Tuesday, February 01, 2011

At Canaan's Edge by Taylor Branch

This third book in the monumental series depicting "America in the King years" offers an amazing look into the struggles and real-life complexities of Martin Luther King, Jr's life.  The book does not shy away from awkward facts like the internal struggles against King's Poor People's Campaign in 1967-1968, or his "casual affairs" with women who were not his wife, but it does portray the civil rights struggle in such vivid detail as to give it new life.  The author does downplay those affairs a little bit, sometimes failing to name the woman with whom King was having the affair.  The overall effect of the book is to bring King into focus as a central figure in American history, who has failings like many others but whose  doctrine of non-violent protest of injustice brought about sweeping change in the country.  The villain of the story is definitely J. Edgar Hoover, who actively opposes King's campaigns, planting bugs and wiretaps to record his operations and glean embarrassing details, and often plants stories in the press in an attempt to discredit King.  The book does venture into some explanation for the reasons why civil rights became such a struggle, but it mostly sticks to the narrative, which is compelling in various ways.  First, there are the stories of pioneers who face hardship and suffer martyrdom in rural counties in Alabama in an effort to win voting rights.  Second, the dramatic march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 is portrayed in vivid detail as the "last revolution" of the civil rights movement.  King's oration upon finally arriving at Montgomery is particularly well described.  Finally, there is the Vietnam War, which enters the story through the Johnson White House.  Apparently, the White House was full of gloomy predictions about the prospects for success in this war, even as the President is asked for more and more troops to be committed.  According to this book, the war comes to dominate thinking on a national level and eclipses civil rights as the Johnson administration's focus.  The war is also one reason given for the failure of a protest march in Chicago to ignite a national debate on Northern racism.  These stories are important to remember in our era of supposedly post-racial politics.  It is true that we have come a long way from the 1960s, but we still have a long way to go.
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