At Canaan's Edge concludes America in the King Years, a three-volume history that will endure as a masterpiece of storytelling on American race, violence, and democracy. Pulitzer Prize-winner and bestselling author Taylor Branch makes clear in this magisterial account of the civil rights movement that Martin Luther King, Jr., earned a place next to James Madison and Abraham Lincoln in the pantheon of American history.
In At Canaan's Edge, King and his movement stand at the zenith of America's defining story, one decade into an epic struggle for the promises of democracy. Branch opens with the authorities' violent suppression of a voting-rights march in Alabama on March 7, 1965. The quest to cross Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge engages the conscience of the world, strains the civil rights coalition, and embroils King in negotiations with all three branches of the U.S. government.
The marches from Selma coincide with the first landing of large U.S. combat units in South Vietnam. The escalation of the war severs the cooperation of King and President Lyndon Johnson after a collaboration that culminated in the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act.
After Selma, young pilgrims led by Stokely Carmichael take the movement into adjacent Lowndes County, Alabama, where not a single member of the black majority has tried to vote in the twentieth century. Freedom workers are murdered, but sharecroppers learn to read, dare to vote, and build their own political party. Carmichael leaves in frustration to proclaim his famous black power doctrine, taking the local panther ballot symbol to become an icon of armed rebellion.
Also after Selma, King takes nonviolence into Northern urban ghettoes. Integrated marches through Chicago expose hatreds and fears no less virulent than the Mississippi Klan's, but King's 1966 settlement with Mayor Richard Daley does not gain the kind of national response that generated victories from Birmingham and Selma. We watch King overrule his advisers to bring all his eloquence into dissent from the Vietnam War. We watch King make an embattled decision to concentrate his next campaign on a positive compact to address poverty. We reach Memphis, the garbage workers' strike, and King's assassination.
Parting the Waters provided an unsurpassed portrait of King's rise to greatness, beginning with the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and ending with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. In Pillar of Fire, theologians and college students braved the dangerous Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 as Malcolm X raised a militant new voice for racial separatism. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed segregation by race and mandated equal opportunity for women. From the pinnacle of winning the Nobel Peace Prize, King willed himself back to "the valley" of jail in his daunting Selma campaign.
At Canaan's Edge portrays King at the height of his moral power even as his worldly power is waning. It shows why his fidelity to freedom and nonviolence makes him a defining figure long beyond his brilliant life and violent end.
The engrossing final installment of Branch's three-volume biography of Martin Luther King Jr. maintains the high standards set in the previous volumes, the first of which won a Pulitzer Prize. Moving from the protest at Selma and the 1966 Meredith March through King's expanding political concern for the poor to his 1968 assassination in Memphis, Tenn., Branch gives us not only the civil rights leader's life but also the rapidly changing pulse of American culture and politics. The America we find in this last chapter of King's life is on fire the Republican Party has begun to court white Southern voters; the Civil Rights movement itself has fractured; King sees bold challenges to his teaching of nonviolence in the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles. King himself has evolved, spreading his interests beyond civil rights to become a more outspoken critic of the Vietnam War and of poverty. A turning point in King's legacy, says Branch, was his housing actions in Chicago in the summer of 1966. This work "nationalized race," showing that it wasn't just a Southern problem, and ensured that King would go down in history as much more than a regional leader. As a literary work, Branch's biography is masterful. About midway through, the author begins to foreshadow King's death by, for example, quoting his 1965 statement to a filmmaker: "I would willingly give my life for that which I think is right." If Branch indulges in predictable throat clearing about the lessons from King's life that endure in America today well, that is to be expected. This magisterial book is a fitting tribute to a magisterial man. 24 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. 150,000 first printing; first serial to Time magazine; 15-city author tour.