This book concludes a 3-volume history of American race, violence, and democracy. As the book begins, King and his movement are one decade into an epic struggle for the promises of democracy. The quest to cross Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965 engages the conscience of the world, strains the civil rights coalition, and embroils King with the U.S. government. After Selma, freedom workers are murdered, but sharecroppers learn to read, dare to vote, and build their own political party, while Stokely Carmichael leaves the movement in frustration to proclaim his famous Black Power doctrine. King takes nonviolence into Northern urban ghettoes, exposing hatreds and fears no less virulent than those in the South. We watch King bring all his eloquence into dissent from the Vietnam War, and make an embattled decision to concentrate on poverty; we reach Memphis, the garbage workers' strike, and King's assassination.--From publisher description. Also includes information on Ralph Abernathy, Harry Belafonte, James Bevel, Black Power, Bloody Sunday, Julian Bond, Hubert Rap Brown, Brown Chapel AME Church, Brown v. Board of Education, McGeorge Bundy, Stokely Carmichael, Chicago, Illinois, Chicago Freedom Movement, Jim Clark, Jonathan Myrick Daniels, Cartha DeLoach, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Edmund Pettus Bridge, Episcopal Church, Episcopalians, Federal Bureau of Investigation, James Forman, William Fulbright, Arthur Goldberg, Abraham Heschel, Ho Chi Minh, J. Edgar Hoover, Gloria Larry House, Howard University, John Hulett, Hubert Humphrey, Jesse Jacdson, Jews, Frank M. Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson, Lyndon B. Johnson, U.S. Justice Department, Nicholas Katzenbach, John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Ku Klux Klan, Bernard Lafayette, James Lawson, Bernard Lee, Stanley Levison, John Robert Lewis, Viola Liuzzo, Lowndes County (Alabama), Robert McNamara, Harry McPherson, March Against Fear, Thrugood Marshall, Memphis (Tennessee), Montgomery (Alabama), Bob Moses, Bill Moyers, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, A.J. Muste, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), New York Times, Richard Nixon, nonviolence, Adam Clayton Powell, Al Raby, Ronad Reagan, James J. Reeb, Richard Russell, Bayard Rustin, William Rutherford, St. Paul's Episcopal Church, segregation, Selma (Alabama), Selma to Montgomery Marches, Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Student Non violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Vietnam War, Voting Rights Act (1965), Harry Wachtel, George Wallace, Watts riots, Webb v. Board of Education of Chicago, William Westmoreland, Hosea Williams, Andrew Young, etc.
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.