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Twilight of the titans

The final volume of a trilogy on Martin Luther King's impact on America shows how, after the end of legal discrimination, the civil rights movement lost its focus.

Published January 22, 2006


America in the King Years, 1965-68

By Taylor Branch

Simon & Schuster, $35, 896 pp


The mission of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., from Montgomery in 1954 to Memphis in 1968, lasted 14 years. Taylor Branch's mission - to tell the story of the effect of King's mission on America - has lasted more than 20 years. His Pulitzer Prize-winning Parting the Waters was published in 1988 after four years of research. The second volume, Pillar of Fire, appeared 10 years later. The third, At Canaan's Edge, is now in bookstores. The trilogy, with the overarching title America in the King Years, may be the closest thing to an American epic we are likely to see.

An epic, and a tragedy. Tragic not just because this concluding volume ends with King's murder and witnesses the violent deaths of others. Nor because Branch has turned Lyndon Johnson into a figure of tragedy, undone by the dissonance between the successes that came out of his ambitious plans for the country and the calamitous failure - the escalation of the war in Vietnam - that would adhere to his name in the history books.

The tragic drift of At Canaan's Edge lies in the fading of the hopes and energies that drove King and inspired others. The Selma-to-Montgomery march and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which dominate the first third of the book, constitute a triumph over de jure discrimination. In the remainder of the book, the far more amorphous problem of de facto discrimination scatters the movement's resources, resulting in a loss of focus as it heads out of the South and into the cities of the North and West.

The Watts riots, only five months after the Selma march, heightened the consciousness that the country's racial problems were national, not regional. A year later, the violent protests of whites against King's efforts to end housing discrimination in Chicago "nationalized race," in Branch's words, putting an end to the notion "that bigotry was the province of backward Southerners, treatable by enlightened but firm instruction." And as King and his followers struggled to regain momentum, the war in Vietnam was taking its terrible course. No wonder that in the midst of one "paralyzed debate," Branch tells us, King "literally howled: "I don't want to do this any more! - I want to go back to my little church!' "

Telling such a story requires the fact-gathering skills of a reporter and the imaginative finesse of a novelist. Branch has an almost Tolstoyan gift for marshaling an enormous cast of characters, giving each of them life and depth, while never losing a sense of the shape and proportion of his narrative as a whole. The book is unified around two titanic figures, King and LBJ, and the tensions that played between them.

If, in the end, Johnson comes across as the more fully realized character, that may be because of the difficulty of humanizing someone who has been so profoundly venerated and reviled as King. Branch is tactful, for example, in his treatment of King's sexual indiscretions, which so titillated J. Edgar Hoover. Branch notes the "painful disaster" when a guilt-stricken King confessed his infidelity to his wife, Coretta, at a jaw-droppingly inappropriate moment: when she was recovering from a hysterectomy. And he observes King's vulnerability to "depression at peaks and valleys," so acute after Selma that he "displayed a bone-weary paralysis" that had his advisers urging him to see a psychiatrist. But otherwise the most humanizing thing - or maybe the most damning - that Branch has to say about King is that his favorite movie was The Sound of Music. Even in so thoroughly researched and documented a book as Branch's, the private King mostly remains hidden behind the public persona.

Branch is under no constraints in portraying LBJ, who has not lately been subject to much veneration. Branch's Johnson is a stew of idealism, ruthlessness and vulgarity, sometimes a power-hungry bully with an inflamed ego and sometimes a visionary thwarted by the implacable currents of history. LBJ treated King "variously to a Texas bear hug of shared dreams or a towering, wounded snit."

Swarming around these two figures are scores of others - activists, politicians, observers, saints and bigots. The America of the King years sometimes seems remote, our images of it swathed in nostalgia for the hippie era of sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll. But Branch's potent and illuminating narrative of this genuinely revolutionary epoch makes us aware of how much of it lingers in our own times: the often frivolous and inattentive media, the politicians preoccupied with power rather than with service, the deep cultural and political divisions created by the great lurch rightward in reaction against the liberalism of the '60s, the unchecked problems of poverty and violence and injustice, the continuing and agonized uncertainty about America's role in the world.

In his efforts to tell this vast and complicated story, to articulate without cliche, Branch can sometimes show signs of fatigue - moments when his prose turns clotted and opaque. But far more often than not, he seems touched by a muse of fire, one that aided him in his mission to portray the extraordinary men and women who responded to a call - whether of God or conscience - to change America.

- Charles Matthews is former book editor of the San Jose Mercury News.

[Last modified January 21, 2006, 10:26:03]

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