Taylor Branch
Taylor Branch
Pillar of Fire:  America in the King Years 1963-65
ISBN: 1416558705
Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65
In Pillar of Fire, the second volume of his America in the King Years trilogy, Taylor Branch portrays the civil rights era at its zenith. The first volume, Parting the Waters, won the Pulitzer Prize for History. It is a monumental chronicle of a movement that stirred from Southern black churches to challenge the national conscience during the Eisenhower and Kennedy years. In this masterly continuation of the narrative, Branch recounts the climactic struggles as they commanded the national and international stage.

Pillar of Fire covers the far-flung upheavals of the years 1963 to 1965—Dallas, St. Augustine, Mississippi Freedom Summer, LBJ's Great Society and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Vietnam, Selma. And it provides a frank, revealing portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr.—haunted by blackmail, factionalism, and hatred while he tried to hold the nonviolent movement together as a dramatic force in history. Allies, rivals, and opponents addressed racial issues that went deeper than fair treatment at bus stops or lunch counters. Participants on all sides stretched themselves and their country to the breaking point over the meaning of simple words: dignity, equal votes, equal souls.
—from the publisher's website

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TRANSCRIPT
Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65
Program Air Date: April 12, 1998

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 King?
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 this period.
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 get them?
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.
LAMB:They're gone?
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 South.
LAMB:"Parting the Waters," your first book, was published in what year?
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 was killed.
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 Chattanooga...
Mr. BRANCH: Yes.
LAMB:...and MacArthur of Chicago and the Ford Foundation as places that have given you money over the years. Is that right?
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 race initiative?
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 here.

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 like this.'

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 same stamina.

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 gone.

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 surveillance tapes.
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.
LAMB:Where?
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.
LAMB:Fred Shuttlesworth.
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 '63.
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.
LAMB:John Lewis.
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.
LAMB:James Bevel.
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.
LAMB:Harry Wachtel.
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 movement.
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 century.
LAMB:Not a Communist ever?
Mr. BRANCH: Not a Communist.
LAMB:Where is he now?
Mr. BRANCH: He died in the mid-1970s.
LAMB:Clarence Jones.
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 a lawyer.
LAMB:Is that letter, by the way, stowed away somewhere in an archive?
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 dead.
LAMB:James Forman.
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...
LAMB:First book.
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...
LAMB:Where? Atlanta?
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 tapes?
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 your book.
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 maneuvering around.
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 Rights Act.

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 know...
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.
LAMB:...to Norway.
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 before--what areas?
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 birthday.
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 there.
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.
LAMB:J.B. Stoner?
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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