"AT CANAAN'S EDGE," the final volume of Taylor Branch's lengthy trilogy on the U.S. civil rights movement, picks up the story just as Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous voting rights campaign in Selma, Ala., gains momentum in 1965 and carries it forward until the very moment of King's assassination in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968.
Branch's trilogy centers on King -- "America in the King Years" has been the consistent subtitle -- but the first two books stood out because of their emphasis on other, less-celebrated leaders. "Parting the Waters," the Pulitzer Prize-winning book that covered the years 1954 to 1963, featured Robert Moses, a pioneering organizer in Mississippi for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC. "Pillar of Fire," which examined an 18-month period from mid-1963 to early 1965, gave extensive attention to Malcolm X, who left the Nation of Islam for a courageously independent political path before being gunned down by Nation henchmen in February 1965.
"At Canaan's Edge" offers no similar successors. In his excellent treatment of the Selma campaign, Branch singles out Jonathan Daniels, a young white Northern seminarian who enlisted in the movement and was murdered in nearby Lowndes County by an angry racist in August 1965. He also focuses occasionally on Stokely Carmichael, a dedicated SNCC organizer who attracted national fame and controversy when he championed the cry "Black Power" in 1966. But neither become enduring characters. Instead, the figure who dominates perhaps more than King is Lyndon B. Johnson.
Branch emphasizes the president's tragic embrace of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam at least equally with his outspoken calls for racial equality. The emotional richness of his portrayal of Johnson stems primarily from thousands of White House phone calls the president secretly recorded, tapes of which are now publicly available from the Johnson Presidential Library. The difficulty is that two other well-received authors already have plumbed this material.
Michael Beschloss' "Taking Charge" (1997) and "Reaching for Glory" (2001) made available extensive excerpts of those recordings through mid-1965. And last year's "Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws That Changed America," by Nick Kotz, featured the same conversations Branch uses to poignantly depict how awkward and at arm's length Johnson's relationship with King was even before Vietnam intruded so painfully in 1965. Branch downplays Johnson's appetite for the information J. Edgar Hoover's FBI was busy gathering from telephone wiretaps and microphone bugs of King and his associates. Johnson, Kotz showed, was highly susceptible to both the FBI's hugely distorted claims of "Communist influence" on King and the bureau's far better documented accounts of his energetic sex life.
Indeed, "At Canaan's Edge" offers disappointingly little new or original historical information.
After King's historic triumph in Selma and Congress' ensuing passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, he turned his primary focus to the big cities of the North, where racial inequality and endemic poverty already looked even more intractable than Southern segregation. In late 1965, he chose Chicago as his principal urban target, and many of King's veteran Southern staffers shifted northward to work in conjunction with Chicago's local civil rights activists. Their goal was to break down the discriminatory practices and economic barriers that restricted African Americans to decrepit ghettos and soulless public housing high-rises.
But Branch seems relatively uninterested in the Chicago movement's internal dynamics and questionable tactical shift from community organizing to street marches in hostile all-white neighborhoods. His lack of interest may stem from his wholly credible belief that King erred by framing Chicago at the outset as "a localized struggle," seeking only a metropolitan-level settlement. "For the first time in his career," the author observes, a King "campaign for racial justice would aim short of decisive intervention by American citizens as a whole." King's 1963 Birmingham campaign also was ostensibly targeted toward municipal concessions, but Branch rightly observes that "what sharply distinguished the movements was the disparity in their wider impact."
Academic scholars have since argued that King achieved more tangible local gains in Chicago than he did in Birmingham, but in 1966 King's Northern effort was widely pronounced a failure. King tried again the following year, in Cleveland, in a campaign that helped elect Carl Stokes as that city's first black mayor, but Branch devotes even less attention to Cleveland than he does to Chicago. Nor does he emphasize how King came to advocate redistributive economic policies that would appear vastly more radical today than they did in the political climate of the late 1960s.