One of the greatest of American stories has found its great chronicler in Taylor Branch. Beginning with Parting the Waters in 1988, followed 10 years later by Pillar of Fire, and closing now with At Canaan's Edge, Branch has given the short life of Martin Luther King Jr. and the nonviolent revolution he led the epic treatment they deserve. The three books of Branch's America in the King Years trilogy are lyrical and dramatic, social history as much as biography, woven from the ever more complex strands of King's movement, with portraits of figures like Lyndon Johnson, Bob Moses, J. Edgar Hoover, and Diane Nash as compelling as that of his central character.
King's movement may have been nonviolent, but his times were not, and each of Branch's volumes ends with an assassination: JFK, then Malcolm X, and finally King's murder in Memphis. We know that's where At Canaan's Edge is headed, but it starts with King's last great national success, the marches for voting rights in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. Once again, the violent response to nonviolent protest brought national attention and support to King's cause, and within months his sometime ally Lyndon Johnson was able to push through the Voting Rights Act. But alongside those events, forces were gathering that would pull King's movement apart and threaten his national leadership. The day after Selma's "Bloody Sunday," the first U.S. combat troops arrived in South Vietnam, while five days after the signing of the Voting Rights Act, the Watts riots began in Los Angeles. As the escalating carnage in Vietnam and the frustrating pace of reform at home drove many in the movement, most notably Stokely Carmichael, away from nonviolence, King kept to his most cherished principle and followed where its logic took him: to war protests that broke his alliance with Johnson and to a widening battle against poverty in the North as well as the South that caused both critics and allies to declare his movement unfocused and irrelevant.
Branch knows that you can't tell King's story without following these many threads, and he spends nearly as much time in Johnson's war councils as he does in the equally fractious meetings of King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Branch's knotty, allusive style can be challenging, but it vividly evokes the density of those days and the countless demands on King's manic stoicism. The whirlwind finally slows in the book's final pages for a bittersweet tour through King's last hours at the Lorraine Motel--King horsing around with his brother and friends and calling his mother (in between visits to his mistresses), Jesse Jackson rehearsing movement singers, an FBI agent watching through binoculars from across the street--that complete his work of humanizing a great man forever in danger of flattening into an icon. --Tom Nissley
Timeline of a Trilogy
Taylor Branch's America in the King Years series is both a biography of Martin Luther King and a history of his age. No timeline can do justice to its wide cast of characters and its intricate web of incident, but here are some of the highlights, which might be useful as a scorecard to the trilogy's nearly 3,000 pages.
| || |
| Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 || |
|May: At age 25, King gives his first sermon as pastor-designate of Montgomery's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. ||1954 ||May: French surrender to Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu. Unanimous Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board outlaws segregated public education.|
|December: Rosa Parks is arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a public bus, leading to the Montgomery bus boycott, which King is drafted to lead. ||1955 || |
|October: King spends his first night in jail, following his participation in an Atlanta sit-in. ||1960 ||February: Four students attempting to integrate a Greensboro, North Carolina, lunch counter spark a national sit-in movement. |
April: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee is founded.
November: Election of President John F. Kennedy
|May: The Freedom Rides begin, drawing violent responses as they challenge segregation throughout the South. King supports the riders during an overnight siege in Montgomery. ||1961 ||July: SNCC worker Bob Moses arrives for his first summer of voter registration in rural Mississippi. |
August: East German soldiers seal off West Berlin behind the Berlin Wall.
|March: J. Edgar Hoover authorizes the bugging of Stanley Levinson, King's closest white advisor. ||1962 ||September: James Meredith integrates the University of Mississippi under massive federal protection. |
|April: King, imprisoned for demonstrating in Birmingham, writes the "Letter from Birmingham Jail." |
May: Images of police violence against marching children in Birmingham rivet the country.
August: King delivers his "I Have a Dream" speech before hundreds of thousands at the March on Washington.
September: The Ku Klux Klan bombing of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church kills four young girls.
|1963 ||June: Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers assassinated. |
November: President Kennedy assassinated.
| Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65 || |
| || ||November: Lyndon Johnson, in his first speech before Congress as president, promises to push through Kennedy's proposed civil rights bill. |
|March: King meets Malcolm X for the only time during Senate filibuster of civil rights legislation. |
June: King joins St. Augustine, Florida, movement after months of protests and Klan violence.
October: King awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and campaigns for Johnson's reelection.
November: Hoover calls King "the most notorious liar in the country" and the FBI sends King an anonymous "suicide package" containing scandalous surveillance tapes.
|1964 ||January: Johnson announces his "War on Poverty." |
March: Malcolm X leaves the Nation of Islam following conflict with its leader, Elijah Muhammad.
June: Hundreds of volunteers arrive in the South for SNCC's Freedom Summer, three of whom are soon murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
July: Johnson signs Civil Rights Act outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
August: Congress passes Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorizing military force in Vietnam. Democratic National Convention rebuffs the request by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to be seated in favor of all-white state delegation.
November: Johnson wins a landslide reelection.
|January: King's first visit to Selma, Alabama, where mass meetings and demonstrations will build through the winter. ||1965 ||February: Malcolm X speaks in Selma in support of movement, three weeks before his assassination in New York by Nation of Islam members. |
| At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68 || |
|March: Voting rights movement in Selma peaks with "Bloody Sunday" police attacks and, two weeks later, a successful march of thousands to Montgomery. |
August: King rebuffed by Los Angeles officials when he attempts to advocate reforms after the Watts riots.
| ||March: First U.S. combat troops arrive in South Vietnam. Johnson's "We Shall Overcome" speech makes his most direct embrace of the civil rights movement.|
May: Vietnam "teach-in" protest in Berkeley attracts 30,000.
June: Influential federal Moynihan Report describes the "pathologies" of black family structure.
August: Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act. Five days later, the Watts riots begin in Los Angeles.
|January: King moves his family into a Chicago slum apartment to mark his first sustained movement in a Northern city. |
June: King and Stokely Carmichael continue James Meredith's March Against Fear after Meredith is shot and wounded. Carmichael gives his first "black power" speech.
July: King's marches for fair housing in Chicago face bombs, bricks, and "white power" shouts.
|1966 ||February: Operation Rolling Thunder, massive U.S. bombing of North Vietnam, begins. |
May: Stokely Carmichael wins the presidency of SNCC and quickly turns the organization away from nonviolence.
October: National Organization for Women founded, modeled after black civil rights groups.
|April: King's speech against the Vietnam War at New York's Riverside Church raises a storm of criticism |
December: King announces plans for major campaign against poverty in Washington, D.C., for 1968.
|1967 ||May: Huey Newton leads Black Panthers in armed demonstration in California state assembly. |
June: Johnson nominates former NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court.
July: Riots in Newark and Detroit.
October: Massive mobilization against the Vietnam War in Washington, D.C.
|March: King joins strike of Memphis sanitation workers. |
April: King gives his "Mountaintop" speech in Memphis. A day later, he is assassinated at the Lorraine Motel.
|1968 ||January: In Tet Offensive, Communist guerillas stage a surprise coordinated attack across South Vietnam. |
March: Johnson cites divisions in the country over the war for his decision not to seek reelection in 1968.