America, created as an experiment in individual freedom, embedded the legal right to own slaves in its founding charter. The working out of these contradictory impulses has been the central American story. This is the story that Taylor Branch tells in engrossing detail through his three volume history of "America in the King Years."
The Civil Rights Movement brought out the best and the worst in the American character; over almost 3,000 pages, Branch assembles the facts, interviews the survivors, and bears witness. The first volume, Parting the Waters, traces Martin Luther King's rise from obscure Baptist preacher to a civil rights leader forged in the crucible of the Montgomery bus boycott. Pillar of Fire goes from JFK's assassination to an abrupt, somewhat unsatisfactory ending at the beginning of the 1965 Selma campaign. At Canaan's Edge starts with the triumph of the Montgomery march and ends with King's assassination in 1968.
The author describes his approach as a "narrative biographical history," that uses King's life to illuminate broad American themes. There's more narrative than history in these volumes. Very seldom does Branch take the long view, or give us contextual exegeses. What he does give us is compelling, often brilliant reporting that features participant interviews, a deep dive into formerly classified documents, and a you-are-there look at the conversations, strategy sessions and public theater of the friends and foes of civil rights. These books aren't exactly a King biography, a history of the Civil Rights Movement or a history of America during a time of wrenching change, and yet they're all these things, the whole becoming greater than the sum of the parts.
One of the many rewards of reading this trilogy is the skill with which Branch has resurrected the living, breathing King. We learn about an intellectual more at home parsing Reinhold Neibuhr's philosophy than facing down rabid mobs of diehard segregationists. A holy man beset by common human lusts. An executive who dealt with PR, fundraising and staff squabbles. A preacher buffeted by the sectarian struggles in the Black Baptist Church. A politician weaving, often groping, through racial and cultural thickets toward goals that seemed impossibly distant. One comes away awed by the immensity of the burdens King assumed, and humbled by the grace with which he bore them.
The books also chronicle the history of the Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1968. The relationships among the various civil rights groups were often tempestuous. The NAACP under Roy Wilkins thought King's nonviolent demonstrations too radical. The young activists of SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) eventually dismissed King's approach as too temperate. The leaders of his own Southern Christian Leadership Conference, James Bevel, Hosea Williams, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, were often at odds with King and each other over movement strategy and tactics. The brilliant, mercurial Malcolm X breaks free from the Nation of Islam, but they get him in the end. SNCC's rise and demise get covered in sympathetic detail, from early sit-ins to the non-violent triumphs of 1964's Freedom Summer Project up through the divisive times of Black Power separatism. In particular, SNCC leaders Bob Moses and Stokely Carmichael come across as courageous, committed activists who did lonely and dangerous voter registration work in the rural South when no one was watching and only their enemies cared.
Another strand recounts the actions of America's political leaders. John and Bobby Kennedy engaged in an excruciatingly complex dance between white southern politicians and civil rights leaders. JFK personally believed segregation was wrong, but didn't want to lose the South for the Democrats by forcing integration through federal mandates. Although Bobby Kennedy became increasingly committed to civil rights, as Attorney General he allowed J Edgar Hoover to illegally bug King in order to save his brother from an incipient sex scandal. Hoover, a diehard segregationist, had an irrational hatred for King, and lost no opportunity to try and discredit him. Branch does a great job of revealing the extent of the FBI's illegal wiretapping campaigns and their corrosive effect on both civil liberties and the rule of law.
The tragedy of lost opportunity befell LBJ. He had the vision, commitment and skill to forge a national mandate to end segregation and begin to eradicate poverty. His domestic agenda got highjacked as he drifted deeper into a war he knew from the outset he couldn't win. In one of his rare pullbacks to take the long view, Branch pinpoints 1966 as liberalism's high water mark. After that, the white South deserted the Democrats over Civil Rights and FDR's New Deal coalition fell apart. We're still dealing with the aftershocks of this pivotal moment as we navigate through the less idealistic, more Darwinian terrain of George Bush's America.
Martin Luther King exhorted us to rise above moral expediency and sectarian passion and "live out the true meaning of our creed." We never rose to the greatness he thought was in us, but his words and example still point the way for the work to be done. Taylor Branch has captured in indelible fashion the grace and heartbreak of King's life and times.