any home to which
he may move.' And they interpreted that to mean a hotel
room. So anyplace he went, there was blanket authority. Now
they used that advanced knowledge to have agents go in and
implant microphones in the walls of the hotel, for which Bobby
Kennedy didn't give authority. Hoover just assumed he had
that authority and one of the embarrassments of American
law. And they would use that to intercept not just what he
said on the phone, but what he would say when he wasn't on
the phone or in bed or when he's arguing. And they used
the intercepts, essentially, to do anything they could,
either to poison people's opinion of King or to poison politicians
against one another. In other words, he would try to
ingratiate himself with President Johnson if he heard Bobby
Kennedy say something critical of President Johnson via King.
In other words, this was--Hoover's job was basically to
ingratiate himself with Johnson to punish
Bobby Kennedy, whom he didn't like and to punish King
whenever he could.
LAMB:By the way, did you listen to any of the Johnson
Mr. BRANCH: Oh--oh, yes, that's a whole...
LAMB:So you could hear all those.
Mr. BRANCH: You can hear those. The Johnson tapes are
wonderful. They corroborate a lot of what's in the
declassified meetings on Vietnam and in some of the files, but
there's no substitute for actually hearing the
tapes. And I quote from a number of them here.
LAMB:What's the trilogy?
Mr. BRANCH: What's the trilogy?
LAMB:Money, loyalty and sex.
Mr. BRANCH: Money, loyal--that became the shorthand once
Bobby--once Dr. King became aware--as I said, you know, a
lot of the times, they thought the things that were being
done to them--the hostile things being done to them by
police were being done by segregationist police force, but
once they became aware that it was the FBI, they had these
meetings that--and once Dr.--J. Edgar Hoover called him the
most notorious liar in the country and so forth--they had staff
meetings, `What are our vulnerabilities here?' And Dr. King
said, `It's not money.' In fact, when he died, he was
only worth about $20,000 and died intestate. He never
had much money. He gave away what he made. He raised an
enormous amount of money but gave it away, and he said,
`It's not communism. I take people for what they are. I'm far
too spiritual to be a Communist leader. I reject
communism. But I am vulnerable'--there may be a few things
on women. So of the trilogy, he admitted to his--and, of
course, some of his staff actually knew this very well--but he
admitted to Harry Wachtel, for example, it was very painful for
him to admit to some of the aides that were not privy to his
private life that he was vulnerable on this. So of the trilogy,
he admitted only that he was vulnerable to blackmail, which is
what it was, on the issue of having extramarital affairs.
LAMB:But if you add up the women problems of Elijah
Muhammad and John Kennedy and--I don't need to go through
the whole list--it comes that--I mean, there's a lot of it in
Mr. BRANCH: There's an awful lot of it.
LAMB:I mean, how--what impact did relations with
women have on this whole movement during these periods?
Mr. BRANCH: Well, it never became a public issue. In fact,
Malcolm X became--he saw publicity about
Elijah Muhammad's illegitimate children as his hope of
salvation, that it would puncture respect among the zealots
who followed Elijah Muhammad and--to the point of willing to
kill for him, but he couldn't ever get it publicized, partly
because people were afraid of the Muslims and partly because
they were afraid of a libel suit. So it was a private poison
and it was used mostly for blackmail behind the scenes.
It never became public issue. You know, Hoover
would--Hoover's agents offered the material from the King
buggings all around--all over the place, but only under the
condition that the FBI could never be identified as the source.
And in that day and age, nobody wanted to take that leap
into people's private lives without you know, saying,
`Well, I've just learned it,' or, `a birdie told me,' they had to
have a source. Nowadays maybe we'd figure out a way to get
around that, but in those days, it meant that the political
maneuvering around these sex issues was confined to
propaganda--you know, J. Edgar Hoover would send his
agents to a university, `We hear you're thinking of giving
an honorary doctorate to Dr. King. Let us whisper in
your ear.' And they'd spike that and send them to the
Vatican, to the pope, `Don't see Martin Luther King.' So it
was a private kind of a--send them to the Hill--trying
to--reputations behind the scenes.
LAMB:What was the story and at what point was it that
Martin Luther King wanted to come meet with Lyndon Johnson
when he was president and they went through this whole
song and dance with Vice President Humphrey? What was
that all about?
Mr. BRANCH: That was about the Mississippi
Freedom Democratic Party. In the summer
of 1964, there was a challenge delegation out of Mississippi
that was mostly black, essentially saying, `They don't allow
us to vote. We want to vote.' And the Democratic Party in
Mississippi is endorsing the Republican candidate anyway.
They're not loyal Democrats. `We want to be seated.' And
President Johnson--it's an amazing story, and it's been
argued it was the turning point in the movement, whether or
not you seat Fannie Lou Hamer and the sharecroppers,
who were black, as the official Democrats of Mississippi, or
whether you seat the regular Democrats headed by the
governor, who were voting for Barry Goldwater. And
Johnson--it was a terrible--he's kind of like Lincoln in a
way--`Are you for slavery or are you not?' because he's
trying to keep the border states in line. He was terrified that if
he seated the black delegation that the white Democrats from
Kentucky and Tennessee and the other border states would
walk out, and that's what that--he was pretending
that he didn't have anything to do with it, but he was
consumed by no other issue, and putting that together is an
amazing story--or chapter, I think, in our American history,
about the sensitivity of this issue at this time.
LAMB:But when he came up to the White House, he didn't
have a meeting scheduled with Lyndon Johnson and he was
supposed to meet with Hubert Humphrey.
Mr. BRANCH: Right.
LAMB:And what was all that--there was a lot of
Mr. BRANCH: Oh, well, I'm sorry, Brian. You're talking
about-- this is at Selma. This is at Selma in
February 1965. Dr. King came out of jail in Selma and
announced in depression--he came out of jail and his aides
said `You can't just come out of jail. You have to have
a purpose for coming out of jail.' And he said, `I'm tired. I'm
depressed. I've been in jail.' He won the Nobel Prize and he's
still in jail in Selma on the right to vote. And the aides simply
told Dr. King, `You've gotta say you had a purpose. Let's say
that you're coming out of jail to meet with the president.' And
that infuriated Lyndon Johnson, 'cause he said, `Nobody
invites themself here in the middle of a controversy. I'm trying
to run the country.' And so they--but on the other hand, he
didn't want to say, `I won't meet with Martin Luther King,
partly because he shared the goal of getting a voting rights
bill. So what they worked out was kind of an ego salve, where
they said that Dr. King was officially coming up to meet only
with the vice president, but they planned to have the
president spontaneously call over there and say, `Since
you're here, why don't you come over and talk to me?'
So it was a way of dancing around the egos and the
political sensitivities on the race issue in this period.
LAMB:You also told the story about Richard Russell and
Lyndon Johnson and the Warren Commission.
Mr. BRANCH: And the Warren--there were lots of those. No, I
have a--the first photograph there is of President
Johnson with his nose about this far away from Richard
Russell, right after he becomes president, telling him, `I'--you
know, `I love you, Dick Russell.' I don't know the exact
quote. `But you're like a father to me, but I want to give you
warning, I'm going to pass this civil rights bill. You're my
dearest friend, but I will run you down if I have to do it, and I
just wanted to let you know that in advance.'
Then he also tricked him into going on the Warren Commission
within just a few days of that because Russell did not--as the
premiere Southerner, did not want to sit on a Warren--on a
commission headed by Earl Warren, who was the architect of
the Brown decision outlawing segregation in the South. And
Johnson just would not take no for an answer; kinda tricked
him, maneuvered him on there, and then basically said, you
know, `You're my mama, you're my daddy, you're
everything else. You're darn well gonna go on that
commission 'cause I'm gonna make you,' and just pleaded and
cajoled and told him that he was gonna be on there.
LAMB:The suicide package--what was it?
Mr. BRANCH: It was a sample of the intercepted
buggings of Dr. King's private life, together with an extremely
hostile, anonymous note saying, `You are a fraud and
you are evil and we will expose you before the world if
you don't take a certain act within 35 days, in
other words, before--essentially, before he accepted the
Nobel Prize. And it was meant to be that Dr. King was to kill
himself. And it became known as the suicide package because
it was warning him that he was under threat of exposure,
and that's when they really did figure out it was the
FBI, because they could tell that the tapes, which were
garbled, but you could hear--you could hear what was going
on, were in different cities. So they knew that no police
agency would have access to a whole bunch of different
cities. They knew it was the FBI and that it was essentially
your own government telling you to commit suicide, which is...
LAMB:Were the FBI--was the FBI racist?
Mr. BRANCH: Absolutely. Absolutely. In the higher
political regions. I--see, I think there's a very--I have
some FBI characters in here who are heroes, but most people...
LAMB:Like? Give me a...
Mr. BRANCH: Like Joe Sullivan, the man who solved several of
the cases down in St. Augustine, Florida, which is one of
the unsung stories of this period. And then he went over to
Mississippi. He was the model for Inspector Erskine on the
long-running FBI series. He was a no-nonsense cop. And like
most FBI agents, they don't go in there with an ambition to do
political work, which means listening to earphones and
planning propaganda and going around prying into people's
private lives. They go in to solve cases.
So you have a delicious or a painful conflict running in
this era. You have the most spectacular political misuses of
the FBI going on at the same time the FBI is trying to solve
new kinds of crime and confronting the Klan down in the
South at a time when they were almost, at will, committing
these crimes all through this '63-'65 period. So in the same
institution, you have people who are becoming new kinds of
heroes and old kind of corruptions inside the FBI.
LAMB:Tell us more--or give us a kind of a profile on Martin
Luther King. How tall was he? How old was he during this
period? Was he married? Did he have children? Where did he
go to school? All those kind of things.
Mr. BRANCH: He's young. He was killed at 39. He never
reached his 40th birthday. So in this period, '63 to '65, he's 34
to 36 years old, a very, very young man, boyish-looking,
well-educated, had his wife, Coretta, and four children,
the youngest--who were quite young--the youngest born in
'63, born in Birmingham. So Dexter, the youngest, is just an
infant during this period. This is a period when Dr. King is most
political, in the sense that in the earlier period, in parting the
waters, he's getting drawn into other people's movements
because he's an orator, and he would go help out. The bus
boycott wasn't his idea. The Freedom Rides and the sit-ins
certainly weren't his idea. He would get called into these
meetings, but by 1963, where we start here, he's
frightened that the South is hardened against segregation
and that the zeitgeist, the moment in history might
fade without implanting something in history that'll resist that
recession, that retrograde trend. And he takes huge risks.
He says, `I'm gonna have my own movement. I'm gonna risk
everything,' first, in Birmingham, to try to crack segregation,
and then later in Selma, where we end in '65, after the long
year of '64, where he's lobbying and submitting to jail in St.
Augustine to try to keep pressure on, to pass the '64 Civil
Then he goes straight from there to Selma to take another
huge risk for the right to vote, which is a different--so here
you see not just the spiritual or prophetic side of King as a
spokesman for--this is a test of American values--but a very
consciously political King, trying to maneuver with
the president and maneuver between the parties, use
the media, use the press, and deal with a divided
movement, his rivals and allies, like Roy Wilkins with
the NAACP and elsewhere. So this is King at the
zenith of the movement's political impact on America, when
the race issue really has the country--you know, the
country's full attention.
LAMB:How bad was his womanizing?
Mr. BRANCH: I don't know for 100 percent sure. He had a
number of long-term affairs, people very, very loyal to him,
who over a period of years, on the road. And I
LAMB:During this time period?
Mr. BRANCH: During this time period.
LAMB:Do the names come into this...
Mr. BRANCH: Not here. It gets more personal later on
and I'm still--I've talked to a number of those people and, of
course, my main question is how did he reconcile this with his
career? He wrestled with it. He preached about it in
general, that evil is something very close to you
and you can't overcome it by trying to stamp it out, by trying
to repress it. You overcome it by dedicating it--yourself to
something higher. He was constantly using the analogy of
Ulysses and the Sirens on Scylla and Charybdis, that it
didn't work to stuff wax in your ears to try to repress evil;
you had to sing a sweeter music and then you could go--so
there was a part of him that was always reproaching himself
for being able to give up women, especially once he knew
that it could hurt the movement, that blackmail could
really severely damage people who really believed in him, that
would be disillusioned. And in many respects, his
sermons sound like he's almost punishing himself to do
penance by taking greater risks.
So I think--I have never tried to argue that there's no
relationship between one's private life and one's public life,
but I think it's really--it's very, very complicated exactly what
that relationship is, and in many respects, there are a lot
of signs that he used his private failings and regarded them as
such to drive his public mission.
LAMB:How did he get a Nobel Peace Prize?
Mr. BRANCH: He got a Nobel Peace Prize in 1964,
largely on the strength of world recognition for the huge
breakthrough in Birmingham that spread the demonstrations
across the country, on--after the children, what
changed me--and got the civil rights bill introduced by
President Kennedy. Then he had the `I Have a Dream’ speech
and had the political skill working with President Johnson to
get it passed in '64, and the Nobel Prize was essentially in
recognition for that--that series of events that really changed
American politics forever, as for what the legal standard was
gonna be for equal citizenship in America.
LAMB:What happened on the trip to get it?
Mr. BRANCH: Oh, more bugs, more--lots of misbehavior, this
time not by Dr. King because Coretta was with him, if
for no other reason, but there was just a lot of ego jockeying
and wild partying and chasing women around through rooms
that made for much merriment inside the FBI.
LAMB:Was the public aware of it then?
Mr. BRANCH: No, the public was never aware of it.
LAMB:Are you the first one to write about this?
Mr. BRANCH: No, other people have written about various
parts of it. I am the first person, I think, to write about the--I
think, the distressing personal ego
conflict with Ralph Abernathy to the degree that it
was. And Andy Young told me that he thought that
the estrangement with Abernathy was over money--he wanted
half the money from the Nobel Peace Prize, `if we're partners,'
and all this, and it really kind of choked the
relationship--Andy said that he thought that this was more
painful to Dr. King than anything J. Edgar Hoover might do to
him. So there's a lot of internal cost to this thing; somebody
running a lonely movement, coming up out of a time
when black people themselves considered themselves
damaged. Their humor was a lot of jokes at the expense of
other preachers. There was a lot of damaged psyche in here
and they would recognize that, and yet they'd still have to try
to take responsibility for being leaders to America about what
America's own values were. It was a very complex period.
LAMB:There's a picture in the book of that entire group that
went over there...
Mr. BRANCH: Yes.
Mr. BRANCH: You'll see Harry Wachtel and his wife at the back
and the rest of the--I mean, a lot of them are there
that are familiar faces.
LAMB:And then when they came back after that event over
there, there was a dinner that they tried to get together in
Atlanta. What happened?
Mr. BRANCH: Very controversial in Atlanta, because Atlanta's
got its first Nobel Prize-winner, but it's still, if not completely
segregated, largely segregated, and the business
communities and the political communities didn't
have much to do with one another. And the mayor of
Atlanta and Ralph McGill, the publisher of the Atlanta
Constitution, wanted to have a dinner honoring--and some
religious figures, the rabbi and the archbishop
wanted to have a dinner honoring Dr. King. But official
Atlanta, what I grew up in--I once wrote that
Atlanta's the only place where the leadership figures
were--called themselves openly `the power structure'--they
had a hard time embracing this, and there was tremendous
conflict 'cause a lot of people didn't want to honor him, Nobel
Prize or not, because he was black. And it finally erupted into
publicity in The New York Times and shamed Atlanta into
having this dinner, right when Dr. King is going to Selma. He
comes back from the Nobel Prize saying, `This is a great--the
highest international award for peace, but I've got to go to
Selma,' and within--`I've got to go back to the valley.'
There was a tremendous drive from Dr. King to go downward
and, of course, that's--you know, not to rest on his laurels.
And I think, to some degree, that was the guilt that he had.
And lots of people wanted him to go to honorary dinners and
bask in the Nobel Prize and never do anything else. But within
three weeks, he said, `I've got to go back to the valley.' He's
in jail in Selma, and he went back down to seek the right to
vote. So this strong drive in him really dominates the
latter part of his life, where I'm going from here in
the third volume, which ultimately ends up, of course, you
know, he was assassinated in the campaign among
garbage workers in Memphis.
LAMB:In the end, by the way, how did Malcolm X die? What
was the scene?
Mr. BRANCH: Malcolm X died simultaneously with the dropping
out of Bob Moses. In February '65, the beginning of the
American ground troops in Vietnam and this Selma
breakthrough, Malcolm X is shot down by members of Elijah
Muhammad's temple in Newark. It's an embarrassment to me
and the American legal system that two men who had
absolutely nothing to do with it served over 20 years. They
were convicted elsewhere. Only one of the actual killers
served time; four never--they've been identified but never
tried, and two people who were pretty clearly not there and I
think the legal system knew were not there were
served--were convicted and served time anyway.
LAMB:How'd all that happen?
Mr. BRANCH: It's hard to call back up how
marginal the Muslims were in this period. They were, like,
unspeakable, almost, and I think basically, the legal system
just wanted to get somebody in jail and be done with it. And
then, when evidence surfaced that these people didn't have
anything to do with it, nobody wanted to reopen the whole
can of worms. There was all this surveillance evidence. There
was evidence that the police and the FBI knew Malcolm
was being tracked and tried to be killed, and they didn't want
any of that to come out. So, basically, they didn't want to
open it up at all.
LAMB:What's new in the book that's never been written
Mr. BRANCH: I think most of the stuff about Malcolm's three
years--last three years--is new. That's why there's more of
that in the book than I thought. That, plus the fact that I
think Malcolm's later--Islam in America is now very large, and
it comes out of Malcolm's reform and it's occurred while
most of us are preoccupied with Louis Farrakhan, who
represents about 1 out of every 200 African-American Muslims
in this country. Most of them are legitimate
Muslims, Sunni Muslims. So that--all of Malcolm's X last three
years are not really covered in the autobiography. The ins and
outs of what he's really trying to do, trying to stay
alive--what the FBI knew, what Louis Farrakhan knew,
the plots against him.
LAMB:How old was he when he was killed?
Mr. BRANCH: He was killed at 39, just like Dr. King. They were
both killed at 39. Neither one of 'em lived to reach their 40th
LAMB:How many copies of his autobiography sold?
Mr. BRANCH: Oh, it's been translated into 20 languages. I
think 15 million. I mean, his autobiography really created
Malcolm X. I put him in here because of--he's an
extraordinary figure and he had cultural impact, but he didn't
have that much historic impact. First of all, he's a fugitive.
He's out of the country for a lot of this period. We read a lot
backwards into it that's not--he was not that big a figure.
Lyndon Johnson couldn't even pronounce his name, called him
`Muslim X'; didn't know who he was. The autobiography that
came out nine months after he was killed, toward the end of
1965, really raised his profile dramatically. And then the next
year, when black power was pronounced and he was--as a
new doctrine--and he was kind of adopted as the
patron saint of black power, he became more significant in
death than he was in life as a political influence.
LAMB:How old are you now?
Mr. BRANCH: I'm 51.
LAMB:When is the next book due out? This is 1998.
Mr. BRANCH: Well, I hesitate to make predictions, because so
many of them have been wrong, but I don't think this one
will take nine years. I think it'll take three or four more years
to get the third volume of the trilogy, which is called, "At
Canaan's Edge." It kinda completes my three titles based out
of the book of Exodus," Parting the Waters," this one, "Pillar
Of Fire" and then "At Canaan's Edge," you know, evoking
Moses, trying to--getting up to look over into Canaan, but
he's not allowed to go. Kind of like--in that period,
American history got to look over into a new land of
freedom and was lifted up, I think, but you never quite get
LAMB:In all this time that you've been doing this, what
has been your biggest reward, besides the sale of the book?
Mr. BRANCH: Meeting the people and the
continuing exposure to people who stretch themselves and
are rewarded by what--finding that this kind of freedom
movement across these lines is really at the bottom of
what our--all people are created equal and a lot of our
religious doctrines, and just the continuing--the endless
mining of treasured people and ideas and new subjects, like
Rabbi Heschel, you know, in this--who's in this volume. I
never would have known that Dr. King would have such a
close association with a Hassidic Orthodox rabbi
from Warsaw, and yet, to track it, I then
have to try to know more about Heschel, who I think is one of
the great figures of the 20th century in his own right, and
then more about Judaism, so you're hurled backwards. It's just
a continuing, to me--and the same on Malcolm X--a
continuing opening of new doors of education from
the freedom movement period.
LAMB:In the end, who's your favorite civil rights leader?
Mr. BRANCH: Dr. King.
LAMB:And what do you think of him?
Mr. BRANCH: I admire him more now than I did when I started,
and what I started with is--and I knew he was part of this
movement that had affected me and I kind of admired him,
but I thought maybe he was just a Baptist preacher who got
carried away with turning the other cheek.
LAMB:Who disappoints you after you get to know them more?
Mr. BRANCH: In this story? Most of us--people in Congress,
Barry Goldwater's Republican Party, which turned from the
party of Lincoln into the party of the white South on a dime in
one year, in 1964. And I hope that that doesn't stay, 'cause I
know all kind of Republicans who'd like to get the party of
Lincoln back; Southern sheriffs and politicians.
Mr. BRANCH: Oh, gosh, J.B. Stoner. Yes. Well, if you're talking
about somebody who makes religion into an
instrument of hatred like J.B. Stoner, there are plenty of
those--they're up near the top of the list.
LAMB:Here is the book, second in a three-volume series by
Taylor Branch, this one called "Pillar Of Fire: America in the
King Years 1963-1965." We thank you.
Mr. BRANCH: Thank you, Brian.
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