At Canaan's Edge concludes America in the King Years, a three-volume history that will endure as a masterpiece of storytelling on American race, violence, and democracy. Pulitzer Prize-winner and bestselling author Taylor Branch makes clear in this magisterial account of the civil rights movement that Martin Luther King, Jr., earned a place next to James Madison and Abraham Lincoln in the pantheon of American history.
While the comparison to Moses is unavoidable -- King oratorically placing himself on the mountaintop overlooking the promised land the night before his death is impossible to avoid -- Branch also implicitly compares King to another leader in this book, Jesus Christ. The fourth and final section of the book, titled "Passion," might point to any religious martyrdom, but also points Christ's crucifixion.
In a nutshell, this overarching narrative frame is the strength and the limitation of this very fine book. Branch continues to focus on King as the soul of America in the Civil Rights era. This is difficult to avoid, King's presence looms largest over the time, but Branch's careful history demonstrates that King by the end of his life, the Civil Rights movement had fragmented and marginalized King and his leadership. The narrative arc, though, leads to the unfortunate conclusion that the best of the era ended with King's death, which conveniently fits into our desire for historical starting points and ending points, but which doesn't really fit the data.
This is a quibble, though, in the face of Branch's staggering depth and insight as he presents the events of these years. In particular, Branch is skilled at evoking the key personalities of the age in all of the complexity. If King is the conscience of this time period, President Lyndon Johnson is the anguished soul, struggling to do the right thing in the face of significant opposition -- both political opposition and his own inner demons. If possible, Johnson might even be a more compelling figure in this book than King.
Branch details the divided efforts for Civil Rights after the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act: the voter registration drives in the southern states, including the formation of the Black Panther political party for the 1966 election in Alabama; the protests against the war in Vietnam; the demand for better housing in the north; the reactions to continued violence against activists and volunteers; marches in support of striking workers.
In the end, Branch believes that it is King's continued practice of nonviolence throughout this era, and particularly in the final years of his life, that is the great legacy of the age. If this seems a rather trite conclusion given conventional wisdom about the Civil Rights era, the narrative impact of this is striking. The divided efforts of the age lead to divided strategies, with nonviolence being shelved by most other activists as unproductive or even counter-productive. King alone, Branch argues, followed nonviolence to the end.
The book is fascinating, and is certainly a worthy final volume in Branch's trilogy. It is difficult to overstate Branch's achievement with the three books. They have been acclaimed by most critics, and rightly so.