Saturday, March 14, 2009

Still Searching...

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

Taylor branch's trilogy is a must for history buffs, especially people who are fascinated with the 1960s, as I am. His detail work and scholarship are exemplary, yet the books read smoothly and their flow is logical. I am endlessly fascinated with the Civil Rights Movement - if I were ever to pursue formal education again, it would likely be in some study of that time period. At Canaan's Edge is the third of the series and focuses on the years 1965-68 (the trilogy starts in 1955, with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, often seen as the kickoff to the movement itself). Not only does Branch take us inside the leadership of the movement and the personalities who shaped it (Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, Lyndon Johnson, and so many others), he also explains the intricate tensions between the Civil Rights activists and the anti-Vietnam War movement. Eventually the two causes found themselves inextricably intertwined, but at the time there was much angst over whether or not the civil rights leaders should even take a position on Vietnam - they were already suspected Communists (thanks mostly to false smears leaked by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI), and feared that speaking out against the war would lose support for black people's tenuous gains in voting, education, and jobs.

At Canaan's Edge also describes the breaking away of some of the early civil rights leaders (notably James Bevel and Stokely Carmichael) from Martin Luther King's commitment to the Ghandian principle of nonviolence, the rise of the Black Power Movement, and King's isolation and loneliness in the waning days of his life. An often forgotten development in King's thought is his realization in his final years of all the ways that poverty is linked to racial injustice. At the time of his death, he was designing a cross racial poor people's campaign to raise awareness of the issue and press federal and state governments to do more to create jobs. The King years (defined by Branch as 1955-68) were a turbulent time for our country, but clearly necessary. It is the steadfastness of so many visionaries, including (but not limited to) King in the face of violence, jail, harassment and death threats that inspires me. I am so grateful for the women and men of that era who put themselves in harm's way so that my generation could live in a better, fairer, nation. Branch's descriptions of King's struggles with exhaustion and depression are telling. Many people paid a terribly high price so that we could be where we are today.

In King's last speech, delivered in Memphis the night before his assassination, he described having seen the "promised land." In some eerie foreshadowing, he said to the city sanitation workers struggling to unionize that "I may not get there with you, but that's okay, because I have seen it and I know we will reach it." Branch's books show us how far we have come, but anyone who is paying any attention knows that we are not all the way there yet. Reading about these courageous yet flawed human beings who put their lives in jeopardy for justice is inspiring for any of us who are trying to figure out our purpose in the 21st century. So many - including King, in spite of his well-known sexual adventures) were motivated by faith and grounded in scripture. I wonder what our generation could do if we internalized the promises and commands of the Bible in the way that these people did?

Branch's books do not read fast. They are long and call for about a two-week investment of reading time. However, they are well worth the effort and are as clear a window into the King years as I have ever read.

Reverent Reader


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