- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 4, 2006

AT CANAAN’S EDGE: AMERICA IN THE KING YEARS

By Taylor Branch

Simon & Schuster, $35,

1039 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY JOEL HIMELFARB

There is no way to sugarcoat this: Taylor Branch’s new book, “At Canaan’s Edge. America in the King Years,” is proof that when it comes to writing a coherent, readable tale of American history, the road to chaos is paved with good intentions.

Mr. Branch’s political analysis of the final years of the life of Martin Luther King and its aftermath are marred by the author’s blindness to the brutality of the Indochinese communists and inability to comprehend the flaws of the Great Society and other welfare-state programs. His book illustrates how ideological bias can skew the presentation of American history.

In writing “At Canaan’s Edge” (the final installment of his series on King and the civil-rights movement that took 24 years to complete), Mr. Branch chronicles the period from the beginning of 1965, when King tries to organize a march from Selma, Ala. to Montgomery, Ala. to win the right to vote for blacks , until his assassination on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn.

The most interesting chapters of the book by far are chapters 38 and 39 — the final two — which focus on King’s involvement on behalf of striking Memphis sanitation workers in the final months of his life. But aside from very tenacious scholars and book reviewers, few readers will likely have the stamina to pore through the entire book, which is an unmanageable 1,039 pages, including index, bibliography and footnotes.

In some ways that is unfortunate, because, for all of its flaws, the book includes plenty of useful information in the first 37 chapters (682 pages). Perhaps the most important, disturbing thing a reader learns about is the extent of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s hatred for King. Although the FBI did outstanding work in solving some of the most notorious crimes committed by the Ku Klux Klan during the 1960s, Mr. Branch’s research almost suggests that this was in spite of Hoover, who comes across as a man obsessed with discrediting the civil rights leader at virtually any cost.

Unfortunately, in focusing on Hoover’s obsessive hatred of King and his suggestions that the civil rights leader was a communist, Mr. Branch avoids serious examination of one of his closest associates, in particular Stanley Levison, a top aide.

Historian David Garrow has shown that before joining King, Levison had been a top fundraiser for the Communist Party USA; his background was sufficiently worrisome that Attorney General Robert Kennedy urged King to dismiss Levison in 1963. But King essentially ignored him, and Mr. Branch never examines Levison’s communist background in any detailed way.

Mr. Branch does a more thorough job of showing how King tried, with decreasing success, to fend off the efforts of black-power advocates like Stokely Carmichael to move the civil rights movement away from nonviolence.

And Mr. Branch shows how King, as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, tried to salvage his relationship with President Johnson, even as King became increasingly hostile to U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. Mr. Branch also does a good job of chronicling the murders of of civil rights workers Viola Liuzzo and Jonathan Daniels, killed by the Klan in Alabama in 1965.

But the information on these subjects is buried under hundreds of pages of excruciating detail on topics ranging from the Johnson administration’s deliberations over Vietnam to the SCLC efforts to integrate Chicago housing and public schools to voting-rights campaigns in Alabama and Mississippi. And the size of the book is further swelled by trivial matters like Hoover’s opinion of ousted Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev and LBJ’s 1965 appearance at a baseball exhibition game at the Houston Astrodome.

Unfortunately, while the book covers these trivial things, some more consequential ones are touched upon only briefly. For example, Mr. Branch fleetingly mentions one of the Klan’s most despicable crimes: the June 10, 1966 murder in Natchez, Miss. of Ben Chester White, 65, a black farm caretaker who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

White was lured into a car by three KKK gunmen with the promise of a job and shot to death on a rural bridge a nearby. His final words were: “Oh Lord … . What have I done to deserve this?” Mr. Branch fleetingly mentions a few pages later the fact that in 2003, federal prosecutors managed to persuade a Mississippi jury to convict the lone surviving killer, a man named Ernest Avants, of the crime, then moves on to the next topic. The author would have done well to devote more time the White murder and the story of how Avants was eventually brought to justice.

But the most serious flaw in this book is Mr. Branch’s inability to set aside ideological liberalism and adulation for King. The hero worship is perhaps understandable in the early chapters of the book, when King is doing heroic things such as endangering his life to campaign for voting rights.

But after Congress passes and President Johnson signs into law the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965, Mr. Branch’s adulation becomes downright oppressive. That’s because less and less of King’s time is being spent on fighting the Klan and ending Jim Crow, and an increasing amount of his time and energy are spent in lobbying for a political agenda that is much less attractive to nonliberals: advocating massive federal spending programs in the name of curing American social ills.

From reading Mr. Branch’s book, it seems clear that if King had gotten his way, the Great Society and all of the social programs enacted during that period would have ended up costing even more than the trillions we have already spent on them. But Mr. Branch doesn’t seem to understand that, to put it charitably, the effectiveness of these programs is open to question.

By focusing on Southern segregationist politicians’ critiques of these programs, as he does, Mr. Branch takes the lazy way out, avoiding serious discussion of problems like multigenerational welfare dependency. And Mr. Branch’s brief snippets about Ronald Reagan as governor of California and president depict him as an amiable buffoon who panders to bigots.

But the author’s bias is at its worst in his coverage of the Vietnam War: Mr. Branch depicts King and the rest of the antiwar movement as great visionaries who were vindicated by history, while cartoonishly portraying LBJ and anyone else who didn’t view Ho Chi Minh as a nationalist liberator as fools. While the war leadership of Mr. Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was indeed abysmal, Mr. Branch gives the antiwar movement a free pass.

That’s unacceptable. From reading this book, it seems that the author is unaware of the appalling human consequences of the communist victories in Indochina, including Cambodian genocide and the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese in re-education camps. As a devout believer in nonviolence, how might King have reconciled his perception of Ho as a benign nationalist with the reality of the enslavement that occurred after the communists won? We won’t find out from this book.

For all of his flaws, Martin Luther King was a great leader who did more than any single person to end the ugliness of state-supported segregation. But from reading “At Canaan’s Edge,” his position as a leader of the black community was in decline in the mid-1960s, as he spent an increasing amount of his time trying to fend off the Black Panthers, the Black Moslems, and even local street toughs who parasitically sought to capitalize upon the real achievements of the civil rights movement.

We learn from Mr. Branch that on April 3, 1968, King and his top aides were in their hotel room, fending off a shakedown effort by a Memphis street gang called the Invaders, who wanted $200,000 to shart a “Liberation School.” The following day, James Earl Ray ended King’s life at age 39.

Joel Himelfarb is assistant editor of the editorial pages at The Washington Times.

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