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At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68 Hardcover – January 10, 2006
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These concluding years of the freedom era show King at the height of his powers even as his worldly prestige falls under withering attack. We witness non-violent advances for democracy in the face of growing factionalism and fear. We meet heroines and martyrs; enter a world battered by private doubts, public dreams, contagious inspiration, official harassment, and poisonous discord over the Vietnam War. The narrative begins with violence before the pivotal 1965 Selma march for the right to vote, a dangerous time. From landmark victory there, King's movement comes under threat from competing forces. Branch chronicles dramatic campaigns in Mississippi and Alabama, King's tormented alliance with Lyndon Johnson, his painful break with Stokey Carmichael over black power, and persecution by Hoover's FBI. Like "Parting the Waters" and "Pillar of Fire", "At Canaan's Edge" is a magnificent achievement that brings the decades of the Civil Rights struggle alive and preserves the integrity of those who marched and died.
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This volume covers the period when more activists were breaking with the concept of nonviolence, supporting self-defense, and when Stokely Carmichael and SNCC, influenced by Malcolm X, raised the Black Power slogan. It became a popular slogan, and captured a wide-spread Black nationalist sentiment, but it came up short in terms of program (although the Lowndes County Freedom Organization—breaking with the Democratic Party—was a wonderful idea). But then SCLC also had less and less of an idea what direction they were going in, as the end of legal segregation still left most Blacks in the bottom of society.
As Branch points out, the first teach-ins on the Vietnam War took place during the Selma to Montgomery March in March 1965. The next month the first national demonstration against the war took place in Washington DC—20,000, called by Students for a Democratic Society, who pretty much deserted the movement against the war after getting it started. King was cautious on the war; SNCC and CORE somewhat less so.
South Vietnam was an artificial creation by the US, which only existed because the Moscow and Beijing Stalinists believed against all the evidence that giving up at the negotiating table what had been won in revolutionary struggle led to peace! The best analysis of Stalinism, the rule of a privileged bureaucracy in a workers state, remains Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed. And to understand the downfall of Stalinism, I recommend New International No.11: U.S. Imperialism Has Lost the Cold War)
It meant a break with the Johnson administration, but two years later SCLC did what they had to do, and James Bevel became national director of the “Spring Mobilization.” Martin Luther King led off and spoke at the April 15, 1967 antiwar march in New York (see photo below with Dr. Benjamin Spock and Msgr. Charles Owen Rice). Stokely Carmichael also spoke at that demonstration, and there was a very large Black contingent. (See Out Now: A Participant's Account of the Movement in the United States Against the Vietnam War). I was personally at that demonstration; not my first.
King was scheduled to be the main speaker again on April 27, 1968, but by then he was dead. His widow, Coretta Scott King spoke in his place.
Throughout it all, the US political police’s director-for-life J. Edgar Hoover was not only listening in one King and his supporters, but doing their best to discredit him, using newspapers that were especially friendly to the FBI. For the case that pushed the FBI back in a major way, see FBI on Trial: The Victory in the Socialist Workers Party Suit Against Government Spying.
For a look at the Black Struggle from Reconstruction to today, I recommend Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and the Road to Workers Power. And for those who like to pretend that attacks on the rights of Black people only come under Republican administrations, The Clintons' Anti-Working-Class Record (Why Washington fears working people?) is an important book to read.
As Branch notes, the civil rights battle also played a role in giving birth to the women’s liberation movement. For more on this see Women's Liberation and the Line of March of the Working Class (Women's Liberation & the Line of March of the Working Class) and Abortion Rights, the Era and the Rebirth of a Feminist Movement (Abortion Rights, the Era & the Rebirth of a Feminist Movemen).
Branch’s assertion in the introduction that voting is an example of nonviolent activity is to me dishonest. While it usually doesn’t involve violence (although during Reconstruction as well as the civil rights movement it often did), it has nothing to do with any philosophical principle. In the epilogue, Branch mentions some key movements around the world that didn’t involve significant amounts of violence, but none of them were based on nonviolent principles.
The ANC’s armed wing founded by Nelson Mandela didn’t play a big role in the liberation, but the struggle wasn’t based on nonviolent principles, and hadn’t been since the time of Chief Lithuli. And as Nelson Mandela said, he never would have been released from prison if not for the role of the Cuban army in defeating South African troops in Angola. (See How Far We Slaves Have Come! South Africa and Cuba in Today's World and Cuba and Angola: Fighting for Africa's Freedom and Our Own)
Mandela spoke in Cuba in 1991 and said, in part:
“It was in prison when I first heard of the massive assistance that the Cuban internationalist forces provided to the people of Angola, on such a scale that one hesitated to believe, when the Angolans came under combined attack of South African, CIA-financed FNLA, mercenary, UNITA, and Zairean troops in 1975."
“We in Africa are used to being victims of countries wanting to carve up our territory or subvert our sovereignty. It is unparalleled in African history to have another people rise to the defense of one of us.
“We know also that this was a popular action in Cuba. We are aware that those who fought and died in Angola were only a small proportion of those who volunteered. For the Cuban people internationalism is not merely a word but something that we have seen practiced to the benefit of large sections of humankind.
“We know that the Cuban forces were willing to withdraw shortly after repelling the 1975 invasion, but the continued aggression from Pretoria made this impossible.
“Your presence and the reinforcement of your forces in the battle of Cuito Cuanavale was of truly historic significance.
“The crushing defeat of the racist army at Cuito Cuanavale was a victory for the whole of Africa!
“The overwhelming defeat of the racist army at Cuito Cuanavale provided the possibility for Angola to enjoy peace and consolidate its own sovereignty!
“The defeat of the racist army allowed the struggling people of Namibia to finally win their independence!
“The decisive defeat of the apartheid aggressors broke the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressors!
“The defeat of the apartheid army was an inspiration to the struggling people inside South Africa!
“Without the defeat of Cuito Cuanavale our organizations would not have been unbanned!
“The defeat of the racist army at Cuito Cuanavale has made it possible for me to be here today!”
The one supreme and joyful irony of Branch's magnificent work is that the illegal efforts of one of King's most implacable enemies, J. Edgar Hoover, wiretapping and spying on his every move, gave this chronicle the richness of detail to destroy Hoover's best efforts and ultimately Hoover's reputation, while helping readers get a nuanced look at a great if flawed man and his life of purpose and sacrifice.
Mr Branch does a masterful job at detailing the Civil Rights movement in infinite detail. An element of this mastery is to include details of the events happening in conjunction with various stages of the movement as well as details of the personalities of the powers that were in place during the struggle. In doing so, the author helps us understand more deeply why tackling Civil Rights took as long as it did with as many fits and starts as it had -- it was not just cultural resistance, but distractions with other events of historical importance. One wonders, for example, how much more could have been achieved with regards to advancing Civil Rights had its proponents in the movement, including Dr King and LBJ, not had to contend with the giant distraction of our own making, the war in Vietnam.