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Race in the United States During the "King Years."

Historian Taylor Branch. He won the Pulitzer Prize for the first book of his planned trilogy of the Civil Rights movement: "Parting the Waters: America In the King Years 1954-63" (now in paper, Simon & Schuster) His new book "Pillars of Fire: America In the King Years 1963-65" (Simon & Schuster) begins where the other book ended, and covers what he considers the peak years in the movement. At the center of the book are Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Robert Kennedy, LBJ, and J. Edgar Hoover.



Date: JANUARY 19, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 011901np.217
Head: Pillar of Fire
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

On this Martin Luther King Day, we have an interview with Taylor Branch about America in the King years. Branch won a Pulitzer Prize for his book "Parting the Waters" about King and the civil rights movement from 1954 to '63.

Branch has just published the second book is his projected trilogy. It's called "Pillar of Fire," and it covers what he describes as the movement's peak years, 1963 to '65. Although King is at the heart of the book, it is not strictly speaking a biography. At the center of the book are King, Malcolm X, Robert Kennedy, LBJ, J. Edgar Hoover, and other less well-known leaders and opponents of the movement.

I asked Branch first for an overview of the movement in the years covered by his new book.

TAYLOR BRANCH, HISTORIAN AND AUTHOR, "PILLARS OF FIRE: AMERICA IN THE KING YEARS 1963-65": Well, I think the overview is that these two -- two, three years, '63 through '65, are when the civil rights movements and the ideas and the discipline that it had embodied kind of had the national agenda.

Or another way of putting it is that it seized the country by the throat, because issues of race and freedom, as posed by the civil rights movement, became the national political agenda and began to draw in movements far collateral from the Southern quest for integration of the races against segregation. And it drew in everything from eventually what became the women's movement, the anti-war movement, the voting rights movement, and all -- the entire national power arrangements were reconfigured during these crucial years.

So, as contrasted with the slow rise of the civil rights movement in the '50s into the early 1960s out of the black churches in the South, this is a period when it's really kind of at its zenith.

GROSS: Your first chapter isn't about Martin Luther King. It's about the Nation of Islam. Tell me why you wanted to start there.

BRANCH: Well, the first chapter in Parting the Waters wasn't about Martin Luther King either. It was about Vernon Johns (ph), who was an obscure preacher that nobody knew about. And that served the purpose of a storytelling way of talking about the black church, which is what the early movement grew out of.

Similarly this time, starting in the Nation of Islam in Los Angeles, I wanted -- it's a pretty kinetic, gripping story of conflict with the police. And I wanted to introduce the Nation and introduce the fact that this is not going to be a story just about Southern church-goers in the South; that the race issue in this era is national; that it is sometimes surprising, sometimes violent and full of conflict.

GROSS: And Martin Luther King enters the picture with the Birmingham campaign. And you say that this campaign and civil disobedience came about because of President Kennedy's refusal to issue an executive order abolishing at least part of segregation. What was the connection?

BRANCH: Well, all through this period, at the heart of the movement where Dr. King operated, people are constantly -- because of the suffering they incurred -- looking for an easy way out or hoping for an easy way out. And they were -- one consistent hope was by analogy to the Emancipation Proclamation of 100 years earlier, when Lincoln freed the slaves during the Civil War, that President Kennedy by a similar proclamation could end or pronounce that the national government was against the legal segregation practices that were still in force in the Southern states.

And there was a lot of behind-the-scenes maneuvering to try to tempt, lure, pressure, cajole the Kennedy administration into doing something like that, right up to the moment of the anniversary on January 1, 1963, and the Kennedy administration decided not to do it.

And it was partly out of frustration over that, or the final passing of that deadline, that Dr. King decided to make an overt gamble to plan a major campaign in Birmingham, kind of what they called a "do or die" struggle against segregation in its bastion; as opposed to what he had done before, which was mostly to be drawn into controversies or crises that were planned on somebody else's schedule and he'd go into try to help.

GROSS: Why Birmingham?

BRANCH: Well, I think he picked Birmingham as -- they called it the "Pretoria of the South." It was an iron and steel town in Alabama that was -- had many -- for many decades competed with Atlanta as the premier city in the South. And it was a tough town. It was very segregated and it had in its police commissioner Bull Connor a kind of a symbol of opposition to integration, a symbol of segregation.

And so they wanted to in effect take on the toughest target and say if we can crack segregation here, we can crack it anywhere. Of course, the flip side of that is that it was the most daunting and fearful target and many people believed that they were quixotic in the extreme to the point of suicidal to try to challenge segregation in its stronghold there in Birmingham.

GROSS: There were teenagers and children on the frontlines of civil disobedience in Birmingham. How did they get there?

BRANCH: They got there essentially by progressing down the age chain as the movement in Birmingham sent many, many people to jail and tried to marshal the conscience of the country and failed. And after I would say about six weeks of campaign there, when several thousand people had gone to jail and Dr. King had written his letter, famous letter from Birmingham jail, there was almost no national response.

And the movement, facing surrender, and they were actually preparing for surrender to focus on voter registration instead of these challenges to downtown segregation, they decided out of desperation and, you know, amidst ferocious debate, to lower the age that they would accept demonstrators, down through junior high and even into elementary school.

So that when the real breakthrough occurred in Birmingham in early May, 1963, they had children going to jail and being hauled off to jail, and firehosed, as young as six and seven and eight years old in huge numbers.

GROSS: And you say that the reason why the children were firehosed and the dogs were -- police dogs were turned on them was in part because the jail were already full. So the idea was to like disperse them, get them out of there.

BRANCH: Yes, and that occurred time and time again. The irony here was that the people who put the -- Bull Connor and his police commanders who used the firehoses and the dogs really saw themselves as doing something that was charitable, or at least the most humane way. They assumed that they could frighten the children away.

When they heard that out of the church doors for that day's demonstrations were gonna be not college students or high school students, but elementary school students, and very young ones, they assumed they could frighten them away with the hoses and the dogs as a way of keeping them out of jail.

But of course what they didn't reckon on was that the spirit of the movement had grown so strong by that point that when the kids were confronted with these big policemen and the dogs, they just kept right on marching.

And the authorities then turned the dogs and the firehoses loose, which made for riveting television and pictures on national television, and finally did kind of melt the heart -- or rivet a national audience to the point of -- that it was the big breakthrough in the civil movement, after which it was impossible for it to recede without making some gains, I don't think.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Taylor Branch. And the second in his trilogy of books on the civil rights movement has just been published. It's called Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65.

The part of the book that I found -- found most fascinating was your research into the FBI's wiretapping of Martin Luther King. I'd like to run through some of the things you found in that chapter of the civil rights movement. Robert F. Kennedy, who was then attorney general, gave permission to the FBI to wiretap King. Why do you think Robert Kennedy gave his permission?

BRANCH: Well I think the key thing to remember there is that when he gave his permission, it was a surrender. He was under pressure for his signature on that -- the implicit threat being that he would be held politically accountable for not being vigilant about subversive dangers within the civil rights movement.

We were at the height of the Cold War then -- worries about spies and Russians and subversives of all kinds. And he had a power-base in the Congress. He was accountable to the Congress run by Southerners who considered the civil rights movement itself subversive.

And Robert Kennedy at the same time was championing the civil rights movement as much as he could, safely -- walking a tightrope there. And being under pressure to sign the wiretap on Martin Luther King, he knew that if he signed it, he would give a piece of paper in Hoover's pocket that would be political dynamite if Hoover ever were to leak that Robert Kennedy had ordered wiretaps on Martin Luther King. These things were so secret that once Hoover had this document in his pocket, it essentially ended what -- whatever supervisory power Robert Kennedy had over J. Edgar Hoover.

Now, the significance of it has been under -- understated, largely because there was such a short span between the time he -- he signed the wiretap, that is Bobby Kennedy, and the assassination of John Kennedy was only the next month.

GROSS: Now, I know Bobby Kennedy also needed the FBI to protect John Kennedy -- about John Kennedy's affairs, which the FBI knew about.

BRANCH: The mystery as to what would make Bobby Kennedy surrender to the FBI, I don't know that there'll ever be a fully satisfactory answer to that. But even in Parting the Waters and a little bit more so in this book, I do try to describe how much Bobby had to carry for his brother, because the FBI knew his brother's secrets.

And at times, there was some danger that they would explode into public view -- not so much -- the times were so different than now, probably not as a pure sex scandal, but one of the president's mistresses was an East German woman, which raised the possibility of espionage.

And, Republicans knew about this. And poor Bobby Kennedy was driven to the point that he had to ask J. Edgar Hoover to go tell the Republicans that if they -- that if they exposed this spy -- German -- possible German spy mistress of the president's, that the FBI would be constrained also to mention the fact that -- that many congressmen from both parties had similar affairs themselves.

So, it was a very kind of sordid kind of subterranean wrestling match going on here to keep all of these things secret, but it made Bobby Kennedy very, very beholden to J. Edgar Hoover, who was the master of the secrets. And I basically think that that had a lot to do with the final end of this long wrestling match that he had with Bobby Kennedy.

That he finally got Kennedy, almost at the same time he bailed him out on the mistress, to sign the wiretap authorization on Martin Luther King. And once he signed it, basically Hoover was off and running from there, not just to wiretap him, but to bug him and -- that is, put microphones in hotels wherever Dr. King went, and to use the results of all of that for propaganda.

GROSS: You say that the FBI actually had a more elaborate set up for King's wiretapping than they typically -- than the FBI typically did. They set up a phony engineering company as a front, making the wiretaps more difficult to trace to the FBI. Why did they do something more elaborate for King?

BRANCH: It's true, in general, in their other wiretaps, that the first rule of the bureau and is their watch phrase "don't do anything that might cause embarrassment to the bureau" -- meaning it would be embarrassing if people knew what they were actually doing. That was standard for wiretaps.

But the -- the King wiretap was particularly sensitive, because the FBI was wiretapping somebody that the administration was trying to cooperate with on a razor's edge to improve race relations. So that in some respects, to the public at large it would look like the administration was hypocritical to wiretap somebody.

And so they went to extra means to make the Martin Luther King wiretap secret, to the point that a lot of agents really thought that maybe Hoover was doing this without Bobby Kennedy's approval. And there was a lot of fear and gossip within the FBI as to whether Hoover had finally just completely broken with legal authority to the point of running a renegade operation against Martin Luther King -- either in furtherance of his own personal beliefs or in furtherance of his continuing alliances with the Southerners who were running the Congress.

GROSS: My guest is Taylor Branch. His new book is called Pillar of Fire. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Taylor Branch is my guest, and he's just completed the second in a trilogy of books on the civil rights movement. The first won a Pulitzer Prize. The new volume is called Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65.

The FBI set up an all-day conference aimed at what it described as "neutralizing King as an effective Negro leader." What happened at this conference?

BRANCH: Well, this conference, of course, is immediately after getting the wiretap authorization because they figured that -- essentially that Bobby Kennedy would not be able to supervise them any further. So they hold this conference -- essentially, it's like a war meeting. They discussed what they could do, more or less on the model of a CIA covert operation. The upper echelons of the FBI always liked the -- and admired or -- or envied maybe the word -- the CIA because they could operate in secret, but without taking any responsibility for it.

And so it was a kind of a secret war council: What can we do to ruin Martin Luther King? Whether it -- they wanted to get his tax records, his donors and investigate him on money; investigate him on ties to anybody that was shady or subversive in any way. And also, of course, investigate his private life. Those were the three -- what King -- later King, when the blackmail actively started, to call "the trilogy": sex, money and communism.

And in this meeting which lasted all day, they discussed putting informants in on him, recruiting women to try to seduce him, wiretap him so that they could know where he was going to go so they could embarrass him. And of course, always the mainstay was to use their ties with the press to plant unflattering or politically explosive items in the press that would cause people to quarrel with or oppose him or make -- cause internal dissension within the movement.

GROSS: The FBI first wiretapped King's office. And then with the knowledge they got from the office wiretap, they knew where he was traveling to, and they'd wiretap hotel rooms before he got there. And through that kind of wiretapping, they kind of caught him having affairs with other women. And there's one particular set of recordings from the Willard Hotel that you quote from in the book.

And you might need to clean up some of the language for radio, but could you -- could you paraphrase what they found in those tapes? What they got in those tapes?

BRANCH: Well, you're absolutely right. They -- the wiretapping was key because then they would hear him talking on the phone -- "I'll be in New York next week and I'll be staying at the Americana." And that would give the FBI advance notice to go to the Americana and to rent the room next to his in advance, and to put bugs or -- and at the Willard after this party, ironically the party was after his arguments in the Supreme Court in the landmark New York Times v. Sullivan case, which still governs our libel laws in the United States.

And King -- that was all a lawsuit about Dr. King and his movement. He was in the Supreme Court then went to the Willard Hotel, had a party, and the bureau got 11 hours of party talk that night, during which they heard him yelling and screaming and in the act of making love with other women.

And I talked to a number of the FBI people who heard this tape, and it was their prized recording. All these tapes are now under seal and it's quite difficult -- but it's graphic talk about him in the act of making love.

GROSS: The FBI put together a kind of blackmail package of information that they had on King. How did -- what was in the package and how did they use that?

BRANCH: When the civil rights bill passed in 1964 outlawing segregation in the South, it was a dark moment for the political people in the FBI. And here again, all through this, Terry, one of the things that is so hard for people to do, and the complexity of this time when everything is happening at once, is that at the same time there is a criminal side of the FBI that is actually diligently pursuing some of the terrible hate crimes.

But on the political side, this civil rights bill threatened revolution inside the FBI and the way it did business and what was going to go on in the Congress. And Hoover reacted to it, and then to the notion that -- then to the announcement that Dr. King was going to get the Nobel Peace Prize in October of 1964.

And almost instantly after that, he criticized Dr. King and called him a liar and prepared this tape -- or had this tape prepared that was kind of a highlights tape of all the -- of several of the buggings, to make it clear that the FBI knew what he was doing on the road in his private life. And appended to this tape that they mailed to him, a letter suggesting that he should commit suicide before he got the Nobel Prize, or face being exposed.

GROSS: What was King's reaction to getting this?

BRANCH: Despair. "They're out to get me." "They're out to break me." It forced him to share with people that -- profoundly embarrassed and humiliated him -- the fact that he had have the vulnerability in the area of his private life, in his sex life.

He said -- and I think accurately so -- that they could never get him on money. Dr. King died worth only about $20,000, without a will. He never really cared about money very much. And he said: they won't get me on communism, because they say everybody who believes in civil rights is a communist, and on theological grounds, if nothing else, I'm not a communist.

But, they do have something about my private life. He considered it a weakness. For him, the fact that the FBI spare -- had no scruples, no moral, legal, or constitutional scruples whatsoever about pursuing his private life, and publicizing it wherever it would do him the most harm and embarrassment -- was a tremendous burden for him to bear the rest of his life.

GROSS: When the FBI made it clear that they had all this stuff about Martin Luther King, including his affairs, and they told King, you know, "why don't you consider suicide?" -- King obviously didn't consider suicide. So what -- what was the upshot on this attempt to blackmail him?

BRANCH: The upshot was that they kept trying to disseminate it, but -- into the news sources, but couldn't ever get it to surface publicly, because they didn't want to be responsible for the information. In effect, they told all the news outlets: "you run this and say he's doing all this, but you can't say the FBI told you so." And nobody wanted to deal with that.

So that privately, its major effect was to be a chilling effect on all of the leaders and opinion leaders and legislators, members of Congress, members of the Vatican, members of the National Council of Churches -- that the FBI would go to and secretly say "here, we want to show you all the dirt we have on Martin Luther King." I think that private political effect was -- we will -- can never be measured.

GROSS: Taylor Branch -- he's just published the second volume in his projected trilogy about the civil rights movement. It's called Pillar of Fire. Branch will be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with Taylor Branch. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his first book about the civil rights movement, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63. His new book, Pillar of Fire, continues the story of the movement from '63 to '65. It's the second book in a projected trilogy.

A good deal of your new book on the civil rights movement during the King years is actually about Malcolm X. And a good deal of the story about Malcolm X is about how he became disillusioned with Elijah Muhammad, who was then the leader of the Nation of Islam.

Malcolm X exposed Elijah Muhammad. He exposed Elijah Muhammad's affairs with women who were members of the church. He exposed Elijah Muhammad's financial mismanagement and -- why did Malcolm X become disillusioned with Elijah and want to expose him?

BRANCH: He was a true believer. This is a period of zealots on all sides, and true believers in race issue, and its intersection with religion. You just mentioned two areas -- his financial corruption within the Nation and the personal corruption of Elijah Muhammad. I would say there were two others.

Number one, having criticized the nonviolent movement for not standing up like men in reaction to this major police attack in which a number of Nation of Islam members were shot, and one killed right outside the Nation of Islam Temple in 1962 by Los Angeles police officers -- Malcolm felt honor-bound to try to respond the way he had always said. He said: "they attack us, see what happens. We won't turn the other cheek. We'll respond like vigilantes. We have no trust in the American court system. We'll -- we'll take action on our own."

And he fully -- he went out to California in '62 fully expecting to do that, and to live up to it, whatever the consequences. And was ordered not to do it, and in fact wound up in court coaching the defendants in a trial.

Having been shot up by the police, they were then charged, of course, criminally with having instigated it, and convicted. And in the courtroom, Malcolm was forced by Elijah Muhammad to tell his members to say that they were completely nonviolent and didn't even get angry when they were being beaten and humiliated by the police.

So, he adopted nonviolence in practice under orders from Malcolm -- from Elijah Muhammad and felt hypocritical about all of his virile criticism of the Southern civil rights movement, because when he was put to the test, he responded just like they had. And having called them hypocrites, he felt like one himself.

So, that was a third issue. And finally, I think Malcolm was smart enough to know that Elijah Muhammad was selling kind of a fairy tale theology in the Nation of Islam -- that it was not true Islam. And I think that one of the most overlooked facts about Malcolm X was that I do believe he had genuine religious motivation and he wanted to try to have the Nation of Islam grow up into a true religion that was instigated and brought onto American soil by black people, but was a legitimate religion. And Elijah Muhammad resisted that.

So that all these things went together -- he just felt that the sect under Elijah Muhammad was sustaining itself. And it was corrupt and it was doing just what it needed to do to sell newspapers and keep money flowing into it, and was forfeiting political, religious, and all kinds of integrity. And, that drove him to challenge them. And when he did that, this whole book, really, is about the reaction and almost kind of a war for his life that consumed his last two years.

GROSS: He tried to challenge Elijah Muhammad's power and authority by working with women who had had affairs with Elijah and ended up having Elijah's children, while Elijah Muhammad basically turned his back on them. How did he get a couple of the women to go public about this?

BRANCH: Well, they felt that they were being used, and they admired him -- him, Malcolm. And each one of them thought she was the only one, and when they found out that there were a number of others, it's kind of a spurned woman phenomenon.

And yet at the same time, this took place within the context of people who literally believed that Elijah Muhammad was almost divine. So, it was hard for them to go against him. But Malcolm persuaded them to do that because he thought it was the only way to get publicity. He couldn't get publicity because American news outlets were both disinterested in the internal squabbles of a small and disreputable sect, which is what the Nation of Islam was, and they were also fearful that there would be lawsuits.

So he persuade -- Malcolm persuaded the women to file the paternity suit as -- in the hopes that it would give news organizations the political cover to expose Elijah Muhammad publicly, which he hoped would drain the fury and the rage and the loyalty out of the members so that they would then listen to Malcolm and say: "look, we've got to reform this organization so that we can be politically and religiously and racially legitimate in the long run."

GROSS: Did it lead to any of the reform that he was hoping for?

BRANCH: Not in his lifetime, but his ally in this cause, Elijah Muhammad's son Wallace Muhammad, essentially surrendered and bided his time. And Wallace was under threat himself, even within his own family, from his father's followers, for in effect blaspheming. All this was considered heresy, and heresy that you could be killed for.

But when Malcolm was killed, Wallace essentially surrendered and apologized and waited 10 more years until his father died, and then inherited the Nation of Islam and promptly enacted all of the -- the full range of stupendous reforms that Malcolm had wanted to do to make -- bring Islam and America in line -- not only in line with international Islam, but his ambition is to make it a reform wing; to reconcile Islam with democracy.

And it's a truly astonishing transformation that he has accomplished in the Nation of Islam, or in Islam since 1975 when he took over, that has gone on in the United States virtually, I would say almost completely, unnoticed, to the point that right now, there may be 2.5 million black native-born American Muslims of African descent. And of them, maybe only 10,000 follow Louis Farrakhan, who still has the old teachings, the fairy-tale teachings of the Nation of Islam.

GROSS: Yeah, there was a rift between Wallace Muhammad and Louis Farrakhan, and Louis Farrakhan runs a group that's called the Nation of Islam.

BRANCH: Yes, he inherited -- he revived the Nation of Islam, because Farrakhan would not go along with the reforms that Elijah Muhammad's son Wallace started to make in 1975. So, Wallace basically followed through with what Malcolm wanted to do -- and got killed for trying to do. He followed through in '75 and Farrakhan said: "no, I don't want to do that. I want to keep it exactly the way Elijah Muhammad had it."

And Farrakhan revived the Nation of Islam and still has the Nation of Islam, but the astonishing fact for America was that -- is that now he represents -- he, Farrakhan -- represents less -- fewer than one out of every 200 Muslims in the United States. And yet, he is the focus of our preoccupation to the point that a lot of people see him as synonymous with Islam in America.

GROSS: My guest is Taylor Branch. He's just published the second book in his projected trilogy on the civil rights movement. It's called Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Taylor Branch is my guest, and the second part in his trilogy of books on the civil rights movement has just been published. It's called Pillar of Fire. He won a Pulitzer Prize for the first volume.

Well, after Malcolm went public -- with the help of a couple of the women who had sons by Elijah Muhammad -- went public about some of the corruption that Elijah Muhammad was responsible for, Malcolm's life was in jeopardy. Maybe you could describe one or two of the lesser-known incidents in which people from the Nation of Islam tried to kill him.

BRANCH: He was attacked in many, over a dozen incidents that are recorded. And ironically, most of them were recorded in the FBI documents, which goes to another complication, Terry, that I wanted to mention here -- that as heinous as I think what the FBI did, their own documents are honest enough that we have to thank them for recording a lot of the hidden material that went on inside the civil rights movement, and other areas like the Nation of Islam.

They recorded, by wiretap, the threats and the complaints and the utter terror over the telephone between the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X when they were trying to hunt him down. There were incidents in Los Angeles, in New York, several in Boston -- where gunmen would try to -- tried to attack him. Malcolm kept saying that they were out to kill him, and the FBI kind of gloated that they had caused all of this dissension. They knew all this was happening, but of course never did anything about it.

And the rest of the country was pretty much oblivious to it. But it went on for all of this period. I have a -- one spectacular car chase in Boston where the -- they thought they had Malcolm, but they actually had his assistant Benjamin X, who's now Benjamin Kareem (ph).

And they chased him through the Callahan Tunnel, waving shotguns and various pistols, and tore up cars and everything else. And finally went out to Logan Airport -- the -- Benjamin and Malcolm's followers out there, and were so frightened that they ran through the concourse and out onto the runway, waving a shotgun, trying to get arrested. And finally were arrested by police when they went back into another airport counter.

And the police report said they were finally arrested here waving the shotgun. They'd left their car kind of out in the middle of the traffic at the airport. And the police report said they were finally arrested, for which they all thanked Allah -- meaning they were -- they were thankful to be arrested because that meant they weren't going to be pursued by what they knew were suicidally devoted Nation of Islam members who -- who would consider it a privilege to kill them in public because they thought they were carrying out Elijah Muhammad's will.

All of this happened without ever surfacing until Malcolm was killed. And then it just -- it took America by surprise that it happened. And so, for me, it's an amazing thing that all of this conflict -- it's kind of like a mixture of "The Godfather" and the Old Testament. It's religious. It's violent. And of course, Wallace Muhammad now says that's -- that's like the births in all religion. You have these quarrels and you have fratricides and you have dynastic wars.

But it was all about what did it mean for black people in America to try to define their own religion in a time of great upheaval over the political status of minorities in the United States. And in this story at least, I believe that the last two years of Malcolm's life -- all these dynamics were so complicated and so raw that he left them out of the autobiography.

And so, what I try to claim at least partly for the account of this part, this stream of the story in Pillar of Fire -- the Malcolm X story -- is that it's pretty much what was left out of the autobiography. It wasn't there, and therefore I do think it's new.

GROSS: Do you feel like you came up with any new information about who was behind the assassination of Malcolm X?

BRANCH: Well, it's known to the experts. We know that two of the three didn't do it and served the 25 years, and that the legal system was indifferent to this, I'm sorry to say. But I think in recent years, it's been fairly well established that all five of the killers were Nation of Islam Muslims out of the Newark Temple in Newark. One of whom was caught, and the four confederates, whom he has since named, have not been caught.

I'm not really sure what purpose it would serve right now, except the fact that, you know, it is a first degree murder. They were involved in it. And most of them have expressed -- certainly the one who did serve time -- great remorse over what they did. And they now embrace the larger vision of Islam that Malcolm was trying to -- was trying to obtain.

So they -- they feel that they were blinded by their zealotry and they now identify with Malcolm. But the four accomplices have not been prosecuted, and I think the only purpose for doing that would be to try to find out where up the chain of command the orders came.

It's pretty clear that the Nation of Islam and officials in the Nation of Islam had ordered and asked for their members to kill Malcolm. How explicitly it came down and exactly where the orders came down the chain, we don't know and may never know.

GROSS: Volume two of your civil rights trilogy, the volume that has just been published, ends with the assassination of Malcolm X. What's Martin Luther King doing at the end?

BRANCH: Well, Martin Luther King is in Selma. What I'm trying to show there is that if you follow the history -- that Selma is an answer to the Birmingham church bombing; that essentially in 1963, that when that happened and the four little girls were killed there, people around Dr. King, most particularly Diane Nash (ph) and James Bevel (ph), were so upset by it that they said: we're either going to have a Malcolm X vigilante response and assume that the criminals will never be prosecuted, and find them out and punish them ourselves -- vigilante style.

Or alternatively, we're going to have a nonviolent response and try to mount a massive campaign for the right to vote, so that blacks can vote in Alabama and prevent this sort of thing, this kind of indifference to the death of the young children from ever happening again.

Fortunately, they -- they chose the latter course and by the end of this, although it was postponed all through 1964, they began to work their -- their consciously designed massive plan to achieve the right to vote in Alabama, which focused on Selma. And that's where King is at the end. And the book ends with -- at Selma with the Selma march on the verge of breaking through, just as Birmingham had broken through two years before.

And at the same time, the Vietnam War is beginning. These things happened with almost a kind of a shivering simultaneity. They happened at the same time. The Vietnam War began. Selma peaked. Malcolm X was killed.

And Bob Moses in Mississippi, on another complete strand of the book that I try to follow, essentially dropped out of the civil rights movement. He was the guiding force in Freedom Summer and in the SNCC drive -- the student drive for the right to vote.

And he dropped out of the movement and it really marked the beginning of the disillusion of the classical student nonviolent movement so -- which we saw so publicly a few years later when the movement split apart in public.

GROSS: In the preface to your new book about the civil rights movement, you write that: "truth requires a maximum effort to see it through the eyes of strangers, foreigners, and enemies." Do you feel that to write this book, you tried to see it through the eyes of enemies?

BRANCH: Well yes, the people in the book were enemies of each other. And at times, the racial supremacist philosophies I certainly consider opposed to my deepest beliefs. And yet I think that in race relations, because it's so divisive, you really don't understand things or make discoveries unless you can understand or portray what people are like as people. We don't make much progress by labels and by analysis. We have to make people human enough to get beneath all of that.

And that's -- that's what I think the -- was the great discipline of the civil rights movement, that it's about conversion. It's about submission. It's about sacrifice. And it's about teaching a common humanity that doesn't exist -- believing in it before it exists, and thereby creating it. And we rarely see it in history and that's why I wanted to work so hard to try to preserve it as authentically as personally as possible.

GROSS: My guest is Taylor Branch. His new book is called Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

If you're just joining us, my guest is Taylor Branch. The first volume of his trilogy on the civil rights movement won a Pulitzer Prize. The second volume has just been published. It's called Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65.

Last year, members of the King family tried to reopen the assassination case, questioning whether the convicted assassin was truly the assassin. And I wonder what you thought of the efforts to reopen the case.

BRANCH: Well, I've been privately counseling against it, because I think that it's fairly clear -- of course, you could reopen the case, as happened in several assassination investigations by the Congress. You can reopen the case of whether or not there was -- there were other forces in coop -- whether there was a conspiracy, without releasing James Earl Ray.

But the fact of the matter is that in this climate, if you just called for another investigation, leave Ray in jail, and investigate who his accomplices might have been, people would say -- it wouldn't make any news -- and people would say we've done that before, and what do you have that's new?

I'm afraid that calling Ray innocent, is an understandable news peg, is the only way to bring attention to this issue again, practically speaking, right now. But I think that you have to be aware that you -- it is not without consequences. And to me, the major consequence would be that from the moment a new trial is ordered for him, he will not just be -- he will be considered not just -- not guilty, but he will become an enormous victim in American history.

And people will say that he served 30 years for a crime that America admits that they're not sure he committed. And not long after that, anybody's guess as to who killed Dr. King would be as good as anybody else's, including people who said, you know, it might have been somebody in the civil rights movement.

And all that would come out of this is to lose what certainty and what closure we have had for 30 years, which is that we know as a matter of law that a -- that racial hatred personified in James Earl Ray played a principal role -- the principal role in the killing of Dr. King.

And I think that both truth and wisdom and prudence urge us to hold onto that. And I've been trying to get the conspiracy people to recognize that they won't control this history once they lose the genie out of that bottle. And that it's not going to go the direction they think. And that almost all of the consequences of a new trial will be disastrous.

So, I've been against it.

GROSS: Are you also saying you believe James Earl Ray is the true assassin?

BRANCH: Oh yes, I do. Which is not to say that I don't believe that anybody ever helped him.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

BRANCH: But I'm afraid that the conspiracy, it appears to me from all evidence, was closer to a truck-stop level conspiracy than what people want to believe, which is that it's kind of at the SMERSH or super-power or CIA or at the highest levels of power. And while I understand that there is a huge personal need to believe that -- to believe that such a painful and monstrous crime had an incredibly powerful and monstrous author, and how could it be this shriveled-up James Earl Ray? The fact of the matter is that that's human life. You don't have to be -- you know, life is fragile and it can be -- the greatest life can be snuffed out by almost an incidental force, let alone an insignificant one.

And you know, that's just part of the pain we have to bear in this. And it's just -- you can't force history to give you the kind of conspiracy that would -- that you would find satisfying. And you can't even try to do that without -- without running risks of making things worse by the -- the unintended consequences, I think. That if -- if a judge were to say "well, I'm not sure James Earl Ray did this; he needs a trial."

GROSS: Today is Martin Luther King Day. Would you like to leave us with any final thoughts about -- about this day? Or about King?

BRANCH: I -- I've been working for 15 years on King now, and -- on a project that I thought was only going to take three. And I -- the longer I work on him, the more amazed I am at how -- at the breadth and the strength of his character in America -- not just America's, but the -- where the ideals of religion and democratic thought come together. I -- I think he is a -- an underestimated figure. The more you know about him, or the more I've come to know about him, the more I admire him.

I think in this volume and in this particular book, what is highlighted are his political skills at trying to move a balky movement and nation forward into changes that would affect history, and that could not be undone.

There are movements now to try to undo them, and yet when you look backward, there's just an astonishing change in the status of women, in the status of religion -- a comfort with people of different kinds that, because we're still focusing on the deficiencies in race relations, and there are many of those, sometimes I think we are numb to how positive and how truly wonderful and much better a country this is because of that movement in the 1960s than it would have been without it.

I guess the final thought I would leave is that it humbles me to think that the victims of anti-democratic racial oppression for all of these years should have had the wisdom and the courage to be the teachers of the rest of America about the values that we professed, but didn't live up to.

GROSS: Taylor Branch, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

BRANCH: Thank you, Terry. It was fun.

GROSS: Taylor Branch. He's just published the second volume in his projected trilogy of books about America during the Martin Luther King years. It's called Pillar of Fire.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Taylor Branch
High: Historian Taylor Branch. He won the Pulitzer Prize for the first book of his planned trilogy of the Civil rights movement: "Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63." His new book, "Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-64" begins where the other book ended and covers what he considers the peak years in the movement. At the center of the book are Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Robert Kennedy, LBJ and J. Edgar Hoover.
Spec: History; Civil Rights; Martin Luther King; Malcolm X; Robert Kennedy; LBJ; J. Edgar Hoover; Books; Authors; Parting the Water
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Pillar of Fire
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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