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At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68 Hardcover – January 10, 2006

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One of the greatest of American stories has found its great chronicler in Taylor Branch. Beginning with Parting the Waters in 1988, followed 10 years later by Pillar of Fire, and closing now with At Canaan's Edge, Branch has given the short life of Martin Luther King Jr. and the nonviolent revolution he led the epic treatment they deserve. The three books of Branch's America in the King Years trilogy are lyrical and dramatic, social history as much as biography, woven from the ever more complex strands of King's movement, with portraits of figures like Lyndon Johnson, Bob Moses, J. Edgar Hoover, and Diane Nash as compelling as that of his central character.

King's movement may have been nonviolent, but his times were not, and each of Branch's volumes ends with an assassination: JFK, then Malcolm X, and finally King's murder in Memphis. We know that's where At Canaan's Edge is headed, but it starts with King's last great national success, the marches for voting rights in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. Once again, the violent response to nonviolent protest brought national attention and support to King's cause, and within months his sometime ally Lyndon Johnson was able to push through the Voting Rights Act. But alongside those events, forces were gathering that would pull King's movement apart and threaten his national leadership. The day after Selma's "Bloody Sunday," the first U.S. combat troops arrived in South Vietnam, while five days after the signing of the Voting Rights Act, the Watts riots began in Los Angeles. As the escalating carnage in Vietnam and the frustrating pace of reform at home drove many in the movement, most notably Stokely Carmichael, away from nonviolence, King kept to his most cherished principle and followed where its logic took him: to war protests that broke his alliance with Johnson and to a widening battle against poverty in the North as well as the South that caused both critics and allies to declare his movement unfocused and irrelevant.

Branch knows that you can't tell King's story without following these many threads, and he spends nearly as much time in Johnson's war councils as he does in the equally fractious meetings of King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Branch's knotty, allusive style can be challenging, but it vividly evokes the density of those days and the countless demands on King's manic stoicism. The whirlwind finally slows in the book's final pages for a bittersweet tour through King's last hours at the Lorraine Motel--King horsing around with his brother and friends and calling his mother (in between visits to his mistresses), Jesse Jackson rehearsing movement singers, an FBI agent watching through binoculars from across the street--that complete his work of humanizing a great man forever in danger of flattening into an icon. --Tom Nissley

Timeline of a Trilogy

Taylor Branch's America in the King Years series is both a biography of Martin Luther King and a history of his age. No timeline can do justice to its wide cast of characters and its intricate web of incident, but here are some of the highlights, which might be useful as a scorecard to the trilogy's nearly 3,000 pages.

King The King Years
Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63
May: At age 25, King gives his first sermon as pastor-designate of Montgomery's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. 1954 May: French surrender to Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu. Unanimous Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board outlaws segregated public education.
December: Rosa Parks is arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a public bus, leading to the Montgomery bus boycott, which King is drafted to lead. 1955
October: King spends his first night in jail, following his participation in an Atlanta sit-in. 1960 February: Four students attempting to integrate a Greensboro, North Carolina, lunch counter spark a national sit-in movement.
April: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee is founded.
November: Election of President John F. Kennedy
May: The Freedom Rides begin, drawing violent responses as they challenge segregation throughout the South. King supports the riders during an overnight siege in Montgomery. 1961 July: SNCC worker Bob Moses arrives for his first summer of voter registration in rural Mississippi.
August: East German soldiers seal off West Berlin behind the Berlin Wall.
March: J. Edgar Hoover authorizes the bugging of Stanley Levinson, King's closest white advisor. 1962 September: James Meredith integrates the University of Mississippi under massive federal protection.
April: King, imprisoned for demonstrating in Birmingham, writes the "Letter from Birmingham Jail."
May: Images of police violence against marching children in Birmingham rivet the country.
August: King delivers his "I Have a Dream" speech before hundreds of thousands at the March on Washington.
September: The Ku Klux Klan bombing of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church kills four young girls.
1963 June: Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers assassinated.
November: President Kennedy assassinated.
Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65
November: Lyndon Johnson, in his first speech before Congress as president, promises to push through Kennedy's proposed civil rights bill.
March: King meets Malcolm X for the only time during Senate filibuster of civil rights legislation.
June: King joins St. Augustine, Florida, movement after months of protests and Klan violence.
October: King awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and campaigns for Johnson's reelection.
November: Hoover calls King "the most notorious liar in the country" and the FBI sends King an anonymous "suicide package" containing scandalous surveillance tapes.
1964 January: Johnson announces his "War on Poverty."
March: Malcolm X leaves the Nation of Islam following conflict with its leader, Elijah Muhammad.
June: Hundreds of volunteers arrive in the South for SNCC's Freedom Summer, three of whom are soon murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
July: Johnson signs Civil Rights Act outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
August: Congress passes Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorizing military force in Vietnam. Democratic National Convention rebuffs the request by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to be seated in favor of all-white state delegation.
November: Johnson wins a landslide reelection.
January: King's first visit to Selma, Alabama, where mass meetings and demonstrations will build through the winter. 1965 February: Malcolm X speaks in Selma in support of movement, three weeks before his assassination in New York by Nation of Islam members.
At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68
March: Voting rights movement in Selma peaks with "Bloody Sunday" police attacks and, two weeks later, a successful march of thousands to Montgomery.
August: King rebuffed by Los Angeles officials when he attempts to advocate reforms after the Watts riots.
March: First U.S. combat troops arrive in South Vietnam. Johnson's "We Shall Overcome" speech makes his most direct embrace of the civil rights movement.
May: Vietnam "teach-in" protest in Berkeley attracts 30,000.
June: Influential federal Moynihan Report describes the "pathologies" of black family structure.
August: Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act. Five days later, the Watts riots begin in Los Angeles.
January: King moves his family into a Chicago slum apartment to mark his first sustained movement in a Northern city.
June: King and Stokely Carmichael continue James Meredith's March Against Fear after Meredith is shot and wounded. Carmichael gives his first "black power" speech.
July: King's marches for fair housing in Chicago face bombs, bricks, and "white power" shouts.
1966 February: Operation Rolling Thunder, massive U.S. bombing of North Vietnam, begins.
May: Stokely Carmichael wins the presidency of SNCC and quickly turns the organization away from nonviolence.
October: National Organization for Women founded, modeled after black civil rights groups.
April: King's speech against the Vietnam War at New York's Riverside Church raises a storm of criticism
December: King announces plans for major campaign against poverty in Washington, D.C., for 1968.
1967 May: Huey Newton leads Black Panthers in armed demonstration in California state assembly.
June: Johnson nominates former NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court.
July: Riots in Newark and Detroit.
October: Massive mobilization against the Vietnam War in Washington, D.C.
March: King joins strike of Memphis sanitation workers.
April: King gives his "Mountaintop" speech in Memphis. A day later, he is assassinated at the Lorraine Motel.
1968 January: In Tet Offensive, Communist guerillas stage a surprise coordinated attack across South Vietnam.
March: Johnson cites divisions in the country over the war for his decision not to seek reelection in 1968.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. The engrossing final installment of Branch's three-volume biography of Martin Luther King Jr. maintains the high standards set in the previous volumes, the first of which won a Pulitzer Prize. Moving from the protest at Selma and the 1966 Meredith March through King's expanding political concern for the poor to his 1968 assassination in Memphis, Tenn., Branch gives us not only the civil rights leader's life but also the rapidly changing pulse of American culture and politics. The America we find in this last chapter of King's life is on fire—the Republican Party has begun to court white Southern voters; the Civil Rights movement itself has fractured; King sees bold challenges to his teaching of nonviolence in the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles. King himself has evolved, spreading his interests beyond civil rights to become a more outspoken critic of the Vietnam War and of poverty. A turning point in King's legacy, says Branch, was his housing actions in Chicago in the summer of 1966. This work "nationalized race," showing that it wasn't just a Southern problem, and ensured that King would go down in history as much more than a regional leader. As a literary work, Branch's biography is masterful. About midway through, the author begins to foreshadow King's death—by, for example, quoting his 1965 statement to a filmmaker: "I would willingly give my life for that which I think is right." If Branch indulges in predictable throat clearing about the lessons from King's life that endure in America today—well, that is to be expected. This magisterial book is a fitting tribute to a magisterial man. 24 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. 150,000 first printing; first serial to Time magazine; 15-city author tour. (Feb. 1)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Series: America in the King Years
  • Hardcover: 1056 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; First Edition edition (January 10, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 068485712X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684857121
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (57 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #273,675 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By G. Bestick on January 24, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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As usual I am finding myself engrossed by Taylor Branch's scholarship and prose. I have not quite completed this epic book about MLK, but I soon will. I can't put it down. MLK was one of the greatest human spirits to grace us with his presence. If you want a stunning, modern take on the power of MLK's eternal power, watch and listen to the DVD "USA The Movie" which is infused with his prophetic voice in a unique, unforgettable way.

Branch has done us a wonderful service by devoting the last 25 years of his life to chronicling MLK's life and the life of America during the struggle for civil rights. As usual, Branch is detailed, infinitely knowledgeable and obviously deeply devoted to his work and his subject. I recommend this book --all of his trilogy actually -- with great admiration and gratitude. Branch pieces together the inward and outward life of MLK in such a wonderful, well-researched project that is as impressive as it is eye-opening.
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This is the third volume of an epic history of King, the Civil Rights movement and America during a pivotal moment.

In this volume Branch traces the last years of King, the years post-March on Washington, the years when many in the movement decided that non-violence was not the correct line. Our memory of King ends largely at the "I had a dream" speech and passes over these years when King, took the logical step of expanding his quest for justice to the North, against poverty and against Vietnam.

Each step in that expansion cost King allies. Whites who were courageously against southern racism, turned out not to be so courageous when it applied to their own states. King's opposition to Vietnam found opponents within the Black community. And no one wants to talk about class.

Today it is common to contend that King `declined' in these years, or became `irrelevant', and we assume this is a judgment on King. Reading this book, I became even more convinced that the judgment is on us. King was faithful to his belief in God, in Christ and the non-violent way of the cross to the end, proving beyond any doubt his sincerity, his faith and his integrity. America took a profound wrong turn in those years, or perhaps, failed to grasp the opportunity presented to it.

While this book is as meticulously researched, as detailed and as broad in vision as the previous two in the series, it suffers from occasional bouts of confused writing. Every 50 pages or so you have to read some incident twice or three times before it becomes clear. His account of the Memphis march and the final days of King curiously lack impact.

Still, the story itself is compelling, and King's gradual abandonment as he journeys in faithfulness towards his Golgotha is epic and cosmic in its meanings for our time.
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This final installment in the triptych of Dr. Martin Luther King's life reads almost like a stream of consiousness piece. Engrossing in scope, yet intimate and fastidious in detail, it is gripping, compelling reading. I own "Parting the Waters", and after having put it aside for awhile, I am reminded of the great service Taylor Branch has done with his nearly quarter-century of research; which bears fruit so powerfully in this concluding work.
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I was lucky enough to discover this trilogy just when the third book (At Canaan's Edge) was released. Much has been written in other reviews that I will not repeat, except to say that this is an incredibly gripping tale, told by a master historian and story teller, that provides unique insight into the people and dynamics of the Civil Rights movement in America in the 60's.

This book is especially worth reading if you think this is a story you already know well; because Branch manages to surprise you and extend your understanding without ever losing sight of the landmarks of well established facts.

This truly is history as it should be written, and while the second book is admittedly a bit weaker than the first and third, they are all excellent and Branch more than deserves a second Pulitzer for the final book.
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