Don Noble
2:42 pm
Mon February 20, 2006

At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years 1965-68

With At Canaan's Edge, Taylor Branch brings his three-volume history of America in the King Years to a close. Volume one, Parting the Waters 1954-63, won the Pulitzer Prize, and volume two, Pillar of Fire, was a best-seller.

With At Canaan's Edge, Taylor Branch brings his three-volume history of America in the King Years to a close. Volume one, Parting the Waters 1954-63, won the Pulitzer Prize, and volume two, Pillar of Fire, was a best-seller.

Not too surprisingly, the state of Alabama figures large in all three volumes. Rev. King rose to prominence with his leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott, covered in volume one, then in volume two, the Movement in Birmingham held center stage. Volume three opens in Selma, as preparations for the march to Montgomery to publicize the need for the voting rights bill are under way.

Since the water hoses and police dogs of Birmingham under Bull Connor were such a godsend to the Movement, putting on television for all the nation to see the ferocity and viciousness of the resistance to integration, one might think that segregationists in Selma would have learned something and composed a kinder, gentler face for the cameras.

But no, Sheriff Jim Clark in Selma and the Alabama state troopers on Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge showed the nation that nothing much had changed, that there would be no manipulation of media in Alabama, that old women would be beaten with clubs by healthy young troopers, and young and old alike would be gassed. The march on Montgomery on its third and successful try became a national event, with clergy and other supporters flooding in from every state.

Branch covers the march in great detail, as he does nearly every event in this four-year period. There are times when he goes into the conversations of a strategy meeting or the contents of a speech or sermon at such exhaustive length that the most dedicated reader might squirm, but one thing seems certain: this is the authoritative history of these times. This job will not have to be done again. And if you doubt Branch's quotes or conclusions, there are 200 pages of notes to back up every assertion on every page.

Branch's third volume, not exactly a biography of Rev. King, alternates between King and President Lyndon Johnson, the two colossi of the era. Johnson, a convert to the cause of civil rights, meant to help the Movement in any way possible, and did, until King's conscience and his absolute belief in non-violence caused him to come out against Johnson's Vietnam War.

This decision weakened the Movement and weakened Johnson, but neither man would budge. Johnson and his supporters knew literally on the first day that the war could not be won, in any conventional sense, but they went ahead anyway.

If you were alive during these years, Branch will tell you what was going on behind the scenes. If you were not of age in the sixties, read this book to learn why our country is the way it is today. The roots of the early twenty-first century lie in the later sixties.

Both Johnson and King became tragic figures. Johnson declined to seek reelection in 1968 and had a heart attack not long thereafter. King, in Memphis to support the striking garbage workers, said in his last speech that he had been to the mountain top, seen the promised land, but, like Moses, might not be allowed to go there. He is assassinated the next afternoon.

These two giants dominated the public scene for years, while all the time, behind the scenes, is J. Edgar Hoover, either mentally ill or satanically evil, illegally bugging hotel rooms, telling lies, and issuing orders that, alone among all 200 million Americans, only King is not to be told of any death threats against him.

This is a long book, true, but you know that you have read thousands of pages of Tom Clancy or Nora Roberts, that you have spent hundreds of hours on The Shining and Harry Potter. Read these 771 pages, and you will have done something you can be proud of.

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