King's last years
Branch concludes landmark trilogy on civil rights leader
With the publication of At Canaan's Edge, historian Taylor Branch completes his massive Martin Luther King Jr. trilogy, an undertaking that began in 1989 with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Parting the Waters and continued in 1999 with Pillar of Fire. This final volume chronicles King's crusades, virtually on a daily basis, from Feb. 8, 1965, when the civil rights leader returned to Alabama for the start of another perilous voter-registration push, to his assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
During those three bloody years, the indomitable King kept up pressure for desegregation in the South, expanded the rights struggle to the North (notably into Chicago), clashed increasingly with President Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War, kept the black power factions at bay within his own camp, crisscrossed the country to raise funds, persevered in the face of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover's dirty-tricks campaign against him and, to the end, remained an unshakable exemplar of nonviolent resistance. His moral clarity and physical stamina, as detailed here, were truly marvelous.
There's something to be said for Branch's stamina, too. He embarked on his study with the notion that it could be encompassed in a single book that could be finished within three years. "That was three times longer than I'd ever spent on another book," he tells BookPage from his publisher's office in New York. "I knew it was a big project, but obviously I didn't have any idea about the scope of it. The original proposal, written, I think, at the end of '81 or in early '82, defined it as pretty much what it turned out to be not a standard biography, but a narrative history of the era."
Through much of At Canaan's Edge, Branch has us peering over King's shoulder as he attends to the minutiae of organizing marches, placating contentious staff members and urging Johnson to put the weight and resources of the federal government behind the drive for racial equality. To achieve this level of intimacy, the author relied on a variety of inside sources. "Some of [the details] came from [FBI] wiretap records which are dated right down to the minute," he explains. "Those were very helpful in knowing exactly when things were said. But, also, there were a lot of different biographical records that were pretty detailed as far as what [King's] schedule was. Speakers tend to keep better diaries and better itineraries. Sifting through the reams of FBI transcripts was an ordeal," Branch says. "All you have to do is go to the FBI headquarters and be willing to sit in the basement in a windowless room and endure their security procedures, which are pretty rough. If you want to go to the bathroom, you have to ask for a security escort to come and take you to and from to make sure you're not flushing some document down the toilet."
Because relatively few of Johnson's White House tapes had been transcribed when Branch was conducting his research, he had an assistant go to the Johnson Library and screen for relevant material before applying his own ears to the task. Even at a distance of 40 years, it is painful to witness the widening chasm between King and Johnson over the war in Vietnam. Both were men of great promise. Like King, Johnson had a genuine, even passionate, concern for the downtrodden and disenfranchised. But while King pushed on as an idealist, the president bogged down as the political pragmatist who concluded he could not abandon a destructive war he didn't really believe in. We view Johnson's tragic decline with the same chilling fascination with which we watch King's approaching death.
A lesser thorn in King's side was the charismatic Stokely Carmichael, who popularized the concept of black power and increasingly argued for militant rather than nonviolent resistance. As the media-stirring concept caught hold, particularly among younger and more urban blacks, King found it harder to engage adherents to his approach. Branch interviewed Carmichael in the mid-1980s, after he had moved to Africa and changed his name to Kwame Ture. "[He] was very argumentative and ideological," Branch recalls. "To my mind, he'd lost a lot of his charm, although I enjoyed talking to him. He had less historical perspective on himself than anybody else I interviewed. He was completely blind to the notion that he didn't have a coherent philosophy. It was kind of left wing, but not left wing with Marx or any other white leader. It was kind of all black, but then the all-black parties in Africa his mentors over there all turned corrupt. So there was nothing inherently stable or inspiring about a society built around blackness. He was kind of trapped." Carmichael died in Africa in 1998.
Compounding the troubles suffered by the civil rights and peace movements during the last year of King's life, Branch contends, was Israel's dazzling triumph in the Six-Day War. "A lot of utopian processing of thought of what is possible through politics was spearheaded by Jewish intellectuals and had been for a century since the Civil War," Branch says. "After the Six-Day War, a lot of that got diverted into national security. National security policy has proven vital to Israel. I think it became pretty seductive. You had a lot of Jewish intellectual thought going into reconciling Jewish heritage with military policy on the part of the United States."
In the book, Branch observes that, "The Six-Day War accelerated an ideology of progress projected through rather than against the established power of the United States, allied with Israel as the strong model democracy of the Middle East. Black power served as a foil of squandered potential."
The centrality of nonviolence to democracy fascinates Branch. "As I was studying the civil rights era," he says, "one of the things that dawned on me . . . was that I wasn't just studying race relations and I wasn't just studying the interaction of religion and race in politics, but that I was studying democracy in its bare new bones. I have been pondering some project to try to foster more civic dialogue in America about what democracy is."
Branch says he hasn't settled on a topic for his next book. "But," he adds, "I know it will be short."
Edward Morris is a writer in Nashville.