Classic book review: At Canaan's Edge
Martin Luther King Jr. was no saint, but this nuanced biography confirms his many virtues.
[The Monitor occasionally reprints older pieces from its archives. This book review originally ran on Feb. 7, 2006.] Nearly two decades after publishing the first installment of his mammoth trilogy detailing and defining the lives of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement, Taylor Branch completes his epic with At Canaan's Edge, a worthy capstone to a remarkable series of historical works.
It begins with the triumphant campaign in Alabama that ushered in the Voting Rights Act and ends with King's assassination at the Lorraine Motel three years later. Much of what transpires between those two landmark events points to lost opportunities - opportunities overwhelmed not only by racial tension but also by the escalation of the Vietnam War.
Through it all, King stands courageous, firm in his dedication to pacifist methods, and - thanks to his gifted biographer - human. In a crisis of conscience, he confesses one of many extramarital affairs to wife Coretta as she recovers from a hysterectomy. On another occasion, weighed down by internecine feuds within his own Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he gulps whiskey and shouts, "I don't want to do this anymore! I want to go back to my little church!"
By conveying King's humanity through such anecdotes, Branch removes the iconic image of a leader who never feared or wavered while marshaling a movement with discipline and dignity. King was no saint, and he certainly wasn't without equivocation or fear. But through Branch's meticulous research and nuanced portrait, King's accomplishments and character soar even higher.
For those too young to have witnessed the push for Civil Rights, Branch's volume also re-creates the mental climate of the time and hammers home the depraved racist attitudes pervading the American South - and, later, the North - during the turbulent 1960s.
Protesters both black and white were routinely beaten and murdered for demanding racial equality. All the while, perpetrators escaped justice as police, judges, and jurors (not to mention the sins of silent neighbors) colluded to deny the obvious.
The notorious bigots of the times, from George Wallace and Jim Clark in Alabama to Edgar Ray Killen and Byron "Delay" Beckwith in Mississippi, make an appearance. Then, too, there is J. Edgar Hoover, who defies his own president to spy on King and covertly assassinate his character.
Throughout this final volume, Branch recounts the factions and feuds buffeting King's fragile coalition of nonviolent practitioners. As much as the craven Hoover or the tortured Lyndon Johnson, it is King's own lieutenants and other emerging black leaders who undermine and frustrate his attempt to transform a campaign for basic human dignity into a larger movement against war, poverty, and subtler forms of racism.
"You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains, and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race," President Johnson declared, "and then say, 'you are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe that you have been completely fair."
The Montgomery March, LBJ's speech, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 lead into the unraveling of the movement and King's influence, both eroded by the Vietnam War. What began as a small fissure between King and Johnson grew into a chasm as King came to believe it was his moral duty to condemn all violence, in Vietnam as well as Selma. The rift caused both men to question the other's motives.
"At Canaan's Edge" succeeds again and again because Branch manages to provide crucial context without sacrificing narrative flow. Even as Branch describes the unexpected political rise of Ronald Reagan, the defiant brilliance of Muhammad Ali, and the drug-fueled antics of Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary, he never loses sight of King.
The final volume again demonstrates the effective give-and-take of King's advisers, aides, and acolytes: John Lewis, Andrew Young, Ralph Abernathy and Jesse Jackson among them. Here, too, stands Coretta King. As her death last week reminded the nation, other than Martin Luther King himself, she sacrificed more than anyone, becoming a widow just weeks before her 41st birthday.
Although King died a young man - he was 39 when James Earl Ray murdered him in Memphis - the pressures, feuds, and constant threats aged him considerably. His work was hindered by political miscalculation, splintered opinion among black leaders, Vietnam, and a white liberal caucus uncomfortable when it came to examining racial inequality in the North as well as the South.
The King that Branch gives us is a hero indeed, but one of the best kind: a man who is deeply flawed yet dedicates his life to bettering himself and others.
Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.