At Canaan’s Edge
Review by Peter Ling
At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965-1968
By Taylor Branch
Simon & Schuster 1,039pp £25 ISBN 068485712X
Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, We are Free at last!’ As the last copy-editing session ended, Taylor Branch may have been forgiven if the words of Martin Luther King came unbidden to his mind. Branch began research for his massive trilogy on America in the King years in 1982, and its first two volumes Parting the Waters (1988) and Pillar of Fire(1998) received justifiable acclaim. The second volume took the narrative up to 1965, an end point that left some of us doubting whether Branch could reach his 1968 terminal date in a single remaining volume. But he has made it.
It has taken twenty-three years to recount the thirteen years of King’s career largely because Branch provides a panorama of 1960s America, not just a biography of King. Synchronicity – the phenomenon of concurrent events – has been the book’s prevailing fascination, and at a time when specialized scholarship focuses narrowly on single strands, Branch serves as a useful corrective. In the present volume, for instance, the racial struggle within the United States and the Vietnam War provide twin parallel narratives.
Take March 7th, 1965, when peaceful civil rights protesters, attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, were beaten back and gassed by mounted state troopers in front of national TV cameras. The ensuing outcry helped to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a highpoint achievement of the civil rights struggle. Over that very same weekend, President Lyndon Johnson and key advisors agonized over military requests for more troops to go to Vietnam. Central to their deliberations was how to send reinforcements without triggering a public outcry. Events in Selma solved their problem by holding press attention firmly elsewhere.
Branch has always shown a remarkable ability to select minor historical players and make them central to his story. In Parting the Waters, he chose King’s predecessor at Dexter Avenue Church, Vernon Johns, and in Pillar of Fire he brought to public attention the heroic but neglected career of Mississippi activist Vernon Dahmer (murdered late in 1965 when his home was firebombed by white terrorists). In the present volume, non-specialists will be fascinated by the tale of Jonathan Daniels, a white Episcopalian novice, slain while trying to help voter registration in Lowndes County, Alabama. Together with other Northern white victims such as James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, Daniels symbolizes the way in which the willingness of some whites to side with black southerners drew lethal fire from white racists. Daniels’ story and that of his killer Tom Coleman has already been told by Charles Eagles in Outside Agitator (1993).
If Branch is less successful in unearthing forgotten heroes in this volume than he has been in the past, he nevertheless remains a brilliant narrator of epic events and sheer villainy. His account of the despondency, divisions, and personal frailties of King’s final years lists those that earlier writers have noted. But much more successfully, through interwoven first hand accounts, Branch conveys the raw anger of white Chicago homeowners, the horrors of Vietnam for US troops, and the agonies of President Johnson, ordering men to fight and die in a conflict he sensed they could not win.
J. Edgar Hoover is a prime villain in Branch’s trilogy, and the FBI emerges from this volume as an organization closer in spirit to the Mob than to a branch of democratic governance. Mounting racial unrest and anti-war protests enabled Hoover to pursue a range of illegal activities from clandestine surveillance to the blatant use of agents provocateurs, and King was a prime target.
After King’s death, we learn, the FBI hoped either to pin the blame on Black Power militants – Stokely Carmichael and H. ‘Rap’ Brown – or to tarnish King’s memory by suggesting that the killing was a ‘hit’ paid for by the family of King’s Los Angeles mistress.
The willingness of the King family and of movement veterans to support the efforts to overturn James Earl Ray’s conviction is seen by Branch as stemming from a therapeutic need to identify some evil greater than the measly Ray to account for so much pain and loss.
Branch’s three titles are all from the biblical Exodus. In his eerie assassination-eve ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’ sermon, King himself drew the analogy that inspires this volume’s title, likening himself to Moses, who dies at Canaan’s edge before God’s chosen people enter the Promised Land. Reflecting back on the trilogy, Branch endorses the promise not of land but of non-violence, which he declares to be currently ‘an orphan among democratic ideas’. From the Berlin Wall to South Africa’s Robben Island, Branch claims, repressive regimes have ultimately faltered in the face of non-violent resistance.
Yet even his own account concedes that by 1968 King was ‘nearly alone among colleagues weary of sacrifice’ in his adherence to non-violence, and that Lyndon Johnson’s dilemma on Vietnam was crucially affected by the proven appeal of tribal antagonisms and militarism in politics. If LBJ retreated, a Communist military victory would ensure a Republican electoral triumph.
Intermittently visible in these pages is the figure of Ronald Reagan, perhaps the principal beneficiary of that triumph with his ability to preach tribalism and militarism with a genial smile. Ahead of his successful race for governor of California in 1966, Reagan declared that he would have voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act and condemned the Voting Rights Act as a gross encroachment on local control.
On Vietnam, he denounced student demonstrators and urged a full-blooded quest for victory. He drew a record turnout, and won by a record margin. Attracting barely 5 per cent of the black vote, he, nevertheless, acted convincingly outraged when anyone suggested that he was a racist. As President, nearly two decades later, Reagan opined that one day secret FBI files would prove whether King was a loyal American.
Recent polls report that many Americans now rank Reagan as one of their greatest presidents, even while they are comfortable with the King of ‘I have a Dream’ fame. Branch would like them to think again and change their minds.
Peter Ling is the author of The Democratic Party: A Photographic History (Thunder Bay Press, 2004).
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Central America
- Early Modern
- 20th Century
- 21st Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology