- The Washington Times - Monday, January 23, 2006

BALTIMORE — At the end of a quarter-century spent chronicling the civil rights movement, Taylor Branch is admittedly relieved. But his voluminous research into Martin Luther King and his contemporaries has not diminished his opinion of King’s historical stature.

Far from it.

Mr. Branch, in his third and final volume of a narrative history of the civil rights movement, titled “At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965-68,” argues that King deserves to stand alongside Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln as among the most important and transformative figures in American history.

“It was against my own instincts, frankly. That’s not where I started off. I thought of him as a religious figure or a racial figure,” Mr. Branch said in an interview at his Baltimore home.

“The Founding Fathers confronted systems of hierarchy and subjugation in the British monarchy … and they developed a political approach to help convert that into a common citizenship in the Constitution and a whole new horizontal system of politics based on the vote,” Mr. Branch said. “King did the same thing. Because he was so focused on the catalytic role of democracy and democratizing politics, he set in motion things that democratized America far beyond race.”

Among those changes: Equal rights for women, economic growth in the South and an influx of legal immigrants from around the globe.

For Mr. Branch, 59, who is white, the journey to reaching such sweeping conclusions about King’s legacy began inconspicuously. He was born in Atlanta, and in his middle-class upbringing, he “was taught to be polite and to bemoan segregation but to leave it alone.”

A few events jarred him from such complacency. He was 16 when, in 1963, he saw footage of police in Birmingham, Ala., using dogs and fire hoses on girls as young as 8, and hauling them to jail for protesting segregation.

“I was spellbound by it,” Mr. Branch said. “I went to my parents and said, ‘How can this be?’”

That question dogged Mr. Branch as he switched his major at the University of North Carolina from pre-med to political science and history, protested the war in Vietnam, and enrolled in a master’s program at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.

In the summer of 1969, he took a job registering black voters in rural Georgia. Mr. Branch kept a diary of his experiences, excerpts of which were later published in Washington Monthly magazine. The revelations of that trip were what first sparked the idea of a narrative history.

“I formulated this theory that in race relations, when you’re across gaps, when you’re uncomfortable, that you really learn by personal experience, not by ideas and abstractions,” he said.

Mr. Branch pitched the project in 1981 and planned to finish the first half of a two-volume series in three years. But it was seven years before “Parting the Waters,” covering the years 1954-63, was published. It won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1989.

Two volumes became three. The next, “Pillar of Fire,” covering 1963-65, came out in 1998. The first two were New York Times best sellers, and publisher Simon & Schuster has similar high hopes for “At Canaan’s Edge,” which had an initial printing of 100,000.

“We expect it to be a bestseller,” said Bob Wietrak, vice president of merchandising for Barnes & Noble booksellers.

Reviews for “At Canaan’s Edge” have been generally glowing, praising the expanse and specificity of Mr. Branch’s storytelling.

Some critics express concerns about his refusal to make encompassing judgments. “At times, Branch serves up more content than interpretation, assuming that facts speak for themselves,” writes David Levering Lewis in the New Yorker.

Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times accuses Mr. Branch of “pelting the reader with incidents and facts in the place of analysis and perspective.”

In conversation, Mr. Branch reveals no shortage of either, as when he explains why the pace of his narrative slowed down in the later volumes.

He sees the struggle for civil rights and the protests against the Vietnam War as part of the same debate — Americans pursuing freedom both at home and abroad, through divergent means.

“To me, that’s why the ‘60s have been so hard to sort out, such a big historical blur and burden for us, because you tend to write about civil rights or Vietnam, but not both, and not try to relate them,” Mr. Branch said.

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