At Canaan’s Edge: America
In The King Years 1965-68
Edge: America In The King Years 1965-68
Simon & Schuster, New York
( 2006): 1039 pp.
Perhaps only a trilogy as monumental
as Taylor Branch’s three-volume history of America
during the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., years could do justice
to that equally monumental epoch. Branch, the best-selling
author and Pulitzer-prize winner who has written “Parting the Waters” and “Pillar
of Fire”, which deal with King’s journey from 1954
through 1965, completes his saga in this final volume.
Following Dr. King’s martyrdom
and subsequent iconic status in our culture, popular mythology
portrayed the civil rights struggle as an historic inevitability,
with its participants literally marching on the same page,
shoulder to shoulder.
Yet as Branch describes in this
compelling, densely detailed and energetically written account
of those watershed final years of Dr. King’s life, the outcome was hardly pre-determined. The
civil rights leader had to contend with nearly as many internal
battles as with external enemies. There were those who considered
him to be grandstanding, who resented his platform of non-violence,
who felt unappreciated or discounted as the relentless pace
of events seemed to take on a life of its own.
Even as some members of SNCC ( Student
Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) challenged Dr. King’s decisions, seeing him
as a “hit and run celebrity”, Dr. King had to deal
with President Lyndon Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover. The march
in Selma across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, with the subsequent
national horror evoked by televised images of bullying state
troopers wielding clubs, tear gas spray guns and canisters
on the marchers, was “ a turning point,” writes
Branch. “The tide of confidence in equal citizenship
had swelled over decades to confront segregation as well as
the Nazis, and would roll forward still, but an opposing tide
of resentment and disbelief rose to challenge the overall direction
of American politics, contesting the language of freedom.”
After the first bloody march at
Selma, Dr. King’s decision
during the second march not to continue on to Montgomery—“With
but an instant to decide whether this was a trap or a miraculous
parting of the Red Sea”—provided yet another contentious
flashpoint, with some movement leaders eager to maintain momentum.
Nor was the civil rights movement the only issue convulsing
America, as Branch points out. The escalating war in Vietnam
distracted and derailed President Johnson, and formed yet another
point of fissure in a country that, at times, seemed to be
literally coming apart at the seams.
In Montgomery, Dr. King’s remarks, those that hadn’t
been prepared in advance, remain powerful: “How long
will justice be crucified and truth buried? I come to say to
you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating
the hour, it will not be long. Because truth crushed to earth
will rise again. How long? Not long! Because no lie can live
forever. How long? Not long! Because you shall reap what you
sow. How long?”. Thanks to Branch’s skillful
description of that scene, painted in all its immediacy
and rhythms, the reader feels as if he were witnessing
it as an actual participant.
Dr. King’s expansion of the
civil rights movement to encompass poverty issues in the
North, and his protests against the Vietnam War, all contribute
to the increasing demands made upon him as a national leader,
demands that physically and emotionally exhausted him.
By the time Dr. King reaches his
fateful rendezvous in Memphis, the reader has seen Dr. King’s despair and depression
as urban riots supplant his message of non-violence. His final
speech to the Memphis sanitation workers is heartbreakingly
prescient: “Because I have been to the mountaintop...
Like anybody I would like to live a long life—longevity
has its place...I just want to do God’s will. And he’s
allowed me to go up the mountain. And I’ve looked over.
And I have seen the promised land. And I may not get there
with you, but I want you to know, tonight, that we as a people
will get to the promised land.”
Branch’s great achievement is that King’s
words affect the reader just as powerfully as they did his
listeners, and make one mourn as though it were April 1968
the loss of that extraordinary man.#