King's Last Years; Detailing the Civil Rights Movement's Fall into Disarray

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 5, 2006 | Go to article overview

King's Last Years; Detailing the Civil Rights Movement's Fall into Disarray


Byline: Joel Himelfarb, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

There is no way to sugarcoat this: Taylor Branch's new book, "At Canaan's Edge. America in the King Years," is proof that when it comes to writing a coherent, readable tale of American history, the road to chaos is paved with good intentions. Mr. Branch's political analysis of the final years of the life of Martin Luther King and its aftermath are marred by the author's blindness to the brutality of the Indochinese communists and inability to comprehend the flaws of the Great Society and other welfare-state programs. His book illustrates how ideological bias can skew the presentation of American history.

In writing "At Canaan's Edge" (the final installment of his series on King and the civil-rights movement that took 24 years to complete), Mr. Branch chronicles the period from the beginning of 1965, when King tries to organize a march from Selma, Ala. to Montgomery, Ala. to win the right to vote for blacks , until his assassination on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn.

The most interesting chapters of the book by far are chapters 38 and 39 - the final two - which focus on King's involvement on behalf of striking Memphis sanitation workers in the final months of his life. But aside from very tenacious scholars and book reviewers, few readers will likely have the stamina to pore through the entire book, which is an unmanageable 1,039 pages, including index, bibliography and footnotes.

In some ways that is unfortunate, because, for all of its flaws, the book includes plenty of useful information in the first 37 chapters (682 pages). Perhaps the most important, disturbing thing a reader learns about is the extent of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's hatred for King. Although the FBI did outstanding work in solving some of the most notorious crimes committed by the Ku Klux Klan during the 1960s, Mr. Branch's research almost suggests that this was in spite of Hoover, who comes across as a man obsessed with discrediting the civil rights leader at virtually any cost.

Unfortunately, in focusing on Hoover's obsessive hatred of King and his suggestions that the civil rights leader was a communist, Mr. Branch avoids serious examination of one of his closest associates, in particular Stanley Levison, a top aide.

Historian David Garrow has shown that before joining King, Levison had been a top fundraiser for the Communist Party USA; his background was sufficiently worrisome that Attorney General Robert Kennedy urged King to dismiss Levison in 1963. But King essentially ignored him, and Mr. Branch never examines Levison's communist background in any detailed way.

Mr. Branch does a more thorough job of showing how King tried, with decreasing success, to fend off the efforts of black-power advocates like Stokely Carmichael to move the civil rights movement away from nonviolence.

And Mr. Branch shows how King, as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, tried to salvage his relationship with President Johnson, even as King became increasingly hostile to U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. Mr. Branch also does a good job of chronicling the murders of of civil rights workers Viola Liuzzo and Jonathan Daniels, killed by the Klan in Alabama in 1965.

But the information on these subjects is buried under hundreds of pages of excruciating detail on topics ranging from the Johnson administration's deliberations over Vietnam to the SCLC efforts to integrate Chicago housing and public schools to voting-rights campaigns in Alabama and Mississippi. And the size of the book is further swelled by trivial matters like Hoover's opinion of ousted Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev and LBJ's 1965 appearance at a baseball exhibition game at the Houston Astrodome.

Unfortunately, while the book covers these trivial things, some more consequential ones are touched upon only briefly. For example, Mr. Branch fleetingly mentions one of the Klan's most despicable crimes: the June 10, 1966 murder in Natchez, Miss. …

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