Taylor Branch spent decades researching and writing his massive three-volume biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963 (1989) won the Pulitzer Prize in history, and Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-1965 (1998) was an equally compelling narrative of the next critical period in the life of the civil rights leader and of the United States. Now, in At Canaan’s Edge, Branch concludes this trilogy with a detailed account of the last three years of King’s life. Like the earlier volumes, At Canaan’s Edge is a fascinating, detailed biography at the same time it is a brilliant analysis of the United States in one of its most defining moments. Even more, however, At Canaan’s Edge has the advantage of knowing what went before, and it builds on the first two volumes to conclude the life of its extraordinary subject, summarize the Civil Rights movement he headed, and describe the nation that struggled to understand and undertake what he asked.
The outline of this biography and history is easy to follow. At Canaan’s Edge opens in Selma, Alabama, in February of 1965, with the plan to march fifty miles (through Lowndes County, where no black person had voted in the twentieth century) to Montgomery, the state capital, to dramatize nationally the need for voting rights legislation. This first of four books in the volume, titled “Selma: The Last Revolution,” is itself book-length at 202 pages and re-creates this remarkable moment in American history when national television broadcast images of American citizens being attacked by state troopers and police for demanding their civil rights. It was perhaps the height of the Civil Rights movement, and of King’s career, and helped to propel much of the progress (and some of the violence) that would follow.
At the very same moment, the second major figure in this story, President Lyndon Johnson, who would be so important in getting historic civil rights legislation through Congress, was about to begin an eight-year bombing campaign against North Vietnam and to sink deeper into a war that would divide the nation irreversibly and which would finally force him out of office. As he watched television footage of the brutalities on the Edmund Pettus Bridge out of Selma that night of March 7, 1965, Johnson agonized to friends about Vietnam: “I can’t get out. I can’t finish it with what I have got. So what the hell can I do?” The two figures of King and Johnson, both surrounded by violence, provide the double focus of this last volume of Branch’s biography.
The story of the Civil Rights movement after Selma, Branch shows, is one of increasing tension between King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), with their philosophy of nonviolence on one hand, and the growing forces on the other side, first of Stokely Carmichael and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee but soon of Elijah Muhammad and the Black Muslims, the Black Panthers, and other advocates of black power. The Civil Rights movement King had led for years created its own momentum after Selma and went off in directions he could neither predict nor stop. Violence begat violence.
King himself, while he continued to work for civil rights progress nonviolently, became increasingly caught up in two other issues: first the question of poverty, which he came to see as a root cause of so many of the nation’s ills. (He moved into a slum flat in Chicago with his family in January of 1966 to dramatize urban poverty and began to plan what he called the Poor People’s Campaign and a march on Washington.) He also, however, came to see that the other enemy of basic rights for his people was the very war in Vietnam in which Lyndon Johnson felt trapped, that “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today[is] my own government.” The final campaign before his assassination took King to Memphis, Tennessee, to organize support for the sanitation workers’ strike for better pay and working conditions, but the war in Vietnam he increasingly opposed would last another five years after his death.
The volume is long, but it is difficult to see where cuts could be made. Branch includes more than two...
(The entire section is 1752 words.)