Every time the country is convulsed by a racial outrage like the lynching of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas, or the beating of a black man on a city street by New Orleans police, some despairing soul can be counted on to declare that nothing really has changed, that American society today is as racist and unequal and biased against black people as it ever was.
Read this last volume of Taylor Branch’s biographical trilogy of Martin Luther King Jr., however, and it quickly becomes apparent that, racially, everything has changed in America, and for the better. To be sure, conditions are not yet where they need to be or where we should want them to be, but they are radically different from what they were in 1965, the year of voting rights and the Selma-to-Montgomery march, or in 1968, the year of the Tet offensive, Lyndon Johnson’s abdication as a presidential candidate, the Memphis garbage-workers strike-and King’s assassination.
Thanks ironically to one of the outrages of that era-the wiretapping of King and his close friend Stanley Levison by the FBI under its bigoted, hate-filled, and Communist-obsessed director J. Edgar Hoover-Branch had access to transcripts of phone conversations and other private discussions among King and many of his associates. He had similar access to President Lyndon Johnson, many of whose telephone and other conversations were picked up by a White House tape-recording system and have since become available to scholars. After King, Johnson probably loomed larger than any other figure in the civil rights revolution of the 1960s.
It is impossible to overstate how crude and brutal and blatant was the Southern system of racial oppression. Segregation in the North was more subtle, but scarcely less effective in keeping blacks penned up and put down economically, residentially, in every significant way. Branch’s trilogy, as much as it is a biography of King’s public career, is the story of the effort to dismantle these systems, beginning with the (reluctantly) King-led Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and continuing until Memphis, April 4, 1968.
At Canaan’s Edge picks up the story in 1965. King and the rest of the civil-rights leadership were fresh off a monumental victory-passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed segregation in public accommodations and a host of other activities and institutions. Now, with encouragement from Johnson, the focus shifted to the most fundamental civil right, the vote, which had been denied to most blacks in the South by a mixture of legal subterfuge and raw physical intimidation by terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan.
Selma is to voting rights as Montgomery is to bus boycott and Birmingham is to bombs, and it was to Selma that King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference general staff went.
Selma was the seat of Perry County and the site of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. King himself was not present on March 7, 1965, the day when Sheriff Jim Clark and his deputies and posse literally rode roughshod over a group of marchers who had determined to march across the bridge and to Montgomery to protest the disfranchisement of black would-be voters in Perry County, Lowndes County, and indeed, all of Alabama.
Branch’s description of the melee makes clear that it was far more brutal and unrestrained on the part of the police than the iconic black-and-white newsreel of the event could communicate:
By 3:30 p.m., more than a hundred troopers, possemen, and sheriff’s deputies pursued the marchers over the mile back to the neighborhood around Brown Chapel, where they attacked stragglers in a frenzy. Some drove their quarry indoors; others yelled for Negroes to come out...[Selma’s police chief] Wilson Baker...saw mounted possemen urge their horses up the steps of Brown Chapel to take swings.
But it was that newsreel, played in its entirety and without interruption on at least one network, that galvanized the response of King and the civil-rights community and the nation.
From the perspective of 2006 and our bitter public debates about the proper role of religion and religiously motivated people in politics, it is intriguing to read Branch’s description of King’s call to-and the eager response of-religious communities throughout the country for reinforcements for a new march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a march that would go all the way to Montgomery.
One of those reinforcements was a white Unitarian minister from Boston, James Reeb, who became a martyr of the campaign when he was clubbed to death by an attacker on a Selma street. Another was a white Catholic housewife from Detroit, Viola Liuzzo, who was shot to death by nightriding Klansmen in Lowndes County.
The Selma campaign was notable for several reasons. Most important is that it was a success. Not only did King lead a march-under the protection of a federal court order, it left Selma on Sunday, March 21, and arrived in Montgomery three days later-but the campaign demonstrated to the nation the crying need for a federal voting-rights law. The riot of “law officers” on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the blood of the martyrs-Reeb, Liuzzo, Jimmie Lee Jackson and untold numbers of other black Alabamans-proved that a voting-rights proposal was no wanton attempt to curb “state rights”; it was a matter of exercising federal power to protect the rights of American citizens.
Selma also was the last time that King’s philosophical commitment to nonviolence went essentially unchallenged in a major civil-rights action. It became harder and harder for King and his disciples to explain to young black people why they should forgo self-defense in the face of homicidal violence by Klansmen and white vigilantes who were often in league with law enforcement.
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was already on the way to disintegration, with some members deriding nonviolence as utter foolishness. Eventually, SNCC leader H. Rap Brown would announce to the American people that violence was “as American as cherry pie.” And a former leader would utter the cry, “Black power!”
Finally, Selma was probably the last time that Lyndon Johnson gave his full attention and energies to civil rights and Great Society issues. He had already become ensnared in Vietnam and the war that would prove his undoing.
Branch tracks each of these facets of “America in the King Years” through the almost nine-hundred pages of the book, all the way to Memphis in 1968. By then, King’s popularity and influence had diminished greatly. Writing of late 1967, Branch observes that “audience appeal for King dipped into a kind of public-relations trough, obscured between dramatic youth clashes over Vietnam and nostalgia for simpler racial heroes and villains.” King’s attempts to establish himself as a spokesman against the Vietnam War ran into a response from the New York Times and from the Washington Post that amounted to an admonition to stay in his place. These editorial calls, Branch writes, for “segregated silence” on Vietnam dashed “any expectation that King’s freedom movement had validated the citizenship credentials of blacks” and “relegated him again to the back of the bus, conspicuous yet invisible.”
Stokely Carmichael, Rap Brown, the Black Panther Party, and other younger black leaders seized the attention of the media and the public with their rhetoric of “black power,” “by any means necessary,” and other slogans that suggested that the day of the nonviolent preacher-leader was over and the era of violent “solutions” had arrived.
Amid all this, King suffered from depression and found himself constantly subject to blackmail by Hoover, who peddled propaganda about King to many media outlets and offered access to recordings of King’s extramarital encounters to some. Despite this vulnerability, King never gave up his mistresses, and was with one of them in Memphis before he was killed. Hoover, Branch observes, “stood unchallenged through King’s lifetime.”
In the last months of his life, King had seized upon the idea of a poor people’s pilgrimage to Washington. Variously described as a “camp-in,” a “march,” and an analogue of the “bonus army” of the 1930s, this action was to lift the issue of poverty and systemic economic inequality to the top of official Washington’s agenda. Branch’s description of this idea and King’s embrace of it makes King sound very much like the down-on-his-luck gambler, scraping together enough bucks for one last bet, one big “score” that would turn around his life and his fortunes. Who knows but that King might have done it? But Memphis got in the way-and King never got to place that bet.