I wanted to like the book more than I did. I started re-reading "Parting the Waters" when John Lewis died, and after a brief respite to read a few other things, picked up "Pillar of Fire." The book, while good, was not of the caliber of Branch's first book in the series. Much of that is due to the fact that the first 170 pages rehashes the period up to Kennedy's death in 1963 which was more majestically and emotionally covered in "Parting the Waters." This is likely due to the 10 year publishing lag between the two books. If you are reading the books, back-to-back, I'd skim quickly or possibly just skip. As for "new" material, the book really only covers the period between JFK's assassination in November of 1963 and Malcolm X's in February of 1965. 1964 was indeed a momentous year, but I think Branch could have covered the same time period in fewer pages or a longer time period in the same number.
The book while largely about King, also spends a great deal of space discussing Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, and Lyndon Johnson. While both topics are well covered, it has inspired me to re-read Haley's "Autobiography of Malcolm X" and LONGING for Caro to publish the last volume in his "Years of Lyndon Johnson" series. As I read Caro was only through 1966 earlier this year, I fear we may not get Volume 5 before we lose Caro, which would be a travesty.
The book is well worth reading today and there are a few highlights and interesting thoughts that I am left with given our current political circumstance.
1) The chapter on the Republican Convention is notable as this is the seed of the Republicans' "Southern Strategy" which would play out more dramatically in 1968, '72, and again in the eighties, and to some degree 2016 and likely this year. Branch highlights the dog whistle of (institutional) racism in Eisenhower's convention speech which sows the seeds of Nixon's later War on Crime.
2) The pattern of Democrats feeling a need to show that they are every bit as militaristic as Republicans is evident in Johnson succumbing to advisors to scale up activities in Vietnam even though he seems to have suspicions about the winnability of a war in Southeast Asia where the leaders of the nation the US is supporting have questionable legitimacy and little to no domestic popular support. There are echoes of Kennedy's "Missile Gap," the growth of the military budget under Clinton and inability to capture the peace dividend from the fall of the Soviet Union, and Obama's continuation of his predecessor's wars in the Middle East.
3) Internecine fights and troubles within the Civil Rights Movement, Nation of Islam, and US Government. King comes across as worn out and tired by his Nobel acceptance speech in December 1964. Much would seem to have to do with petty squabble within the SCLC and politicking and envy across civil rights organizations. The Nation of Islam was literally in the midst of a civil war leading to Malcolm X's assassination and an internal reign of terror that lasted at least until Elijah Muhammad's death. The FBI comes across as a rogue agency fighting Hoover's agenda as opposed to being a coordinated arm of the US Justice Department. Advisors to Johnson are seen jockeying for position and championing there own agendas. Seems a bit familiar...
I was struck by how far we've come as a society on LGBT rights in the past 50+ years and how far we still have to go for Civil Rights. The black mark of homosexual acts by Bayard Rustin and Walter Jenkins were almost as much as a stain as Communism. To wit, "Johnson needed Hoover's national authority to shield his campaign from charges of immorality mixed with spy danger; Hoover needed Johnson to overlook his failure to warn of Walter Jenkins's arrest records on file for years at the FBI...To protect Johnson, FBI agents unsuccessfully pressured doctors to explain Jenkins's YMCA conduct not as 'voluntary' homosexuality but the result of a 'mysterious disease which causes disintegration of the brain.' " (p.518)
In summary, a very good book, but not the excellent book I was hoping for.