At Canaan's Edge

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Taylor Branch. At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965-68. New York: Simon and Schuster. 2006. Pp.xi-767. $20.00. Paperback: ISBN 0684857138


Summary

This is the third book in a series that Branch has written on the Civil Rights movement. This is not a biography of Martin Luther King Jr. Rather, it is a historical narrative of the last three years in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It opens and ends in violence which is a reflection of the turmoil of the 1960’s. King holds the book together but, people big and small come and go throughout the story. By using primary sources from personal letters, oral histories from individuals, newsreel footage plus other archival materials, Branch is able to give the reader a personal look at three years in intimate details.

The book opens with “Bloody Sunday,” the march across the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where marchers were attacked and tear gassed by state troopers waiting for them. Selma was about the right to vote without discrimination. But in Alabama and other states in the Deep South, the right, as Branch describes it, was a myth. At one point King runs an ad in the New York Times that there were more Negroes in jail with him than there are on voting rolls. (p14) Those that tried to register were threatened, abused and even murdered. Branch’s narrative brings the ugly racism of the Deep South to life in a way that shows what blacks dealt with on a daily basis. From Selma, Branch covers the fragmentation of the Civil Rights movement. He looks at how King tried to balance the local grass roots groups with the larger national agenda. King tried to keep the non-violent movement together as younger radical members like Stokely Carmichael advocated a more militant stance.

Branch also looks at the relationship between President Lyndon Johnson and King as both use each other to get what they wanted. King wanted government intervention and believed that he needed Johnson and new policies to win the war on poverty in the country. Johnson was committed to civil rights and grabbed the opportunity to show his support by using King. King and Johnson had a good relationship until King finally spoke out against the war in Vietnam. King’s opposition to the war undermines his relationship with Johnson. In the end King is shown as depressed over how violence was becoming a part of the Civil Rights movement, the infighting within the movement, the war in Vietnam and the lack of support for his war on poverty. Even in his last march in Memphis he couldn’t control the violence that broke out. Yet to the end King stuck to his belief in non-violence.




Commentary

Pat Kelly Fall 2007


Taylor Branch has written a fascinating if bulky book about the last three years of the Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. It also looks at President Lyndon Johnson and a host of other leading personalities of the period. One of the problems with the book is that it jumps from place to place and person to person so often that at times the reader has a problem keeping places and events straight. One moment Branch is talking about Johnson and the next paragraph he is referring to how Robert Kennedy struggles to find his way after his brother’s death and then it jumps back to Selma. (p138) The book looks at many developments involving the rise of black power, including the growing white backlash to the Watts riots. At times the story Branch is trying to tell about King and the Civil Rights movement gets lost. A great deal of the book is spent on Johnson agonizing over losing his Great Society to the war in Vietnam. Branch also goes into unneeded details, such as the American Express Card being introduced in 1959.

The second half of the book falters somewhat. It covers King’s attempts to advance his views on democracy through the war on poverty outside of the South. Branch’s narrative breaks down because of the setting of Chicago. A native of Atlanta, Branch has a feel for the South, the Jim Crow era, and its racial injustices. However, he loses his direction when King shifts to Chicago for his war on poverty. The Chicago and the Midwest had its own version of racism, only it was segregation through politicians, real estate agents, developers and whites who pledged to protect their neighborhoods. Branch sees it as just a continuation of southern racism, when actually it was a different type of racism. It is also interesting that King mixed politics and religion and nobody ever questioned it. Today the press would be asking if King was crossing the line between separation of church and state. The book is well worth reading for anyone who is interested in the Civil Rights movement and the political climate of the 1960’s. Readers would be wise to read the three books in order to get a full sense of this important period in American history.

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