Book: At Canaan's Edge

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Book:

At Canaan's Edge

Series: Volume 3 of America in the King Years, 1965-68
Author: Taylor Branch
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Publisher: Simon & Schuster

At Canaan’s Edge concludes America in the King Years, a three-volume history that will endure as a masterpiece of storytelling on American race, violence, and democracy. Pulitzer Prize-winner and bestselling author Taylor Branch makes clear in this magisterial account of the civil rights movement that Martin Luther King, Jr., earned a place next to James Madison and Abraham Lincoln in the pantheon of American history.

In At Canaan’s Edge, King and his movement stand at the zenith of America’s defining story, one decade into an epic struggle for the promises of democracy. Branch opens with the authorities’ violent suppression of a voting-rights march in Alabama on March 7, 1965. The quest to cross Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge engages the conscience of the world, strains the civil rights coalition, and embroils King in negotiations with all three branches of the U.S. government.

The marches from Selma coincide with the first landing of large U.S. combat units in South Vietnam. The escalation of the war severs the cooperation of King and President Lyndon Johnson after a collaboration that culminated in the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act.

After Selma, young pilgrims led by Stokely Carmichael take the movement into adjacent Lowndes County, Alabama, where not a single member of the black majority has tried to vote in the twentieth century. Freedom workers are murdered, but sharecroppers learn to read, dare to vote, and build their own political party. Carmichael leaves in frustration to proclaim his famous black power doctrine, taking the local panther ballot symbol to become an icon of armed rebellion.

Also after Selma, King takes nonviolence into Northern urban ghettoes. Integrated marches through Chicago expose hatreds and fears no less virulent than the Mississippi Klan’s, but King’s 1966 settlement with Mayor Richard Daley does not gain the kind of national response that generated victories from Birmingham and Selma. We watch King overrule his advisers to bring all his eloquence into dissent from the Vietnam War. We watch King make an embattled decision to concentrate his next campaign on a positive compact to address poverty. We reach Memphis, the garbage workers’ strike, and King’s assassination.

Parting the Waters provided an unsurpassed portrait of King’s rise to greatness, beginning with the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and ending with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. In Pillar of Fire, theologians and college students braved the dangerous Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 as Malcolm X raised a militant new voice for racial separatism. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed segregation by race and mandated equal opportunity for women. From the pinnacle of winning the Nobel Peace Prize, King willed himself back to “the valley” of jail in his daunting Selma campaign.

At Canaan’s Edge portrays King at the height of his moral power even as his worldly power is waning. It shows why his fidelity to freedom and nonviolence makes him a defining figure long beyond his brilliant life and violent end.

Reviews

Amazon.com

One of the greatest of American stories has found its great chronicler in Taylor Branch. Beginning with Parting the Waters in 1988, followed 10 years later by Pillar of Fire, and closing now with At Canaan’s Edge, Branch has given the short life of Martin Luther King Jr. and the nonviolent revolution he led the epic treatment they deserve. The three books of Branch’s America in the King Years trilogy are lyrical and dramatic, social history as much as biography, woven from the ever more complex strands of King’s movement, with portraits of figures like Lyndon Johnson, Bob Moses, J. Edgar Hoover, and Diane Nash as compelling as that of his central character.

King’s movement may have been nonviolent, but his times were not, and each of Branch’s volumes ends with an assassination: JFK, then Malcolm X, and finally King’s murder in Memphis. We know that’s where At Canaan’s Edge is headed, but it starts with King’s last great national success, the marches for voting rights in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. Once again, the violent response to nonviolent protest brought national attention and support to King’s cause, and within months his sometime ally Lyndon Johnson was able to push through the Voting Rights Act. But alongside those events, forces were gathering that would pull King’s movement apart and threaten his national leadership. The day after Selma’s “Bloody Sunday,” the first U.S. combat troops arrived in South Vietnam, while five days after the signing of the Voting Rights Act, the Watts riots began in Los Angeles. As the escalating carnage in Vietnam and the frustrating pace of reform at home drove many in the movement, most notably Stokely Carmichael, away from nonviolence, King kept to his most cherished principle and followed where its logic took him: to war protests that broke his alliance with Johnson and to a widening battle against poverty in the North as well as the South that caused both critics and allies to declare his movement unfocused and irrelevant.

Branch knows that you can’t tell King’s story without following these many threads, and he spends nearly as much time in Johnson’s war councils as he does in the equally fractious meetings of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Branch’s knotty, allusive style can be challenging, but it vividly evokes the density of those days and the countless demands on King’s manic stoicism. The whirlwind finally slows in the book’s final pages for a bittersweet tour through King’s last hours at the Lorraine Motel—King horsing around with his brother and friends and calling his mother (in between visits to his mistresses), Jesse Jackson rehearsing movement singers, an FBI agent watching through binoculars from across the street—that complete his work of humanizing a great man forever in danger of flattening into an icon. —Tom Nissley

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