'The downward King': civil rights leader's intense final years

On the holiday that commemorates the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., his prize-winning biographer talks about the last, difficult years of the civil rights leader's life.

As 1964 ended, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was experiencing remarkable success. In December, he returned to the U.S. from Sweden, where he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Civil Rights Bill had been passed by Congress with the strong support of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who by all indications would be much more sympathetic to the goals of the civil rights movement than his predecessor, John F. Kennedy.


For Dr. King, it was a heady time -- one, said his biographer, Taylor Branch, when the civil rights leader "could have chosen a life in which the most difficult decision he had to face was which fork to lift at a testimonial dinner." And yet, Mr. Branch said, Dr. King took precisely the other path.

In a meeting with President Johnson at the White House after winning the Nobel, Dr. King said he soon would be leading a voting rights demonstration in Selma, Ala. He was true to his word, Mr. Branch said: "Within a month, King was in jail in Selma."


This resolve epitomizes what Mr. Branch calls "the downward King -- in the last four years of his life, he is forcing himself to do things to jeopardize the success that he could have cashed in on, and coasted on for two lifetimes." It is this "downward King," facing almost unfathomable pressures from both opponents and his own followers, who is at the center of "Pillar of Fire," Mr. Branch's second volume chronicling the life of Dr. King and the civil rights movement.

The first volume, "Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63," received wide praise for its scope and insight, and earned Mr. Branch the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1989. Mr. Branch, a Baltimore resident since 1986, says he essentially has finished research for "Pillar of Fire" and has begun writing, though he cautioned, "I won't be finished this year, at least."

The title for "Pillar of Fire" comes from the last line of "Parting the Waters": "King had crossed over as a patriarch like Moses into a land less bounded by race. To keep going, he became a pillar of fire."

In an interview in his Mount Washington home, Mr. Branch, 45, said he found it striking how Dr. King, in the years before his assassination in April 1968, again and again chose a course that many around him considered wrong, foolhardy and even dangerous.

"To go from winning the Nobel Prize to Selma, to force yourself to do that against the wishes of not only your white allies but also of some of your own movement people -- you're really fighting to take yourself down," Mr. Branch said. "That 'downward King' is really full of passion and difficulty.

"In the early times, King is fighting for success, both for himself and his cause -- that is, for recognition. And, finally, it happens. He becomes famous, wins the Nobel Peace Prize, and so forth. Lots of people wanted to celebrate him for that. And the natural tendency is to not jeopardize all that, but that's precisely what he did. You get the picture of someone who is besieged on almost every side, and is willing himself downward to greater risk because he is driven by his conscience."

He cited several examples: Dr. King's involvement in the Selma voting rights campaign, his vocal opposition to the Vietnam War, his decision to move the civil rights campaign north in 1966, and his belief that an ambitious program was needed to end poverty in America.

"It was a revelation to me how controversial the poverty program was among his own people," Mr. Branch said. "His determination to make that an issue bothered them because it went against their status. It meant associating with the poorest of the poor. The leadership class -- the coat-and-tie set, whether they were ministers or NAACP types -- had to go out and make common cause with illiterate sharecroppers and the equivalent of the underclass. That was not popular among the movement, and it sure as heck was not popular among white liberals. They thought he was getting out of his element, talking about economic issues instead of morality and how to treat people.


"And, of course, the same was true about Vietnam. There he was altogether out of his element, and not only was he out of his element, but many people who had never shared his cause of civil rights repudiated him, reproached him for damaging his cause by getting out into an area where he didn't belong."

As for King's decision to lead civil rights marches in the Chicago area in 1966, Mr. Branch said: "You'd be surprised at the number of people who didn't think racism existed in the North and saw it as a peculiarly Southern phenomenon. But after those marches through Gage Park and the Chicago suburbs, they were too vivid for people to ever deny that there was something primordial about race in the North, too.

But even as King was becoming more prominent nationally and internationally, Mr. Branch said, he faced increasing battles with others in the civil rights movement over tactics, and with those in government who wished he would just go away.

"You have to remember that his general image was not near as favorable as it is now," Mr. Branch said. "Nowadays we tend to think that he had won universal acclaim when in fact most public officials had a quarrel with him. And the black power movement had been submerged, but now [in 1965] it was opening up."

As with "Parting the Waters," Mr. Branch said, "Pillar of Fire" will be as much about the civil rights movement as it will be about King. But the author said tracing the history of the movement has often been frustrating.

"When you're really trying to find out what went on behind the scenes, there's a lot of avoidance of truth there -- and for obvious reasons," Mr. Branch said. "People who are activists are a minority within a minority, and they're at one another's throats in customarily three or four factions. So to publicize their disagreements takes a minority cause that looked hopeless in the first place and makes it ridiculous.


"In that sense, it's not terribly surprising that the real story that you pick up from [FBI] wiretaps and candid interviews is very often full of jealousy and back-biting and disagreements over what to do next between, say, [NAACP president] Roy Wilkins and King, or King and [black power leader] Stokely Carmichael."

Still, Mr. Branch said, he found his research on the civil rights movement and its people heartening.

"You realize how essentially crazy a lot of these people were to believe they could change things -- it's very refreshing," he said. "There's a whole series of things that are not normal by the standards of today: the idea that young people could be important, and solve the riddles that had baffled their adults. It would be like a group of eighth-graders solving our debt %J problem, or improving our public schools, or the crime problem.

"There really was an intoxicating sense that, right or wrong, they were really testing the limits of human nature -- what was inside themselves, what you could create in the public space. So it was at once very historic and very intimate. That's why the bonds between people who would go to jail together were very strong, and when it broke down later it tended to be very disillusioning. I've interviewed an awful lot of movement people who have the equivalent of combat stress fatigue -- what I call movement casualties."