The pages of historian Taylor Branch’s third volume in his parallel biography of Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil-rights movement turn heavily. Branch’s prose remains compelling, his facts are packed with the alluring blend of vivid detail and wise analysis, and yet we know that it’s all heading to the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where King was felled by an assassin’s bullet.
King’s death casts a shadow over these pages as it did over the heart of America. You can argue the nation has never recovered from the murders of King, John F. Kennedy, and Bobby Kennedy — assassinations that stole what innocence we had left as a nation and introduced the bitterness of cynicism to our ideals of domestic freedom of speech and protest.
King had chinks in his personality. His vanity and his philandering are explored in Branch’s earlier volumes. But his convictions and his public acts of heroism and decency in the face of poisonous resistance overshadow them. In the coda of At Canaan’s Edge, Branch offers this eulogy: “King himself upheld nonviolence until he was nearly alone among colleagues weary of sacrifice. To the end, he resisted incitements to violence, cynicism, and tribal retreat. He grasped freedom seen and unseen, rooted in ecumenical faith, sustaining patriotism to brighten the heritage of his country for all people. These treasures abide with lasting promise from America in the King years.”
Today that promise remains unfulfilled, and those treasures are spurned by our generation of national leaders. For that reason, Branch’s trilogy is a crucial social history. Race and are the bottom-line issues in all of American politics and economic policy. We need look no farther than New Orleans to see how far we haven’t come since the civil-rights years. And the Branch books are a potent reminder of how much even one personcan accomplish. In that respect, King personified the American Dream, and that’s why a piece of it died with him.
Branch won a Pulitzer Prize for Parting the Waters (covering 1954 to 1963), which was followed by Pillar of Fire. Those books wend their way through King’s college years, courtship, and early days in the pulpit, as well as his galvanization to activism. We see the development of his “I Have a Dream” speech and the strategy of the children’s marches and the Mississippi Freedom Summer. At Canaan’s Edge is harrowing from the start, as King — already under a cloud of death threats — begins gearing up for the march on Selma, Alabama, where the bloodyforce directed at his pedestrian armada as it attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in a voters’-rights demonstration finally focused the eyes of the world on America’s racial struggle.
Another important theme of these books is the balance between faith and politics. Although some of his ministers threatened to abandon the principles King upheld, he remained unshaken — even as he walked in the valley of death — in his conviction that religion is an invitation to freedom, not a mandate to restrict it, and that equal votes were the earthly equivalent of equal souls before God.