DEFINITIVE BIOGRAPHY OF KING?: A REVIEW ESSAY, THE
Burrow, Rufus Jr
Taylor Branch has completed his monumental trilogy on Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement in the United States. Not unlike the previous two volumes, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 195463 (1988) and Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65 (1998), volume 3 tries to capture as many eyewitness accounts as possible through extensive research and numerous interviews.1 Together these three volumes are unquestionably the definitive political biography on King. I highlight “political” because this series pays scant attention to things which are as fundamental to who King was as his political ideas and practice, such as the influence of black Southern culture on his entire life, as well as the values instilled in him by his family, church, and as a student at Morehouse College. In my estimation, then, the definitive biography or study on King would have to give a prominent place to theological and ecclesial considerations, in addition to the political.
At Canaan’s Edge is comprised of four parts totaling thirty-nine chapters, and more than two hundred pages of notes. Moreover, in a helpful way, each chapter begins with the year and dates that cover the period under discussion. This enables the reader to retain some sense of place in a very long book that tries to make sense of a massive amount of detail on the local, national, and international levels. In addition, the method of presentation is an alternating back and forth between political and social happenings and the civil rights movement, in addition to the relationship between events in each area.
The Young Martyrs of the SNCC
Branch includes an intricate and detailed discussion of the Selma, Alabama, movement and the quest for voting rights. He contends that one cannot adequately understand the 1965 Selma campaign without also understanding the roles and the struggles of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) that was organized in 1961. One gets a clear sense of the inner workings and internal turmoil of that organization and how its members did much of the early, tough, dangerous-sometimes deadly-grassroots work in Selma, for example, before King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) were invited in by local black leaders. When the Selma campaign took off, and later the “March against Fear” in Mississippi, King knew that the youth of the SNCC were battle tested and had earned the right to have an independent voice. He privately conceded this to his advisors (491-92).
Branch gives the SNCC a much more prominent place in the civil rights movement than other studies on King. Although King was viewed by many as the central figure in the civil rights movement, Branch’s book is a clear reminder that there were other important figures and organizations, of which the SNCC was but one. Whether in the Mississippi Delta (discussed at length in Pillar of Fire), Selma, Chicago, the beginnings of the black power movement, or planning for the poor people’s campaign, At Canaan’s Edge reveals the imprint of the SNCC on these initiatives. Branch is second only to Clayborne Carson2 in detailing the contributions and sacrifices of both black and white members of the SNCC and how their rhetoric and practice pushed and challenged King, the SCLC, and other more accepted civil rights organizations such as the NAACP and the National Urban League.
A few young members of the SNCC made the ultimate sacrifice for their conviction about civil and human rights for all people. For example, Branch recounts the journeys of white Northern students Jonathan Daniels and Judith Upham, who went to Selma when King called for clergy and others throughout the country to join them in the march to Montgomery. So committed were they that once the marchers finally reached Montgomery, Daniels and Upham decided to remain in Selma with the SNCC to continue their dangerous voter registration work. As the result of an ambush, Daniels, a student at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who earned the respect and appreciation of his SNCC peers as well as black residents of Selma, was murdered. Another young white priest, Richard Morrisroe, was critically wounded by the same white man who shot Daniels (303-5). Then there is the case of Sammy Younge, a Tuskegee Institute student who joined SNCC to work in Selma. Smitten by the struggle there, he found it impossible to return to school. He too was murdered (406). As in the case of the Daniels murder, the culprit was acquitted by an all white-male jury.
Branch also brings to life the story of Jimmie Lee Jackson, the twenty-six-year-old pulpwood worker and deacon who, having been denied voter registration five times, was subsequently fatally wounded by a white policeman. Jackson was the first martyr of the voter-rights campaign in Selma. James Reeb, a Unitarian minister from Boston, answered King’s call and became the second martyr of the Selma movement when a Klansman bludgeoned him to death with a baseball bat. While Reeb’s murder drew national attention, including flowers from the White House for Reeb’s widow and a presidential C-140 airplane to fly her and her father-in-law back to Boston, the Jackson family received no such accolades (83, 85, 89).
Branch also chronicles the story of white Detroit housewife and mother Viola Liuzzo, who, having read President Johnson’s speech against racist violence in Selma, was so convicted that she essentially left Detroit alone on impulse to contribute what she could to the struggle for voting rights in Selma. At the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery march, Liuzzo and a young, black male SNCC worker, Leroy Moton, volunteered to transport marchers back to Selma. During the return trip to Montgomery to pick up more marchers, one or more Klansmen fired shots at them from a speeding car. Liuzzo was mortally wounded by a gunshot to the face. Moton managed to escape and flagged down a flatbed truck driven by Disciples of Christ pastor Leon Riley of Richmond, California (now of Indianapolis, Indiana), who was also returning marchers to Selma.3
During their voter registration work in Lowndes County in Alabama, SNCC workers introduced the sign of the black panther as the symbol of the all “negro” third party that was formed by black residents (393). This symbol was later appropriated by Bobby Scale and Huey Newton in Oakland, California, where they formed the Black Panther Party for Self Defense (548, 608-11). Indeed, the earliest rumblings of “black power” came from the ranks of the SNCC. Ruby Doris Robinson was among the first to declare the need for black power in a press release (469). Stokeley Carmichael and Willie Ricks popularized the term during the continuation of the James Meredith March (named the “March against Fear”) in Greenwood, Mississippi (486).
Branch paints a picture of young people who were not perfect but committed. They argued internally and jockeyed for power; they fought over policy and financial issues with the leaders of SCLC, including King; some came early to doubt the reasonableness of absolute nonviolence in the face of Klan violence; some of them drank too much and smoked marijuana; and some, like Bob Moses (who came to adopt his mother’s maiden name, Parris4) burned out and became disillusioned. Despite these failings, Branch gives us a clear picture of the black and white youth who frequently found themselves in harm’s way because of their belief in the basic principles of democracy, the right of every human being to be treated with dignity and respect, and their dream of a sweeter, more gentle society and world for all. Indeed, students today, whether in seminaries, colleges, and universities, exhibit virtually no awareness that student organizations like SNCC ever existed and wielded power for constructive social change.
King vs. the FBI
Branch’s discussion on the changing, checkered relationship between King and President Lyndon Johnson-the civil rights president-is quite revealing. Not since David Garrow’s The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr. (1981) and Bearing the Cross (1986) has a King writer done as thorough a job of documenting and discussing this phenomenon. At Canaan’s Edge gives the reader a good sense of what initially appeared to be a relationship of mutual respect that soon degenerated into one of suspicion and utter distrust. To a large extent this was due to Johnson’s arrogance, craving for power, and his deep need for others to agree with him, or at least to not disagree with him. In addition, there was a massive amount of false information and misinformation regarding King that was generated by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and his assistant, Cartha “Deke” DeLoach.
Branch’s is a very good account of how corruption in the FBI undermined Johnson’s initial intention to seek to fund the war on poverty at a level that was worthy of the cause and his early desire to be supportive of King’s civil rights efforts.5 Hoover’s systematic false reporting about King went a long way toward causing Johnson to hold King with utter contempt. Hoover essentially blinded the president and made it impossible for him to see what could have been accomplished for the entire nation had he continued to work with King and to take more seriously his advice.
A number of King scholars and close associates of King have written about Hoover’s almost total obsession with trying to destroy him using extralegal means. One example is Stewart Burns’s helpful discussion in To the Mountaintop (2004). Former U.S. ambassador Andrew Young provides a more personalized account of Hoover’s callousness toward King in An Easy Burden (1996). Young observes that early in the civil rights movement, beginning in Montgomery, the FBI began its efforts to discredit King and the movement. The Bureau made unsubstantiated charges of communist infiltration, misappropriation of funds, and illicit sexual misconduct. It rightly angered Young that the FBI made these unsubstantiated charges and was never required “to justify its extraordinary incursion through pervasive wiretaps into the privacy of dozens of American citizens”6 (an all too familiar practice in today’s United States). Despite this massive invasion of privacy, no formal charges were ever levied against any movement leader for any of the potentially damaging rumors generated by the Bureau. According to Branch, Hoover’s hatred of King was such that he even refused to provide him with a briefing on specific threats against his life as he prepared to return to Memphis (752). Of course, King had already concluded that there was no way that law enforcement officials on any level could protect him (725).
Unfortunately, Branch does not consider why Hoover was retained as FBI director, and why Johnson believed so many of his lies about King. Andrew Young hints at a reason when he reflects deeper on why Hoover-with what can only be deemed as the support of administration officials-systematically sought to destroy King and the movement. Young believes that Hoover and others of his ilk were obsessed with trying to undermine King and other black male leaders because of a kind of psychosexual fear. The vendetta against King, he surmises, had little to do with accusations of his collaboration with communists, misappropriation of funds, and sexual impropriety. Fundamentally, Young argues, it had to do with a fear of sexuality:
Deeply buried but intense sexual fear of black males, illustrated by the sexual nature of attacks on black men by whites who seek to control or destroy black aggressiveness, has been a persistent pattern in the South since the advent of slavery. From the systematic destruction of the black family during slavery to contemporary barriers for black males attempting to protect and provide for their families via the imposition of strong societal and economic proscriptions, there is a recurrent theme: controlling black men. The theme was ever-present at lynchings of black men for allegations of rape or for flirtation with white women, and is always evident somewhere in the heavy punishment awaiting black men who assert or advocate the interests of their people. The FBI campaign was very much consistent with this neurotic white Southern racist tradition.7
Young has indisputably identified one of the underlying reasons why Hoover and his henchmen were able to do what they did with virtual impunity, and why they were not even seriously questioned by the media or high-level government officials.8
The scope of Branch’s research supporting his discussion of Hoover’s campaign to smear and destroy King and the movement is impressive. His skillful weaving of various threads of research into plausible conclusions is nothing short of outstanding. At Canaan’s Edge erases virtually every conceivable doubt as to whether the power-crazed, insecure, racist Hoover in fact had a vendetta against King and the movement. And yet one wonders why Branch did not examine the role that white male sexual fear of black males likely played in Hoover’s smear tactics against King. To address the psychosexual factor would clearly have implicated many others in the administration and media who failed to challenge Hoover.
Struggling to Remain Faithful to the Call
Those who have wondered why King initially spoke out against the Vietnam War in 1965, retreated, but later loudly reaffirmed his position in the famous 1967 speech at New York City’s Riverside Church, will be pleased with Branch’s treatment of the subject. The focus, of course, is on the sociopolitical and economic reasons for King’s momentous change. Branch borders on brilliance in telling this part of the story but fails to capture the more compelling moral and theological reasons for King’s decision to break silence on Vietnam. King’s deep religious faith and sense of divine call were central to who he was as a person and leader, and for Branch to stress the political underpinnings of King’s practice without reference to the deeper moral-theological ideas to which King adhered and continually refined is to render Branch’s discussion incomplete.9 Because King was a Christian and personalist, he staunchly believed, for example, that the universe is moral, and that moral purpose and moral laws govern the world. The extent to which persons endeavor to obey these laws is the extent to which the beloved community materializes in the world.
As the key figure in the civil rights movement, King was pulled in multiple directions on a daily basis. He could seldom focus his attention, energy, and meager resources on but one campaign. This sense of being pulled in many directions was not due merely to his political decisions but because he was convinced of the interrelated structure of reality and believed in the indivisibility of justice. King knew that he could not just focus on injustice in select places in the United States and in the world; rather, he came to see that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. For example, before all practical results of the Selma campaign were realized, King was already being pulled to consider taking the movement north to Chicago (458).10
This pattern alone would overwhelm most mortals, but King also had an extensive travel and speaking schedule. On April 29, 1966, for example, he traveled more than eight hundred miles to deliver nine speeches in rural Alabama churches (459). At numerous points throughout his book Branch makes much of what he refers to as King’s depression and mental state, noting in one instance that King was “despondent beyond tired…” (529). And yet when one considers the nature of King’s grueling schedule and the numerous death threats he received during the last three years of his life, the reasonable question is, Why would a normal human being not suffer bouts of depression and dogged fatigue?
No matter how depressed and tired King was, he remained faithful to his call and suffered no incapacitation. Furthermore, despite all attempts by Hoover and others to vilify King’s character, nothing that King himself did in his private life interfered with his commitment to the movement.11 Branch might have considered discussing reasons why King was somehow able-time and again-to keep forging ahead. These reasons include King’s family and church upbringing, the influence of Southern black culture, his penchant for humor among close and trustworthy friends, and his faith in God. Because of these influences King could find peace within himselfpeace enough to go on even when all around him was chaotic and had the look of death. It seems that most white writers on King fail to understand why he was able to keep going, and consequently why it is more important to stress the reasons for his determination than his bouts with utter fatigue and depression.
Branch receives high marks for his discussions of the mutual influence enjoyed by King and some members of the Jewish community, such as Rabbis Maurice Eisendrath, Harold Saperstein, Robert J. Marx,12 and most especially Abraham J. Heschel, whom he first met at the 1963 Conference on Race in Chicago.13 Another important Jewish figure was King’s closest advisor and good friend Stanley Levison, the much maligned New York lawyer who stood by him regardless of his decisions. Branch also names many of the previously unnamed local people who either contributed in some way to the campaigns from Selma to Chicago, to the brink of the Poor People’s Campaign, or who worked against them.
Branch skillfully delineates how King, like Moses, was allowed only to get a glimpse of the promised land without living to see its actualization (758). And yet one puts down At Canaan’s Edge with the sense that King retained his faith in the future and his hope in the American dream right up to the end (509). I concur with Branch, but it must be said that King’s hope and faith were grounded in something much deeper than America, the vision of the white founding fathers, and the Constitution of the United States. King’s deepest faith-and this is where I must depart from Branch-was in his conviction that the universe hinges on a moral foundation. Since the universe is fundamentally good because the God of his faith created, sustains, and loves it, King was confident that the beloved community would someday be a reality. King’s faith was essentially in the God of the Hebrew prophets and of Jesus Christ. He could have faith in the highest political ideals of the United States precisely because he saw them as consistent with his higher theological ideals. But make no mistake about it: King’s deepest faith was in the God of the Hebrew prophets.
Some Limitations in Branch’s Study
At Canaan’s Edge is unquestionably a significant contribution to King studies, one for which every King scholar will be grateful. Nevertheless, the book raises a number of issues that deserve comment. First, the one significant limitation I see in Branch’s discussion of the SNCC is that Ella Baker, the advisor most respected by its members, is virtually invisible. To be sure, Baker is visible in Pillar of Fire in relation to the SNCC’s work in the Mississippi Delta. Nevertheless, her invisibility during the Selma campaign (discussed in the present volume) is strange indeed. Branch discusses the December 1966 Peg Leg Bates conference at which SNCC members gathered to discuss purging the organization of all white staff members, including Bob and Dorothy Zellner, who had been with the SNCC from its inception. The Zellners paid some heavy dues to become faithful members and staffers of the SNCC. Bob Zellner had been arrested, brutally beaten, and tortured in a Louisiana jail (573-74). Dorothy Zellner endured similar abuses. Baker was present at that weekend conference and staunchly disagreed with the decision to oust the remaining white staffers. She continued to be in relationship with the SNCC until its dissolution in the late 1960s.14 And yet the reader learns little about Baker’s ongoing relation with the SNCC in At Canaan’s Edge. Notwithstanding this limitation, however, Branch has provided an instructive discussion.
Second, invaluable as oral history contributions are for studies such as Branch’s (775), the credibility of what some interviewees contribute may at times be open to question. Such is the case, I fear, for a number of claims in the book regarding King’s alleged philandering. One claim is that in January 1968 King told his wife about one of his longstanding affairs (678). The notes at the end of the book do not clarify the source of this information, although the line of discussion and the placement of references regarding interviews with Juanita and Ralph Abernathy imply that the source may be one or both of them. But even then I must raise the credibility issue since there was some definite tension between the Abernathy and King families when Ralph wrote about some of King’s alleged affairs in his bock And the Walls Came Tumbling Down (1989).
Another common claim is that Mrs. King frequently phoned the SCLC office “to track King’s prolonged absences…” (677), a claim of which I am once again curious to know the source. Branch’s notes reveal nothing about this, although the reference to executive director William Rutherford in the body of the text suggests that he is the source. The reader, however, has the right to know, rather than to guess.
There is yet another instance in which I wish Branch had either stated explicitly in the text or in the notes the source of his information or left the claim out entirely. The troubling instance in question purportedly occurred during the difficult last meeting with SCLC staffers in Atlanta after the failed first march in Memphis. While attempting to determine whether a second Memphis march would take place and whether they would pursue the poor peoples’ campaign, Branch writes that King was so overwrought at how things had gone that he asked Ralph Abernathy for his car keys (before the meeting had ended) and angrily told the group as he was leaving that they could go on without him. Branch then tells us that many present at the meeting believed that King actually left when he did in order to keep a previous secret engagement with a longtime Atlanta mistress (744). Although the notes do not name the source of this information, one might infer from the discussion that Abernathy was the source, for we are told that “only Abernathy knew how to track them down” (744, italics mine; see also 678-79).
It might well be the case that Branch was given sensitive information in some of the interviews with the proviso that the source not be revealed. However, my scholarly preference is that such information not be included at all, or that the author at least alert the reader to special provisions for the use of such information. This gives the reader the option of judging how much weight to give to potentially damaging information. Even so, I am fully aware that naming the source of sensitive information does not in itself assure the credibility of that source. In any case, the reader has the right to know all sources or to be able to label as conjecture or gossip claims from unnamed sources. Impressive as his research is, the claim of some reviewers that Branch’s more than two hundred pages of notes document every statement of fact is simply not true.15
My concern here is not to argue that King did not engage in short- and long-term extramarital affairs. There is too much smoke generated by various sources to suggest that he had no such relationships. Indeed, one need merely read early and later studies on King to know that there was fire somewhere.16 Rather, my contention is that those who insist on the importance of fueling discussions on King’s private life should see it as equally important to support their claims with credible, named sources, particularly since such claims may have devastating consequences for King’s reputation as prophet of civil and human rights. In light of the FBI’s vicious vendetta and pattern of lies to discredit King-convincingly documented in At Canaan’s Edge-the need for credible sources in King scholarship is indeed great. In addition, I am more convinced than ever that white males who write about King seem more obsessed with the man’s private life than others in the field. The aforementioned role of whitemale psychosexual fear of Afrikan American males is an important point to keep in mind here. Whether it plays an active part in Branch’s trilogy is the focus of another essay.
Third, while At Canaan’s Edge is clearly a political biography, I wish Branch had been more forthcoming about King’s intellectual and theological groundings and the formative influence of the black family, the church, and Southern culture. One could rightly and reasonably argue that Branch is forthcoming on these matters in Parting the Waters (vol. 1). However, the person who reads only the second or third volume in the trilogy has lost a great deal. Inasmuch as the black family, the church, and Southern cultural influences were organic to King’s development, some of Branch’s discussions would be all the stronger had he at least made this connection in both the second and third volumes. For the truth is that King was a man of ideas and ideals-theological and philosophical. Many of these were worked out in seminary and graduate school and then refined and sharpened in the hot heat of the civil rights movement. King’s ideas and faith convictions convinced him of the necessity for churches and believers to translate their ideas into liberative actions in the world. Conversely, King allowed his actions to influence and to refine his basic ideas and beliefs.
Had Branch given this and the aforementioned nonpolitical influences on King more consideration in volume 3, he would know, for example, that it was no slip of the tongue when King said the following in an April 4, 1967, sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church: “There is something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press that will praise you when you say be nonviolent toward Jim Clark, but will curse you and damn you when you say be nonviolent toward little brown Vietnamese children” (604). Branch’s reaction to this statement is that King “let slip rage at being patronized and misunderstood.” On the contrary, what King said was actually consistent with his fundamental convictions about the interrelated structure of the universe and his sense that justice is indivisible. While there might also have been an element of holy rage in King’s remark-a quality exhibited by all in the tradition of ethical prophecy, such as Amos, Micah, and Heschel-the focus should be less on that and more on the ideals that informed what King said that day.
Focusing on King’s ideals also would have informed Branch’s discussion of the defection of King’s closest colleagues from the ranks of the diehard adherents to nonviolent direct action, leaving him virtually alone in the last two years of his life. Branch writes of King, “To the end, he resisted incitements to violence, cynicism, and tribal retreat” (771). Because so little attention is given to the fact that King sought to translate his ideas into action, the reader is left wondering why, in the face of such defections, King stubbornly adhered to nonviolence. When violence was literally all around him, why did he insist that nonviolence is the only way to freedom and liberation?
At Canaan’s Edge does not address such questions since its focus is not on King as a man of ideas and ideals, nor on his staunch religious and theological convictions. Even when Branch rightly contends that for King, “Witness to belief was more important than immediate results…” (593), he gives no indication of his awareness that the beliefs to which King witnessed had sociopolitical implications. And yet it seems to me that since King himself insisted a number of times that he was first and last a minister of the gospel, any biographical work on him must fall short if it does not give adequate attention to the fact that he was both a man of social activism and a man of ideas. King’s actions in the civil and human rights movements were done not merely-or even primarily-for social or political reasons but for theological reasons. This is why he was such an enigma to social analysts and politicians at all levels of government. King remained true to nonviolence as a way of life because he understood love to be the foundation of the universe itself. Violence, therefore, profoundly contradicts what God requires of human beings. Without taking this fundamental conviction into account, any assessment of King’s sociopolitical ideas and practices will be inadequate.
Branch and Afrikan American Scholarship on King
Finally, like most white-male King scholars, Branch tends to underutilize the contribution of Afrikan American male scholars.17 Specific examples are James Cone and Lewis Baldwin, both of whom have placed considerable emphasis on family, black church, and black Southern cultural influences on King’s development and ministry. Baldwin, one of the top five King scholars in the world, has been most outstanding in this regard.
Not only does Branch underutilize such scholarship in At Canaan’s Edge, he actually makes a confusing reference to Cone’s appreciation for Malcolm X. It is confusing because he implies that what Cone said about Malcolm was said before Cone was called to the faculty of New York City’s Union Theological Seminary in 1968. He identifies Cone as “soon to be the first black professor at Union Seminary in New York…” (374). In fact, Cone makes this statement in his Martin & Malcolm & America (1991). The reader gets no sense that Cone’s book influenced Branch’s discussions in any significant way. Cone’s book, along with an earlier publication by Louis Lomax, To Kill a Black Man (1968), and the more recent work by Baldwin and Amiri YaSin Al-Hadid, Between Cross and Crescent: Christian and Muslim Perspectives on Malcolm and Martin (2002), draws attention to the importance of how Malcolm and King mutually influenced each other.18 Knowing of this influence should lead one to ask questions about the contributions of both men to the civil and human rights movements. It is critical to realize that without both men-Malcolm and Martin-there would not likely have been a SCLC, SNCC, CORE, or black power movement-at least not during the 1960s. Although Malcolm’s name is cited more than a dozen times in At Canaan’s Edge, Branch writes virtually nothing about the positive contributions he made to the period of American history under discussion, or about how the later Malcolm and the later King learned from each other.
One of Cone’s arguments is that one may not expect to fully understand either Martin or Malcolm if one does not understand both men, as well as how they complemented and diverged from each other. Although Baldwin and Al-Hadid’s book goes well beyond Cone’s pioneering work in a number of ways, it essentially supports Cone’s thesis. Malcolm receives considerable attention in Pillar of Fire, but the reader does not-even there-get a sense of how he and King influenced each other, albeit unwittingly. Therefore my sense is that At Canaan’s Edge would be all the richer had Branch allowed it to be more intentionally informed by the contributions of Afrikan American scholars-especially Baldwin and Cone. Michael G. Long of Elizabethtown College, a white male and rising star among King scholars, has a good awareness of this problem. When he read and responded to an earlier draft of this review he wrote, “Your comments about TB’s [Taylor Branch’s] negligence of certain black sources in MLK’s thought are well taken. There’s still a great racial divide among King scholars-the academy is far from the beloved community….Some white scholars, most notably Richard Lischer at Duke (The Preacher King…), have attempted to bridge the gap, but there’s a long way to go. And I’m afraid that TB’s book only adds to the gap.”19 Lewis Baldwin also expressed this concern when he too responded to the earlier draft: “I, too, wonder why white King scholars ignore our work on the civil rights leader….I actually find myself wondering if they are somehow handicapped in their thinking by the same racism that they discuss in their works.”20
In addition, I do not quite know what to make of the fact that Branch refers explicitly to “King biographer David Garrow” (540, 554) and “King scholar Adam Fairclough” (734)-both white menbut does not seem aware that Cone has written a significant volume on King and that Baldwin has written no less than five. It is true that earlier in his book Branch refers to “biographer David Lewis” (473), the Afrikan American historian who wrote one of the first biographies on King after his assassination. However, one not familiar with Lewis’s book would have to go to the bibliography to determine for certain that he too is a King biographer.
An Abrupt End to a Massive Tome
At Canaan’s Edge ends rather abruptly with King’s assassination. Branch includes very little about the immediate aftermath, though the epilogue does contain a hurried catalog of events from the 1970s with slight reference to an event or two in the ’80s and ’90s. Nevertheless, after 771 pages of text and more than two hundred pages of notes, most readers will be happy to be at the end of such a massive book. However, I personally hoped for a less abrupt ending, and some sense of where we should go from here.
Finally, but for the concerns noted, this is an outstanding contribution to King studies and to the history of the civil rights movement in the United States. This is a book that can be used effectively in courses on King (particularly advanced or graduate courses), American history, civil rights history, and political biography. The book is a must read for both the King scholar as well as the King enthusiast who is committed to ascertaining the truth about King’s relationships with various aspects, personalities, and groups from Selma to Memphis.
1 At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965-68. By Taylor Branch. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006. 1,039 pages.
2 See Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981).
3 For Disciples readers it may be of interest to note that in August 1965 King was to have addressed a Disciples convention in Puerto Rico (289). Although Branch does not confirm that King actually kept this engagement, Laurence Kirkpatrick’s letter of April 27, 1965, extends the invitation to King to address the World Convention of Churches of Christ (Disciples), and a subsequent letter notes that King accepted the invitation to speak on August 14. We also know that on August 24 King’s secretary, Dora McDonald, wrote Kirkpatrick to inform him of King’s expenses of $483.40 for roundtrip airfare for him and his aide, Bernard Lee. Both of these documents are in the King Library and Archives. In addition, it is noteworthy that King addressed the International Convention of Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ) in Dallas, Texas, on September 25, 1966. The title of his address was “Beyond Discovery, Love.” This document is also in the King Library and Archives.
4 Taylor Branch, Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998), 590.
5 My colleague at Elizabethtown College, King scholar Michael Long, read and commented on an earlier draft of this review and informed me that an even better treatment of the King and Johnson relationship is found in Nick Kotz, Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Laws That Changed America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005).
6 Andrew Young, An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 471.
7 Young, 471.
8 Ibid., 470.
9 See a much fuller discussion in chapter 8 of my God and Human Dignity: The Personalism, Theology, and Ethics of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006).
10 King took the movement north to Chicago against the advice of some of his advisors. Although by most accounts the Chicago movement was an abysmal failure for King, it is also the case that the decision to go to Chicago proved that racism was not confined to the South (513-14, 523). This truth was only magnified by the little time that King spent in Los Angeles after the Watts riots. Moreover, King found racism in the North-especially in Chicago-to be worse than what he had experienced in Alabama and Mississippi (511).
11 Here I follow Andrew Young’s line of thought in An Easy Burden, 331-32.
12 Rabbi Marx’s story is important inasmuch as he stood on the sidelines as an observer for the Chicago Federation of Reform Jewish congregations during the march through Chicago’s Marquette Park. The venomous and hateful expressions on the faces of white residents and their vicious treatment of the nonviolent marchers in effect convicted and converted Marx, causing him to vow never again to merely be an observer in future marches for civil and human rights. Marx was overwhelmed by having “seen in the raging fears of ordinary parents and children ‘how the concentration camp could have occurred and how man’s hatred could lead them to kill.’ Marx wrote a pained confession about the difficulty of being a prophet close to home. Ι was on the wrong side of the street. I should have been with the marchers'” (508-9). Marx was not only among the marchers during the march through Gage Park but was among those struck by rocks (510).
13 Looking back even King praised the unflinching courage of Jewish rabbis during the Montgomery bus boycott. See his Stride Toward Freedom (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1958), 210. In 1963, from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, he expresses thankfulness for Harry Golden for having “written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms.” See his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in Why We Can’t Wait (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1963), 93.
14 See Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker & the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 348-51.
15 Anthony Lewis, a former columnist for the New York Times, makes this erroneous claim in his review of Branch’s book. See “The Whirlwinds of Revolt,” http://www.nytimes.com, February 5, 2006.
16 See John A. Williams, The King God Didn’t Save (New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1970); David L. Lewis, King: A Critical Biography (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970); Jim Bishop, The Days of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1971); Stephen B. Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1982); David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York: Morrow and Company, 1986); and Stewart Burns, To the Mountaintop: Martin Luther King, Jr. ‘s Sacred Mission to Save America 1955-1968 (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2004).
17 At this writing I know of only one book written on King by a woman (of any race). See Mary King, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Power of Nonviolent Action (Paris: UNESCO, 1999).
18 See Louis E. Lomax, To Kill a Black Man (New York: Holloway House Publishing Company, 1968); and Lewis V. Baldwin and Amiri YaSin Al-Hadid, Between Cross and Crescent: Christian and Muslim Perspectives on Malcolm and Martin (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002).
19 Quoted by permission from Michael G. Long, Elizabethtown College, Department of Religious Studies. Email response to my review, February 22, 2006.
20 Quoted by permission from Lewis V. Baldwin, Vanderbilt University, Department of Religious Studies. Email response to my review, February 22, 2006.
Rufus Burrow, Jr.
Indiana Professor of Christian Thought and Professor of Theological Social Ethics
Christian Theological Seminary
Copyright Christian Theological Seminary Summer 2006
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