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A life lived on the trail of King

Taylor Branch finishes the trilogy on a leader he finds a symbol of 'hope over despair.'

January 16, 2006|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

It was the deaths of two garbage collectors crushed by a municipal truck that launched the strike that drew the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis. As tornadoes and thunderstorms circled the city, King delivered the speech that became his epitaph. "I may not get there with you," he told the crowd in the Mason Temple as the wind howled, "but I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land."

At suppertime the next day, as he got ready for a march to support sanitation workers' demands for better conditions, King was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. An hour later, at 7:05 p.m. on April 4, 1968, he was pronounced dead. Riots convulsed more than 60 cities across the country.

As Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch writes in his new book, "At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68," which goes on sale today, America was at a boiling point. The war in Vietnam was foundering. Antiwar sentiment was spreading. The civil-rights struggle was taking aim at the last vestiges of American feudalism, challenging segregation and the kind of institutionalized racism that fueled an FBI smear campaign against King.

"Race was, and is, still scary to a lot of people," says Branch by phone from his Baltimore home, on the eve of Martin Luther King Day. King's enemies "knew that he spoke to a lot of people, and a lot of people agreed with him. He was mesmerizing, because of the timbre of his voice and his words. His voice was like a furnace of optimism, trying to triumph over despair. He defined something that was strong enough to offer hope in the face of suffering.

"He was living in a time when people got lynched for almost nothing, and there was no expectation there was going to be justice. Black people were largely invisible. To be a symbol of that hope over despair is an amazing thing."

The book is the last in Branch's trilogy on the King period. He originally set out to write just one, "Parting the Waters," which became a bestseller and won a Pulitzer Prize after its publication in 1988. He published "Pillar of Fire" 10 years later. By now, the snowy-haired author, who turned 59 on Saturday, has devoted much of his life to the three biblical volumes on King.

"I think people will look back on the civil-rights movement and refer to the trilogy of Taylor Branch's work as the definitive historical scholarship on the period," says Clarence Jones, 75, King's onetime attorney. "Taylor wasn't there. He was an outsider, a white Southerner. He never spoke to Mr. King. Here's this white Southern man gathering this meticulous scholarship, and you know what? He got it right."

Branch grew up in King's hometown, Atlanta, in an era of rigid segregation. Its ugly meaning hit home when he was 16, when he watched television coverage of peaceful civil rights protests as police in Birmingham, Ala., turned dogs and fire hoses on children.

Branch didn't engage in civil-rights efforts until, as a graduate student at Princeton in 1969, he spent a summer working for Atlanta's Voter Education Project, scouting rural Georgia counties where black people had been excluded from voting, trying to find black activists willing to work to reverse the disenfranchisement.

He visited black churches and played poker in a black juke joint (a local sheriff briefly jailed him for being on the wrong side of the tracks), but everyone was terrified. Finally, Branch met some black women picking cotton. One, a respected matriarch and midwife, volunteered. By the end of the summer, three midwives were on board, and two of them would one day be elected commissioners in their counties.

Branch kept a written account of his summer, and a professor showed part of it to the editor of the Washington Monthly. The magazine ran three excerpts, and Branch found himself with a budding career as a writer.

Branch ghost-wrote John Dean's Watergate-driven autobiography and co-wrote a book -- a basketball memoir with NBA legend Bill Russell -- before returning to the civil-rights era for his trilogy.

Branch was not a witness, so he relied partly on oral history. For "At Canaan's Edge," he also listened to tapes of President Lyndon B. Johnson's telephone calls. He conducted countless interviews for stories, fueled by Southern storytelling that reenacted such milestones as King's 1965 Alabama march from Selma to Montgomery, a demonstration of moral force that helped pave the way for the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

The storytelling breathes life into lesser-known dramas in such backwaters as Lowndes County in Alabama, then best known for bloodletting by the Ku Klux Klan. There, determined women in faded cotton dresses helped a deacon found a political party known by a black panther symbol, which they had borrowed from a local high school team -- a name Branch said would be co-opted by black militants.

Cartoons and smears

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