by JamesRMacLean on April 9, 2007There has been much praise for this book, most of which I would second. It is vital reading for any student of American history. It is well written; indeed, I felt the writing style was more literary and more suspenseful than PTW. The allocation of styles is sensible; the straightforward, conservative narrative style of PTW is helpful for readers new to the subject, while POF follows with a somewhat more daring style of narration, for readers now familiar with the main characters.
Readers would be advised to note this is essentially a biography of Martin Luther King, Jr, and not so much an account of the civil rights movement. Not only that, unlike Garrow's *Bearing the Cross* , it addresses MLK as a thinker and philosopher of nonviolence[*], not as a political actor. Every element in Branch's books is marshaled to illustrate or test King's doctrine of nonviolence. While Branch possibly had other motives, a lot of the criticisms of his book can be explained away with this hypothesis..(Examples of criticism include the meager attention to other characters in the Civil Rights Movement, brief references to the women, or lack of any sort of radical analysis. While Branch has responded to criticism of his male-centric account of this period, I will merely add that women--white or black--seldom posed a challenge to nonviolence. Likewise, Branch does not attempt to assess the forces driving racism itself, and what caused those forces suddenly to weaken or capitulate. This is about a philosophical approach.)
The rival approach to King's philosophy of nonviolence, during this period, was a posture of confrontation (adopted by the Nation of Islam and by King's adversaries in Florida and Mississippi). "Posturing" is an intermediate stance between violence and nonviolence, and it was the choice of a surprising number of white adversaries still hoping to bluff their way out of a violent confrontation. At this time, the appeal to "states rights" had proven to be a legalistic shell game of evasion, and one doomed to end badly for the segregationists. At the same time, the Nation of Islam was adopting militant rhetoric it could not seriously dream of putting into practice. By adopting a discipline of confrontation and central control, the NOI was able to create an entirely new conception of the African American in the minds of white Americans, as a potentially fierce and truculent contender in America's endless civic brawls.
In both cases, the strategy of posturing violence was to collapse in internal struggles. The whites who sought to discourage King's soul power in Mississippi pushed the envelope of posturing--of intimidation and belligerent confrontation--to the point that the ruling white caste began to lose face and succumbed to the enforcer "rednecks." The NOI split along personality lines, with Malcolm X being driven from the inner circle of Elijah Muhammad, then forming a charismatic dissenting ummah of non-sectarian Muslims, and exposing the deep contradictions in the NOI's radical pretensions.
While the NOI plays a smaller role in the book than I have implied, it is fitting that the book begins with a NOI confrontation with the police, and ends with a deadly confrontation between NOI and its most famous ex-member, Malcolm X. The ideal of establishing Black Pride through a personality cult was to prove an unmitigated disaster for the NOI, while the ideal of defeating nonviolent action through constant state harassment was to severely wound the South's ruling class.
[*] In my review of *At Canaan's Edge* I address King's doctrine of "nonviolence" in more detail; but "nonviolence" is a very inadequate term to describe the concept.
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