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Pillar of Fire

America in the King Years 1963-65

by Taylor Branch

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America in the King Years 1963-65
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Book Summary

Examines the jailing of Martin Luther King, jr., the end of segregation, and the growing rifts in the civil rights movement that led to calls for a more violent reaction to racism

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Closing an MLK Trilogy 'At Canaan's Edge'

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Pillar Of Fire

Chapter 6

Tremors: L.A. to Selma

James Bevel was in Birmingham by then, summoned by Martin Luther King. With Diane Nash and their eight-month-old daughter, Bevel arrived from Greenwood just in time to preach at the April 12 mass meeting in place of King, who had submitted to solitary confinement that afternoon. The carefully planned Birmingham campaign was in crisis. Over the next week, Bevel and Nash pitched in behind King's exacting administrator, Wyatt Walker, who labored to keep pace with chaos on many fronts — lobbying for some hint of public support from the Kennedys, cultivating reporters and distant celebrities, coaxing forward new jail volunteers, weeding out laggards and training the rest in nonviolence for the daily marches toward the forbidden landmarks of segregated commerce.

One of Walker's tactical innovations presented an opportunity uniquely suited to Bevel. Walker demanded punctuality in the daily demonstrations until he noticed while fuming through the inevitable delays that news reporters often lumped Negro bystanders together with actual jail marchers in their crowd estimates. After that, Walker went against his nature to hold up the marches with deliberate tardiness, so that daily stories of growing crowds could disguise the dwindling number willing to accept jail. As the delays stretched past school hours, crowds began to fill with Bevel's preferred recruits — Negro students.

To Bevel, looking past the arrests to the teenagers in the background, the flagging demonstrations already had accomplished the work of many months in the Mississippi Delta, where the bulk of the Negro population was widely dispersed on rural plantations: they had gathered a crowd. With Nash and student volunteers, he distributed handbills advertising a daily youth meeting at five o'clock, two hours before the regular seven o'clock mass meeting. There he preached on the meaning of the primal events downtown. His crowds grew so rapidly that Andrew Young helped run the youth meetings, and Dorothy Cotton, Young's assistant in the SCLC citizenship program, led the singing. Following his practice in Mississippi, Bevel showed a film — an NBC White Paper on the Nashville student movement of 1960, which featured the stirring, climactic march of four thousand students that had desegregated Nashville's libraries and lunch counters. By April 20, when King and Abernathy bonded out of the Birmingham jail, the youth meeting already surpassed the adult meeting in numbers. By April 23, when reporters again failed to ask President Kennedy about Birmingham at his press conference, the adult mass meeting first packed St. James Baptist Church because the students in a mass stayed over from their own session. By April 26, when the jail march was reduced to a handful, forcing Fred Shuttlesworth to play for time by announcing a massive new phase to begin on May 2, most of the jail volunteers who rose in the mass meeting came from the youth workshops.

King praised the children for their courage but told them to sit down. The Birmingham jail was no place for them. At the nightly strategy sessions, King and the other leaders flailed among themselves to devise a master stroke for May 2 that might hold off the movement's extinction — a hunger strike or perhaps a jail march by Negro preachers in robes. No idea promised to crack the reserve of the outside world. Sensing their exhaustion from the other side, Birmingham's white leaders rallied to the "velvet hammer" policy of firm but nonsensational resistance, and the local newspaper published an article of encouragement entitled "Greenwood Rolled with the Punch — And Won." King's sessions grew more rancorous. They were promising their followers and the national press nothing less than "a nonviolent D-Day" on May 2, but all the thunder of preachers and the honey of massed choirs pulled no more than forty or fifty volunteers from the pews, Wyatt Walker admitted. He bristled at Bevel's claims that the youth meetings were spilling over into another church almost every day. Walker resented Bevel as an upstart, an intruder, and a free spirit who played loose with the chain of command.

Still, Walker was a man of results. Having come into Birmingham with only minority support from the Negro adults of Birmingham, and having delivered mostly suffering and disappointment since then, King and Shuttlesworth already were fending off internal pressures to evacuate gracefully. Backbiters predicted that the outsiders would leave Birmingham Negroes worse off than ever, with segregation hardened by the besieged anger of whites. Worse, Bevel's proposal would leave the best of the next generation with criminal records, not to mention the psychological scars of wide-eyed children dragged into the inferno of a segregated jail. King's host family in Birmingham, John and Deenie Drew of a prominent insurance family, resolved to send their children off to boarding school lest they get caught up in the trouble. Like most of King's strongest supporters, they would have recoiled in horror had they known that Bevel aimed to use not just the older teenagers but also the junior high students on down to "the babies" just out of kindergarten. What dismayed much of the senior staff was not so much that King, smiling and noncommittal, insisted on hearing Bevel out, but that King seemed to respect the "voices" Bevel heard even when they urged him to subvert the damaged authority of Negro Birmingham through its children. "Against your Mama," Bevel told King, "you have a right to make this witness."

When the doors of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church opened shortly after one o'clock on Thursday, May 2, a line of fifty teenagers emerged two abreast, singing. The waiting police detail hauled them into jail wagons, as usual, and only the youth of the demonstrators distinguished the day until a second line emerged, then a third and many more. Children as young as six years old held their ground until arrested. Amid mounting confusion, police commanders called in school buses for jail transport and sent reinforcements to intercept stray lines that slipped past them toward the downtown business district. On the first day, nearly a thousand marching children converted first the Negro adults. Not a few of the onlookers in Kelly Ingram Park were dismayed to see their own disobedient offspring in the line, and the conflicting emotions of centuries played out on their faces until some finally gave way. One elderly woman ran alongside the arrest line, shouting, "Sing, children, sing!"

With the jails swamped by nightfall, Bull Connor ordered a massed phalanx of officers to disperse rather than arrest any demonstrators King might send the next day — intimidate them, shoo them away. When more than a thousand new children turned out in high-spirited, nonviolent discipline, giving no ground, frustration and hatred erupted under Connor's command. Police dogs tore into the march lines, and high-powered fire hoses knocked children along the pavement like tumbleweed. News photographs of the violence seized millions of distant eyes, shattering inner defenses. In Birmingham, the Negro principal of Parker High School desperately locked the gates from the outside to preserve a semblance of order, but students trampled the chain-link fence to join the demonstrations.

King, preaching at night to a serial mass meeting that spilled from one packed church to another, urged crowds to remember the feel of history among them. He cast aside his innate caution along with criticism and worry over the children in jail, shouting, "Now yesterday was D-Day, and tomorrow will be Double-D Day!" From Shuttlesworth's old pulpit, Bevel cried out in playful hyperbole that they would finish off Birmingham before Tuesday by placing every Negro young and old in jail so that he could be "back in Mississippi, chopping cotton." Bevel did not make his deadline, but nonviolent Negroes did overflow the jails and flood the forbidden downtown streets within a week. By Monday, May 6, the sudden conversion gushed from child to adult until no fewer than 2,500 demonstrators swamped the Birmingham jail, and King welcomed in awe the tangible sensation of history spilling over at frenzied mass meetings of four times that number.

Something primal welled up the same day in a Los Angeles courtroom. Defense lawyer Earl Broady faltered while cross-examining Officer Lee Logan about the mayhem at the Muslim Temple No. 27 in April of 1962. "Now this 'male Negro' business, this is significant to you, isn't it?" asked Broady in a whisper, his face suddenly clouded. "'Male Negroes,'" he repeated. When Logan replied that the term was merely descriptive of the brawlers that violent night, Broady tried to resume his planned examination but stopped again. "You called them niggers while you were in this fight with them, didn't you?" he blurted out.

"I did not," Logan replied.

Broady asked for time to compose himself, but he called for a bench conference as soon as Logan testified that his first sight at the crime scene was "several male Negroes" fighting with officers a block south of the Muslim temple. "Your Honor, I believe these defendants should be referred to exactly the same as if they were Caucasians," said Broady. "This officer wouldn't refer to male Jews. He wouldn't refer to male Irishmen. He wouldn't refer to male Swedes. He wouldn't refer to male Caucasians."

Judge David Coleman hushed stirrings in the courtroom and spoke gently to Broady, whom he had known for years, observing that race was a standard designation in all police reports. "This issue has been made by the defense and not by the People," said the judge, who went on to remind Broady that the defense lawyers had tried to insert a racial standard by objecting, for instance, to the all-white jury. (On that matter, Judge Coleman had assured Broady privately that the all-white jury was probably best because most Negro jurors were too emotional to be objective about such a sensational case.) Broady argued that the drumbeat repetition of generic racial phrases was far from neutral in effect, and spread a blur of prejudicial guilt over all Negroes, including the fourteen Muslims on trial. "This man has said 'male Negroes' eleven times," Broady protested. "We kept an accurate count on it."

Judge Coleman chided Broady for insecurity. "Someday we will get to a period of confidence and respect for ourselves," he said at the bench, "when a reference to us as Negroes, Jews, or anything else will not be a matter that disturbs us very much, but it would be in effect something which we are very proud of."

Unable to reply, Broady walked back to the defense table and stood paralyzed for some time. Perversely, the judge's rebuttal struck deep within him. As dean of Negro lawyers in Los Angeles, Broady had spent years believing that to speak and think as a Negro was to confess inferiority, and that to think white was clear and refined. Recently, when business required him to talk with the employer of a criminal defendant, Broady had found himself cringing involuntarily in manner and speech — "yessiring" — to a Beverly Hills neighbor he claimed as a peer. Only then did he begin to admit that he was learning lessons from bootblacks and reformed thieves. For a month now — as long as King had campaigned in Birmingham — up to 250 armed deputies had guarded the courtroom against tinderbox fears of a race riot, and yet only the fourteen Muslim defendants spoke forthrightly of race. They sat in perfect order at the defense table a few rows ahead of Malcolm X, as crisp as their Muslim suits. Each testified with unflinching discipline about degradations — their broken homes, poor educations, and criminal records, their loss of bladder or bowel control after the shootings outside the temple. Broady had come to admire them in spite of their religious hokum, as he saw it, but he could not push race to the surface and hope to win in court.

"Your Honor," he said finally, "...I don't feel I can continue this cross-examination." Broady later minimized his breakdown as a suppressed fit of temper, telling reporters he feared he "might pull a Muslim" if he spoke, but at the defense table he could only bury his face in his hands while his co-counsel gamely took over.

The two sides skittered back and forth on the open mention of race. Prosecutors occasionally slipped in loaded questions: "As a Muslim, Mr. Jones, does the phrase 'kill the white devils' have any significance?" A deputy DA was careful to ask one question of Officer Paul Kuykendall: "Just for the record, are you of the Negro race?" Kuykendall's positive response established that one of the government's police witnesses was a Negro, much to the discomfort of Kuykendall himself. Within the department, he no longer could pass as a white officer. Acid doubt about Kuykendall's moment of hesitation in that night's death struggle between Officer Lee Logan and Muslim Arthur X Coleman — sparing Coleman's life in exchange for even an instant's added danger to Logan — dissolved fraternal trust among police for Kuykendall, while practically no Negroes allowed him offsetting credit for professionalism or humanity. Kuykendall was to remain a morose figure, stranded in a cloud of isolation.

For the defense, Broady did ask teenage defendant Troy X Augustine if he could have used the word "Negro," among others, as recorded in a disputed statement. "No, sir," Augustine replied. Asked why, he said, "Ever since I have found out what Negro means, I stopped calling people that." Broady cut off the testimony before Augustine could explain, however, and a prosecutor made sport of the inconsistency, saying the defense wanted to discuss race some times and not others. Broady could not afford testimony on the meaning of "Negro" because it would open the treacherous subject of Elijah Muhammad's Muslim teachings. Members of the Nation of Islam strictly and exclusively used the term "black" instead of "Negro," the Spanish word for "black," saying it was as absurd for them to ground racial identity in a foreign language as it would be for white people to call themselves "Blancos."

Most of the testimony re-created the chaotic violence of April 27 as mirror images of primeval savagery, with each side portraying itself as victim. Medical testimony lent some support to the dramatic accounts of police suffering, especially early in the altercation when Tomlinson was shot and Kensic badly beaten. As descriptions moved to the later shootings and reprisals inside the temple, however, officers seemed to have emerged remarkably unscathed from the mass attack. Officer Reynolds had a thumb injury, which defense counsel suggested was the result of his own aggressions. As for the defense, Muslim witnesses consistently denied that they ever saw any fellow Muslim fighting back against the officers. They embraced their wounds and their lack of weapons as the anchor strength of their testimony, discarding Elijah Muhammad's posture of virile self-defense along with his militant sarcasm about the cowardly weakness of the nonviolent movement. Malcolm X coached all the defendants, demanding precision of testimony and a uniform politeness under the most scathing hostility. In the crucible of trial, they displayed an air of acceptance that bordered on forgiveness.

Small wonders took seed in the obscure Muslim trial just as nonviolence seized the emotions of the larger world from Birmingham. King's demonstrators literally carpeted Birmingham's downtown business district that second week of May. Having no place to put them, police officers in their midst shrugged helplessly to the city's business leaders, who were traumatized by the sudden evaporation of normalcy and commerce alike. Nearly two hundred reporters had converged from as far away as Germany and Japan. "We are not sitting idly by," President Kennedy's spokesman announced tersely in Washington. "We just can't say anything." Privately, Kennedy and several members of his Cabinet were calling the heads of corporations with subsidiaries in Birmingham, urging them to enter negotiations with King, and on Friday, May 10, Fred Shuttlesworth announced triumphantly that Birmingham "has reached accord with its conscience." Birmingham's merchants had accepted a schedule for desegregating their dressing rooms and lunch counters — even hiring Negro clerks. "Now this is an amazing thing!" King cried out at the mass meeting.

In Los Angeles, Charles X Zeno testified that same Friday about how he had left his sons in the car while he went into the temple to find his wife, Mabel, and how Officer Reynolds crashed through the door into him so that they tumbled pell-mell into the water cooler in the next room. Like other Muslim witnesses, Zeno identified the shreds of the suit he had worn. By the time Earl Broady gave up the witness for cross-examination, deputy DA Howard Kippen was eager to remove the torn coat and trousers from view. "Well, let's take these away so we can see each other," he told Zeno, and then paused. Instead of contesting detailed testimony about vengeful police hysteria, Kippen abruptly reversed course to make use of it. "Now the night of April 27, 1962, at any time did you get angry?" he asked.

"No, sir," Zeno testified.

"You didn't get angry?" Kippen asked, underscoring surprise.

"No, sir."

"You were struck from the back?"

"Yes, sir."

"You were punched in the mouth."

"Yes, sir."

"Your gums were bleeding, your teeth were bleeding and loose?"

"Yes, sir."

"Your clothes were ripped?"

"Yes, sir."

"You were hit in the groin?"

"Yes, sir."

"You didn't get angry?"

"No, sir."

Broady jumped up to object that Kippen was not allowing the defendant to explain himself — perhaps Zeno meant he was too frightened at the time to be angry — but Kippen had his answer. In summation, he argued that no human being could endure such abuse without getting angry, suggesting that the police deserved the benefit of doubt if the Muslims joined in the violence — or alternatively that the Muslims were inhuman. Either way, they deserved what they got. Only one defendant ever admitted feeling resentment of the rawest humiliation and pain, he scoffed. Prosecutors said the Muslims were too good to be true. By their formulation, the defendants were guilty unless the jury could find them as innocent as the youngest child in Birmingham jail.

Bernard Lafayette drove to Birmingham to help Bevel and Diane Nash drill young people for the climactic jail marches, but he seldom stayed over. The thunderous breakthrough in Birmingham made him uncomfortable away from his new post some hundred miles to the south, and Lafayette returned to Selma most evenings that week to sit in vigil at tiny, segregated Berwell Infirmary, where a last debilitating stroke did not keep Sam Boynton from proselytizing whenever conscious. "Are you a registered voter?" he called out to strangers walking down his corridor. "I want you to go down and register. A voteless people is a hopeless people."

Boynton expired within hours of the jubilee news from Birmingham, and the coincidence loosed a flood of emotion so powerful that Lafayette canvassed ministers about the fleeting chance to hold Selma's first mass meeting. He half concealed his political purpose by calling it a "Memorial Service for Mr. Boynton and Voter Registration," but no one was fooled. Boynton's own pastor declined to have such a service at First Baptist of Selma, which had shunned controversy since driving off its pastor, Fred Shuttlesworth, a decade earlier, and other pastors refused for fear of having their churches bombed. "They don't feel disposed to build another church," advised Rev. L.L. Anderson of Tabernacle Baptist. "Most of them have their churches paid for." Anderson himself admitted that he could not offer Tabernacle on his own, even as a last resort. "That's too big a thing for one man," he said, but he did preach an impromptu eulogy for Boynton at a business meeting, asking who could deny tribute to such a man. When no deacon objected, Anderson quickly spread word of his commitment. Within hours, a local Negro printer on his own wits refused Lafayette's order for high-quality leaflets. "I understand you call yourself a printer," Anderson thundered at the balky shopowner. "When people bring things to you, your job is just to print them. You are a printer."

Lafayette got his leaflets, but by nightfall the Tabernacle deacons caucused on their own in the boardroom of Selma University. Anderson rushed there with foreboding, knowing the deacons considered Selma University their turf. Many were on the faculty, and D.V. Jemison had doubled as president of the college when he was alive. To Anderson's dismay, the spokesman for the rebellious deacons was the redoubtable Dr. William H. Dinkins, a history professor of pioneering degrees from Brown University among other schools, with a puckish sense of theater to lighten his pomposity. Anderson liked Dinkins and often called upon him spontaneously from the pulpit for a scriptural reference or historical fact, which Dinkins invariably supplied. Father of the woman Anderson hoped to marry, Dinkins had supported him through the schism of 1956, tormenting the Walker faction with learned expositions on the difference between "misfeasance" and "malfeasance." These ties made it painful on both sides for Dinkins to say the deacons canceled any use of Tabernacle for a Boynton memorial. "You are forsaking your friends, pastor," he said. "You are going with strangers." He meant the young Freedom Rider Lafayette, whom Dinkins called "this rabble-rouser who says he's a preacher."

Almost nose to nose, Anderson and Dinkins debated which sin most profaned a house of worship: a purpose tinged with secular politics, or a spirit corrupted by worldly fear. Each man cited the story of Jesus driving money changers from the Temple, drawing opposite lessons on the propriety of the Boynton memorial. The clash of emotions caused a number of deacons to wail and intercede clumsily for peace. One confessed that he had always avoided his friend Boynton in public view downtown, for fear of association with a voting zealot. When religious arguments were exhausted, Anderson pretended to concede. "You built the church," he told the deacons. "You carried the mortar. You stacked the bricks. I don't have a dime in the building, and as a matter of fact I wasn't even born. So I'm not going to take this church." While confident that the members would support him if he went ahead by fiat, Anderson declared, he would defer instead and move the Boynton service outdoors to a strip of land just off church property. He described the boundaries with precise detail and rising excitement. "I'm going to wire it up with loudspeakers," he shouted. "And I'm going to tell the folks that they can't come into Tabernacle because the deacons are afraid! Afraid of the white folks!"

"No, no, brother pastor, don't do that," Dinkins replied. Ambushed, the deacons tried to gauge the mix of bluff and determination in Anderson's face.

None of this internal anguish showed when the crowd of 350 gathered at Tabernacle Baptist on Tuesday evening, May 14. For them, soft organ music and the calming presence of Reverend Anderson in his robes preserved the repose of the sanctuary against a tension that was shockingly external. Glaring red and blue police lights flashed through the stained glass windows. On their car radios, many in attendance had been listening to the angry voice of Governor George Wallace denouncing the presence of U.S. Army troops in Birmingham as "an open invitation to resumption of street rioting by lawless Negro mobs, under the assumption that they will be protected by the federal military forces." For three days, since bombs detonated outside Martin Luther King's motel room, tremors of race spread from Birmingham to Selma and far beyond, rattling bones in Tabernacle.

Sheriff Jim Clark entered the sanctuary with a brace of deputies. The sudden appearance of any white person would have hushed the church, but these armed men, led by the widely feared enforcer of the white supremacy laws, drew an instant crowd of nervous Tabernacle deacons. Clark showed them a court order giving him access to the church to guard against insurrection, explaining it as something like a search warrant. Waving off a humble request that the guns not be displayed in the church, Clark posted his men all around the rear of the curved walnut pews beneath Tabernacle's imposing central dome. One deputy transmitted Clark's orders by walkie-talkie to some fifty reinforcements posted outside among flashing lights. Angry shouts and the sounds of breaking glass filtered through the walls. Those seated in the pews could not be sure whether the damage to their parked cars came from white bystanders or the law enforcement officers themselves, or both. The threat was as ambiguous as Clark's court order, which could be stretched to mean that the officers were protecting the church against the insurrectionary violence of white segregationists.

For three hours, the gathered Negroes expressed their own double meanings on the edge between heavenly and earthly reward. When hymns and testimonials to Boynton had lifted spirits, Lafayette introduced as featured speaker the man who had assigned him to Selma, SNCC Executive Director James Forman. Although Forman at thirty-four was a few months older than Martin Luther King, he remained a student leader in title and function, and his measured audacity often bowled over audiences who expected the tentative suggestions of youth. Preaching a sermon called "The High Cost of Freedom," Forman said it was good that the white officers were there to deprive them of cheap courage. If they wanted to shout amen to the mission of Sam Boynton, they should do so in front of the sheriff who stood in its way. "Someday they will have to open up that ballot box," said Forman. A crescendo of enthusiasm made a number of elders cringe for the reaction of Sheriff Clark. Among them was the senior minister, who hastened to deliver the closing prayer. "You shouldn't put all of the blame on the white man," he said. "...We've got a lot to do in our own homes and own community before we talk about these other things."

Upon dismissal near midnight, the buzzing crowd exited no further than Tabernacle's front steps before clumping hesitantly at the sight of angry whites strewn along Broad Street, Selma's main thoroughfare. Most prominent were teenagers wielding freshly lathed table legs from a nearby furniture company. Sheriff Clark surprised some of the Negro leaders by shouting for everyone to disperse, but nothing happened. His special deputies mingled among the whites, who stood their ground. As Negroes huddled in panic, fearing arrest if they stayed and attack if they moved, decisive peacemaking authority arrived in the person of the football coach from Selma High School, who jumped from his car and pointed out his current and former players, telling them to go home.

Neither the Selma mass meeting nor the Muslim trial in Los Angeles competed with the avalanche of movement stories breaking out in city after city. Government statisticians counted 758 racial demonstrations and 14,733 arrests in 186 American muncipalities over the ten weeks following the May 10 Birmingham settlement. Sites quivered separately, unaware of one another or of the converging potential to lift up the right to vote and the raw alienations of cities outside the South. Less than two years later, Malcolm X would speak from a Selma pulpit alongside James Bevel and Fred Shuttlesworth, with Martin Luther King in jail, in a voting movement that made Selma an American landmark.

Copyright © 1998 by Taylor Branch