Against the Current, No. 129, July/
Deferred Freedom Agenda
— The Editors
Race and Class: Facing the New Backlash
— Malik Miah
Memoirs of a 1960s Activist
— Gloria House
July 1967: Rebellion
— Kate Stacy
Voices of Iraqi Workers
— Traven Leyshon
It's Political Not Personal
— Paula Chakravartty and Stephanie Luce
How to Resist Sarkozy?
— Peter Drucker
Women's NGOs Under Conditions of Occupation and War
— Shahrzad Mojab
Bolivia: Transition on Hold
— Jeffery R. Webber
Coca and Conflict in Bolivia
— Benjamin Dangl
Bolivia's Long Revolution
— Susan Spronk
A Nation at Canaan's Edge
— Mark Higbee
Artistry Serving Activism
— Paul Le Blanc
Speaking for New Orleans
— Christian Roselund
— Dianne Feeley
A Revolutionary Life
— Alan Wald
On String Theory
— Ansar Fayyazuddin
- In Memoriam
Martin Seldon, 1923-2007
— Christopher Phelps
At Canaan’s Edge:
America in the King Years 1965-68
New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006, 1,038 pages, $35 hardcover, $20 paper.
TAKEN TOGETHER, TAYLOR Branch’s three volumes on “America in the King Years” comprise the most comprehensive narrative of the high-water years of the Civil Rights Revolution, as well as a monumental and dramatic life-and-times biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Branch’s prose is rich and powerful, propelling readers along through the cumulatively nearly 3,000 pages of the story he has crafted.
As this reviewer argued in ATC 114 (vol.XIX no.6, January-February 2000), discussing Branch’s first two volumes Parting the Waters and Pillar of Fire, “By eschewing a purely biographical approach, Branch has written the best King biography yet produced”: not being wholly King-centric, Branch is free to explore social forces outside of King’s immediate circumstances that nonetheless shaped his politics and leadership — and were themselves shaped by King and his Movement as well.
Branch has both the reporter’s eye for telling detail and a great historian’s ability to discern broad patterns and pivotal events. He treats King as a serious intellectual and strategist — although the last of the trilogy is perhaps least focused on King’s ideas and sermons, as Branch shifts too quickly at times from what was on King’s mind to the events of the day. But this also reflects the different tenor of the times after 1965.
Branch’s brilliant examination of “America in the King Years” produces a kind of collective more than individual biography of what we might call “King, the Movement.” Yet some of Branch’s most intriguing conclusions about the importance of Martin Luther King, as man and Movement, for American society today are more implied through metaphor than developed as explicit arguments.
Center of Postwar History
Branch’s overt thesis is clearly stated: He sees Martin Luther King Jr. as the most historically significant American of the postwar generation; King’s life and struggles embody the most profound problems and most essential changes that defined postwar American history.
To Branch, King was both symbol of American promise and the embodiment of efforts to fulfill that promise; both a vital leader in his time, and a symbol of social justice and equality for all time. By putting this radical Black Christian pastor, not some white icon like John F. Kennedy, at the center stage of postwar American history, the author pointedly challenges how the country’s past is commonly understood.
Branch’s goals include a reformulation of how Americans explain our past – a rather large objective. His trilogy has many virtues, but perhaps its most enduring achievement will be this challenge to the popular American view of our recent past: He sees King and his movement’s struggle for justice — including both Movement achievements and defeats — rather than some brave presidential decision, or some product of the mass entertainment industry, as the key, defining drama of the postwar period.
To see our history through a lens where social struggles are central, rather than peripheral or absent, requires a radical shift of focus. Branch’s is a people’s history of the United States, a history of people in struggle for noble objectives, and also of the social forces that obstructed these struggles for justice. In this narration by a professional journalist who devoted a quarter century to researching and writing this trilogy, King’s movement changed America more than any modern president ever did or could.
Selma to Roxbury to Vietnam
Just as the first two volumes, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 (1988) and Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65 (1998), show how the Civil Rights Movement so often set the national agenda in the 1950s and 1960s, so too does At Canaan’s Edge show the power of this grassroots social movement to transform national priorities.
This was particularly true around the issue of voting rights in 1965. Indeed, the first 200 pages of this book, Part I, is “Selma: The Last Revolution,” a title that underscores how the voting rights revolution was the last major victory of the civil rights movement and Black freedom struggle of the 1960s.
Other accounts describe the critical struggle in central Alabama for Black voting rights, but Branch does so with both narrative drama and an eye toward both local developments and the scene of power in Washington that strikes this reviewer as unmatched. He shows also that the “Selma campaign” is a bit of a misnomer, as much of the vital struggle took place in the surrounding rural counties and small towns.
I know of no better study of the local struggles of rural Black Alabamians in the mid-1960s to first win the right to vote and then to put the vote to work through grassroots political organization. Not by accident did the name “Black Panther Party” first emerge in Lowndes County, Alabama, the place that, as Branch put it, “would change Negroes into black people.” (7)
It was by changing national priorities that the Movement won its historic victory over the Jim Crow version of white supremacy; but after winning that victory in 1965, it never again regained the power to truly reshape national priorities. Thus At Canaan’s Edge examines the Movement at both the moment of its greatest achievement, and the onset of its great internal crisis.
After the 1965 voting rights victory, Black freedom struggles continued on new fronts and old, and the vestiges of Jim Crow racism did not immediately disappear in the South even as they came under assault by the Movement. But few of these struggles attracted national attention or powerful support from outside the Black communities.
Indeed, these late 1960s Black freedom struggles typically resulted mostly in defeat and fragmentation, far from new national priorities or improved lives for African Americans. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was the legislative death sentence for Jim Crow racism, but it was neither a final victory for Black liberation nor a death sentence for American racism itself.
Indeed, right after the Selma demonstrations, King went to Boston, where he made “his first march about conditions in the North, covering three miles out of Roxbury with six hundred police guards and crowds estimated between twenty and fifty thousand” to rally at Boston Common in a cold rain. (215-6)
Further, in the post-1965 period — the last years of King’s short life — American politics and national efforts were increasingly dominated by an unanticipated but explosive war in Southeast Asia.
Branch’s last volume grapples in depth with the Vietnam War; just as Parting the Waters contained within it several books on the African-American churches and their history, so too does At Canaan’s Edge contain more than one average size book on the American war in Vietnam and its impact on the Movement and its goals.
Tragically, on the issue of war, neither the civil rights movement led by King nor the fast-growing and diverse peace movement were able to transform national priorities sufficiently to stop the war or to prevent its massively destructive impact.
A Cacophonous Society
At Canaan’s Edge, covering the 1965-68 period — from the Selma, Alabama voting rights protests to King’s murder in Memphis — provides virtually parallel histories of the Vietnam war and the Movement. This adds an important dimension sometimes left off-stage in narrower studies of the Civil Rights revolution, but at times tends to fragment Branch’s narrative in this volume.
At times readers may wonder how the Vietnam sections connect to the book’s main thread. Branch, while deeply versed in the war’s history, is not as expert on that complex subject as he is on the Movement and its obstacles; hence, he describes war developments without always integrating them seamlessly into his overall narrative. And while he writes impressive narrative prose, in a thousand-page conclusion to a massive three-volume work, adding in the history of one of the decisive wars of the modern age is bound to be a bit off-centering.
Just as the American military can be said to have gotten lost in Vietnam, it may be that Taylor Branch at times, too gets lost in that war — but not too lost, and no more so that American society did. While this third volume seems less focused, less cohesive than the previous two, American society was far more cacophonous after 1965, and King and the Movement were far less cohesive, less focused than they had been in their earlier triumphs.
Branch’s analysis of the Vietnam War is astute, if not pathbreaking, and the details he presents to illustrate his arguments about the war’s tragic costs for the goal of a more just society in America are well worth following. Indeed, this may be the part of Branch’s story most urgently needed by Americans of the early 21st century seeking to understand the United States today.
Among the illuminating small, human details he provides in each section of the book is the “parable of a Vietnam casualty,” a Black paratrooper, a Green Beret, who was denied burial in his hometown cemetery of Wetumpka, Alabama, on the grounds that the Negro section was full. It took a week for “federal authorities to find space for Private First Class Jimmy Williams” to be buried in Georgia, among the Union soldiers buried at the infamous Andersonville confederate prison. (470-1)
This happened in a nation that had allegedly just ended all de jure forms of racial discrimination. Much of the nation noted the symbolic injustice, and before long such instances became rare, as racial discrimination was made invisible.
Martin Luther King of course was hardly alone in giving voice, in the last years of his life, to the moral critique of the murderous use of U.S. power in Vietnam, but his was the most influential antiwar voice. To King, the war was no mere “mistake” but a disaster born of the heartless, soulless structure of power in American society. He understood the war as a product of the American system’s disregard for human rights, a disregard even for human life — a disregard that King saw as being rooted in a history of slavery and capitalist exploitation.
The war was not, in King’s thinking, some malfunctioning of an otherwise healthy political system. Branch’s descriptions of King’s April 1967 Riverside Church speech on the Vietnam War, and of the machinations of King and his advisors to ensure that his antiwar stance would have a national impact rather than merely be consumed within the sectarian antiwar movement, are among the most important parts of At Canaan’s Edge.
The book also frequently notes such same-time developments as the start of the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike during the second week of the Tet offensive by the National Liberation Front in Vietnam (693) — a coincidence that is important to grasp, as the course of the war shaped events at home during a brief moment when there had been considerable support for sweeping domestic reform.
That window was closed off in no small part because of the war; military expenditures undercut the Great Society vision of winning broad white middle- and working-class support for a liberal welfare state. Instead, as that liberal state emerged stillborn but accompanied by broken promises, white resentment against Blacks’ rising status was stoked and grew like a prairie fire.
Before long, Ronald Reagan’s talk of welfare mothers driving Cadillacs was taken seriously by millions, and white Americans blamed their taxes not on military spending, but on welfare benefits given to Blacks.
The Northern Struggle
Branch earlier on noted that the national press was haughtily dismissive of the near starvation conditions facing Mississippi sharecroppers that was revealed by the Meredith march in 1966 (483), and his accounts of King’s Chicago campaign — perhaps his most ambitious organizing effort, and his biggest political failure— sagely stress the difficulties of tackling the political economy of racism outside of the Jim Crow South.
King and his advisors had underestimated those difficulties, but they had identified the critical problem: the persistence of poverty and inequality in an increasingly officially “race-neutral” society. In Chicago, King’s focus on poverty likewise failed to attract concerted national attention; indeed, it seemed the nation was indifferent to malnourished Black children. Fire hoses spraying at peaceful demonstrators provoked outrage, but malnourishment, hunger and unemployment did not, and the Movement failed to find ways of dramatizing such economic injustices.
Institutions and leaders outside the Jim Crow South proved far stronger in resisting change; for instance, when the Chicago movement held a sit-in with such participants as King and the Catholic Archbishop at City Hall after a race riot, Mayor Richard Daley received the group warmly, saying that he knew King was “a man of peace and love.” Yet in Chicago, it was estimated “that only one percent of residential listings were open to black applicants” and the violence of white mobs in Chicago against open housing marches equaled or exceeded mob violence directed against civil rights marches in the South. (504, 507-9)
Those challenges, as well as the question of war and peace internationally, dominated King’s last few years. But as Branch observes, he also faced challenges from his rhetorical (if not substantive) left within the Black freedom movement. Black Power advocates and the Nation of Islam attracted much attention in the late 1960s, but they built no practical political alternative to the nonviolent movement.
War and Backlash
In the Vietnam sections, as throughout this book and the trilogy, Branch displays the skilled journalist’s ability to capture the telling detail. When describing the first anti-Vietnam War teach-in, held at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in March 1965, Branch in just a page provides a wealth of details that show how different that moment in time is from our own, four decades later: University administrators had to extend special permission for female students to stay out past their dormitories’ normal curfew so the women students could attend.
The teach-in had been rescheduled from regular daytime teaching hours, in order to counter the clear threat of state legislators who proposed punishing the University if it had allowed the teach-in to proceed during regular instructional time; after all, the teach-in was political and leftwing.
Angell Hall, site of the teach-in, was packed with a crowd of 3,000 students. When the police evacuated the building because of bomb threats, the “whole assembly moved outside before midnight” and used loudspeakers that were “set up in the snow.” The teach-in continued all night, and at 8am there were still 600 students present.
That same day, 800 miles to the South, the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march reached the state capitol (157-8) with a crowd of 20,000, for the last major mass demonstration of the southern Civil Rights Movement.
Branch depicts the war as both the political fiasco it was for Lyndon Johnson (for whom Branch in some respects has real admiration, as did King), and as disasters for both the peoples of Vietnam and the United States.
Vietnam became the costly alternative to a real War on Poverty, and its exigencies undercut the emerging but always fragile early 1960s national consensus that American society must replace racial inequality with a real system of race-blind equality of opportunity.
Branch details King’s deep moral critique of political violence in general, and, in particular, with the massive human rights violations produced by the United States at its Cold War peak of aggressive violence, the Vietnam War.
As noted in my earlier review of Branch’s first two volumes, he does not exaggerate the pro-civil rights national consensus, unlike many commentators, and notes the early and powerful emergence of the so-called “white backlash.”
This phenomenon was in full flower before the urban race riots that are often said to have caused it. White racial prejudice remained a potent force throughout the 1960s, even as it came to shed its most extreme face.
In his January 1966 declaration of his candidacy for governor of California, Ronald Reagan spoke of “Our city streets are jungle paths after dark,” code words that worked perfectly and marked his own path to power. (409)
Much of Branch’s telling of the Vietnam saga and its costs for the “Great Society” ambitions of Johnson and other domestic policy liberals will be familiar ground to readers of this journal. Indeed, similar critiques were voiced by the New Left, the Civil Rights, and Black Power movements at the time and entered into mainstream political discourse via the campaigns of Gene McCarthy in 1968 and George McGovern in 1972.
As a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina, the young Taylor Branch worked to register Black voters in Georgia, and around 1969 became friends with fellow southern white liberal Bill Clinton of Arkansas. In 1972 they ran the George McGovern campaign in Texas — not a successful effort — but became lasting friends. While Clinton was president, Branch did “an almost monthly oral history of my presidency,” as Clinton wrote in his autobiography, Living My Life (158).
Vietnam was obviously a central event for young Americans of Branch’s generation, for reasons both personal and historical. What’s not so widely known is how that war helped defeat the shift of the mass Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, after the southern system of segregation was overturned, into a broader nationwide movement of poor people and others, seeking social justice through a restructuring of American society. Branch is right, then, to put the Vietnam War at the center of his last volume on “America in the King Years.”
War as Disaster and Fiasco
Branch shows that as early as 1965 — the year of major escalation in American forces in Vietnam — President Johnson doubted that the war could ever be won; he expressed these doubts even as he ordered hundreds of thousands of troops into Vietnam in early 1965, turning a civil war into a major American war. Consequently, this was the worst kind of imperialist war, one that inflicts massive casualties and yet has no chance of obtaining allegedly compelling strategic objectives — a horrible loss of life, and nothing achieved, not even from the perspective of the war-making power.
Yet Johnson, afraid of being accused of going “soft on Communism,” was willing to pay any price in lost Vietnamese lives, and a high price in lost American lives, to “buy” some kind of domestic political protection from Republican critics, even though he realized that buying such political cover with an anti-Communist war could destroy his Great Society programs.
The Democratic Congress went along with Johnson. In so doing, Johnson and the Democrats, in the analysis of Bob Moses and other civil rights activists — an analysis that Branch seems to adopt — sacrificed their legitimacy as reformers at home. The financial and political costs of the war eviscerated resources that had been promised for domestic reforms. (310, 415-6)
What King wanted, and what the Asian war precluded, was an aggressive federal attack on poverty and all forms of inequality in America; instead the war advanced the domestic nightmare of the white backlash, which George Wallace, Richard Nixon, and others used to undercut popular support not only for civil rights law enforcement and racial equality, but also for the rights of labor unions and a host of liberal concerns.
To Taylor Branch, this was the choice that American leaders made at the metaphorical edge of Canaan, as they betrayed the goal of justice and equality embodied in the nonviolent civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King.
Branch does not use the language of imperialism, and he does not mention either of the two American wars in the Middle East that took place while he was writing his trilogy, yet the parallels between his accounts of the Vietnam War and the current war in Iraq are striking. Neither was well conceived by their architects, even if just from the perspective of their own goals; both arose from imperialist overreach and arrogant disregard for the other nation’s history and culture; both naively exaggerated the power of American forces to remake other lands at minimal costs; and both ultimately weakened American power in the world while increasing instability and chaos on the home front.
The implications of this current war’s course for America in the post-King years are immense and clearly implied in nearly every section of At Canaan’s Edge.
Assessing the Legacy
Branch says little about what took place after King was shot on his motel room balcony on April 5, 1968, the instant when King’s “sojourn on earth went blank.” (766) An epilogue briefly describes some events that took place immediately after King’s death, such as President Johnson’s intervention in the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike to ensure a ten cents per hour raise and unionization.
This book does not describe what became of King’s Poor People Campaign in the weeks after his death, as Branch does not deal with that postmortem event. He does discuss the attempts, unconvincing to him as well as this reviewer, to exonerate James Earl Ray from killing King, and Branch also provides details that help put recent controversies about the King family’s handling of his papers and other assets in context: King died without a will, with a net worth then assessed as less than $6,000. (768)
At Canaan’s Edge opens by declaring that “Nonviolence is an orphan among democratic ideas. It has nearly vanished from public discourse even though the most basic element of free government — the vote — has no other meaning.” (xi) And the book’s last paragraph asserts:
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. (771)
This thesis, which runs through hundreds of pages of Branch’s text, is as much addressed toward the future as it is derived from the period and subject under study in the book. It is an atypically future-oriented thesis for a work of history. Taylor Branch’s King kept the faith without fail and, Branch seems to think, Americans should embrace and honor that faith in our own time.
But does the United States, the nation for which King and Branch each in their way have waxed so poetic, have enough moral faith in human rights and human dignity to even recognize, let alone redeem, the vision of equality that Branch describes in the struggles, the triumphs and the defeats, of the Movement and its allies during the King years?
Branch’s King is a hero, and deserves to be a national hero, but not the placid, almost timid dreamer of a hero that the corporate media and countless politicians have enshrined. Taylor Branch’s King is — like King when he lived and was in The Movement — a fierce critic of the dominant forces of American life.
King should live on as a symbol of struggle, a seeker of justice. But he should not be reduced, as he so often has been, to white Americans’ “plaster saint who was going to protect them from angry Negroes,” as King’s closest friend and advisor Stanley Levison put it right after King’s death. (769)
Taylor Branch’s work no doubt will help keep the real Martin Luther King, and The Movement, living for ages to come. That is a major achievement.
Postscript: On King and Deuteronomy
When I finished At Canaan’s Edge, I found myself wishing that Branch had, near its end, more directly discussed King’s relevance to the post-1968 problems of racism, poverty and violence (including military violence) that so consumed King’s attention in his last days.
King’s name is often invoked in such discussions, by partisans on both sides; the historic King is much used and abused — as friend and foe of affirmative action, corporate tax breaks, gay rights, and foreign wars. As citizen and educator, I favor the most emphatic and frequent condemnations of right-wing appropriations of King and the Civil Rights Movement; such direct condemnations of the abuse of the historical King accord with my own sensibilities and help cut against the widespread miseducation about The Movement prevailing in American culture.
Yet the biographer’s desire to end a book devoted to telling a life story at the point in time that that life ceased makes perfect sense: A death like King’s is the moment of the greatest emotional impact on which to end a biography. Still, I wanted to know more about Branch’s views on King’s legacy for the present.
To be sure, Branch most certainly points out the relevance of the American civil rights movement to struggles in South Korea, South Africa and China, and he notes that “We Shall Overcome” was sung at the dismantled Berlin Wall in 1989. Surely then, this movement has had a global impact.
But what was the Movement’s legacy for the United States? Racial disparities in many respects, despite official pretenses of equality, are as great or greater today than in 1968, or even 1954. And what of those who claim King would be proud of Condi Rice and Colin Powell, as well of every African American corporate — or nonprofit organization — executive who makes big money? Such tokens are widely taken as profound indicators of racial progress, and many of those tokens invoke King’s name for their own purposes.
In 2003, at the civil rights movement museum created at the Lorraine Motel, the site of King’s death, I saw the introductory film shown to all museum visitors — narrated by Colin Powell, a man who has been absent without leave on every occasion that his moral duty required him to stand up for human rights, from the My Lai massacre right up to the Iraq war. This narration shamefully served Powell, but not the historical Martin Luther King.
In short, I felt Branch had said too little about the post-mortem King on the home front. And then I reflected more on the Biblical imagery of his title, “At Canaan’s Edge.”
In the final chapters of the Book of Deuteronomy, the Israelites arrive at the edge of Canaan, the land, according to the Bible story, promised to them by God. Moses had led his people that far, to the very edge of Canaan — first out of Egypt and across the Red Sea, when God parted the waters, and then through many years in the wilderness.
Crossing the wilderness seeking the Promised Land, the Israelites had followed a “pillar of fire” that the Lord provided to lead them forward. Branch has explicitly compared King to that pillar of fire. Parting the Waters ends by saying that for King:
“Nonviolence had come over him for a purpose that far transcended segregation. It touched evils beyond color and addressed needs more human than status or possessions. Having lifted him up among rulers, it would drive him back down to die among garbage workers in Memphis. King had crossed over as a patriarch like Moses into a land less bounded by race. To keep going, he became a pillar of fire.” (Parting, 922)
The second volume, Pillar of Fire, suggests that King’s public ministry as a civil rights leader served a providential purpose. In sum, Taylor Branch’s Martin Luther King existed to lead America toward its unfulfilled promise.
Whether Branch means this as a spiritual truth reflected in historical events, or as a historical truth expressed through Biblical metaphor, I cannot say, but it is a powerful, evocative interpretation. (No one like JFK ever parted the waters or became a pillar of fire in American history! Lincoln alone in national mythology comes close to this height of greatness devoted to a divine mission.)
What happens to Moses at Canaan’s edge? The story goes that “The Lord said onto Moses, Behold, thy days approach that thou must die.” (Deut. 31:14)
Moses was never to enter the land of Canaan, but instead was fated by God to die at the edge of Canaan, overlooking the Promised Land. He died at the age of 120, but (at least according to some verses) in perfect health; he could not enter Canaan because of the misdeeds and crimes of the Israelites.
As the Lord further tells Moses, his people would, soon after his death and after occupying Canaan, “rise up, and go a whoring after the gods of the strangers of the land, whither they go to be among them, and will forsake me, and break my covenant which I have made with them.” Consequently, God’s “anger shall be kindled against” the Israelites and God will forsake them and “hide my face from them, and they shall be devoured and many evils and troubles shall befall them.” (Deut. 31:16-17)
After all that God and his servant Moses have done for them, the Israelites, at the moment when they should have had tranquility in Canaan, instead lost that opportunity because of their ungodly practices and for having dishonored God and His purposes.
Without taking the Biblical text for actual history, we can observe Taylor Branch’s implied but clear use of its powerful symbolism. Just as the Israelites in the Old Testament story repudiate the Lord and his servant Moses, Americans in the years before and after King’s death have turned away from Martin Luther King’s message of nonviolence and social justice, and from the Movement that offered redemption to the nation.
If the Civil Rights Movement brought America to the edge of achieving its national promise of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” the nation instead forfeited the promise in the nightmare of Vietnam and in continued militarism, white supremacy and economic exploitation.
So Taylor Branch’s conclusion is harsh: King, as the metaphorical Moses for the United States, led a movement that parted the waters. He was a pillar of fire while the nation crossed the wilderness to exit from the Jim Crow practices of white supremacy, but America’s heart was not sufficiently moved, its behavior not deeply transformed. Thus King was murdered as nation reached the edge of Canaan, sparing him from having to live through the “many evils and troubles” that have since befallen the nation.
King died at the edge of Canaan because American society was not truly devoted to achieving the promise of nonviolence, justice and equality that of King and his movement had forged.
The book of Deuteronomy concludes: “And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, In all the signs and the wonders which the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants, and to all his land, And in all that mighty hand, and in all the great terror which Moses showed in the sight of all Israel.” (34: 10-12)
Many readers may see the Taylor Branch trilogy as merely a grand narrative of the movement’s achievements and the many ways that the nation was indeed transformed during the “King years,” 1954-‘68. Branch richly provides all that, and more. Yet the reader who probes the meanings behind the Biblical titles of the three volumes will see that Branch has a scathing view of American society’s broken promises.
By taking a Biblical rather than overtly polemical path (though the Deuteronomic text itself is harsh enough) toward voicing that scathing view of America’s betrayal of the Movement’s works of national redemption, Branch honors both the Christian faith and the moral language of his hero, Martin Luther King.
The ultimate point of Taylor Branch’s study of “America in the King Years,” the personal conviction that drove his labors as an author for a quarter century, is that the broken promises should be honored, and that the Movement’s work of redeeming the soul of America should be completed.
Tragically and needlessly, the betrayals continue each day that wars are made, and each day that the people go hungry for food and for justice.
ATC 129, July-August 2007