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Authors: Taylor Branch

At Canaan's Edge

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Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963–65

Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954–63

(with Eugene M. Propper)

The Empire Blues

Second Wind
(with Bill Russell)

Blowing the Whistle: Dissent in the Public Interest
(with Charles Peters)


Rockefeller Center
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020

Copyright © 2006 by Taylor Branch
All rights reserved,
including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.

& S
and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Photography Consultant: Kevin Kwan

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Branch, Taylor.
     At Canaan's edge: America in the King years, 1965–68 / Taylor Branch.
        p.   cm.
     1. African Americans—Civil rights—History—20th century. 2. Civil rights movements—United States—History—20th century. 3. King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929–1968. 4. United States—History—1961–1969. I. Title.
E185.615.B67 2006
323.1196'073 009046—dc22                2005040177
ISBN-13: 978-1-4165-5871-2
ISBN-10: 1-4165-5871-3

Photo credits will be found on backmatter.

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For Macy and Franklin

And for Diane Nash


is an orphan among democratic ideas. It has nearly vanished from public discourse even though the most basic element of free government—the vote—has no other meaning. Every ballot is a piece of nonviolence, signifying hard-won consent to raise politics above firepower and bloody conquest. Such compacts work more or less securely in different lands. Nations gain strength from vote-based institutions in commerce and civil society, but the whole architecture of representative democracy springs from the handiwork of nonviolence.

America's Founders centered political responsibility in the citizens themselves, but, nearly two centuries later, no one expected a largely invisible and dependent racial minority to ignite protests of steadfast courage—boycotts, sit-ins, Freedom Rides, jail marches—dramatized by stunning forbearance and equilibrium into the jaws of hatred. During the short career of Martin Luther King, Jr., between 1954 and 1968, the nonviolent civil rights movement lifted the patriotic spirit of the United States toward our defining national purpose.

James Madison, arguing in 1788 to ratify the novel Constitution of the United States, called upon “every votary of freedom to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.” This revolutionary premise challenged the once universal hierarchy of rulers and subjects along with its stubborn assumption that a populace needs discipline by superior force or authority. Madison also prescribed a bold commitment to the wisdom of citizens at large. This public trust surfaces in close elections, when it becomes more than a theoretical article of faith that the power of a great nation can turn on the last trickle of marginal voters to the polls. Without “virtue in the people,” wrote Madison, “no theoretical checks, no form of government, can render us secure.”

There remains debate about the relative sturdiness of self-governance and public trust as bedrock features of constitutional design. Is democracy more vulnerable to a loss of collective will or to deficiencies in popular judgment? Rulers from China and elsewhere scoff that both ideals are impossibly unstable for a long run measured in dynasties, and doubters within democracy itself push for authoritarian shelter. However, nonviolent pioneers from the civil rights era stand tall in the commitment to govern oneself and develop political bonds with strangers, rather than vice versa. Teenagers and small children sang freedom songs in the Birmingham jail. Workshops trained nonviolent pilgrims to uphold democratic beliefs against the psychology of enemies. Demonstrators faced segregationist oppressors in the utmost spirit of disciplined outreach, willing to suffer and even die without breaking witness for civil contact. Bob Moses, the mystical student leader, recruited college volunteers to endure scapegoat brutality during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964. On its first night, one of three lynch victims haunted the surrounding posse with his last words. “Sir, I know just how you feel,” Michael Schwerner told a Klansman about to pull the trigger.

Martin Luther King famously exhorted the nation to “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed,” but he paid tribute to vanguard students for teaching him that oratory alone was not enough. He reinforced a cry for democracy with political sacrifice, and dreams of brotherhood collided in his anguished voice with the cruelties of race. To combat distortions in historical perception, King balanced an imperative for equal votes with the original prophetic vision of equal souls before God. He grounded one foot in patriotism, the other in ministry, and both in nonviolence. The movement he led climbed from obscurity to command the center stage of American politics in 1963, when President John F. Kennedy declared racial segregation a moral issue “as old as the Scriptures and…as clear as the American Constitution.” A year later, after President Lyndon Johnson signed a landmark law to abolish segregation by sex as well as race, King accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality,” he said, echoing the Founders' lyrical hopes for freedom. “But what,” wrote Madison, “is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

In this third, concluding volume on America in the King Years, King has willed himself from the pinnacle of acclaim straight to “the valley” of a new campaign to seek voting rights for black people. By early 1965, he has been beaten and arrested again through two months of arduous demonstrations in Selma, Alabama—highlighted once more by children marched to jail, with a young black man shot to death in a vigil—and has attracted very little notice. For all its resonant success to win the courtesies of democracy, the freedom movement has evoked lethal opposition at the color line of political power—the vote—from a nation that long ago enshrined but essentially forgot a Fifteenth Amendment guarantee of this most fundamental right.

Marchers stand here on the brink of violent suppression in their first attempt to cross Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge, after which thousands of ordinary Americans will answer King's overnight call for a nonviolent pilgrimage to Selma. Three of them will be murdered, but the quest to march beyond Pettus Bridge will release waves of political energy from the human nucleus of freedom. The movement will transform national politics to win the vote. Selma will engage the world's conscience, strain the embattled civil rights coalition, and embroil King in negotiations with all three branches of the United States government. It will revive the visionary pragmatism of the American Revolution.

In adjacent Lowndes County, where no member of the black majority has dared to vote, sharecroppers will risk their lives to enter politics. Torment over distant Vietnam will destroy a historic collaboration between King and Lyndon Johnson at the signal divide from the 1960s—whether to pursue democracy by force of arms. Actors on all sides will confront persistent blind spots of violence and race. At their best, like the Founders, allies of the nonviolent movement will turn rulers and subjects into fellow citizens. Literally and figuratively, they still change the face of the country we inherit.

BOOK: At Canaan's Edge
13.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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