Biography Highlights Martin Luther King Jr.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Beginning in Selma, Alabama in 1965 and ending on a hotel balcony in Memphis in 1968, “At Canaan’s Edge” looks at Martin Luther King and the country he changed forever. The new book is the last in a series that began with “Parting the Waters,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1989 and “Pillar of Fire” published in 1998. Author Taylor Branch has devoted the last 24 years to this effort. And he joins us now.
Mr. Branch, welcome to you.
TAYLOR BRANCH: Thank you, nice to be here.
JEFFREY BROWN: It struck me that in Selma, where you begin this volume I’m so many of the themes you write about come together. Tell us what Selma stands for in the long arc of this biography you have written.
TAYLOR BRANCH: Well, of course it sounds — it stands for the struggle over the most basic element of democracy, the right to vote. It also stands for Dr. King’s commitment not to rest on his laurels of the Nobel Peace Prize the year before ending the ten-year struggle against segregation but to go from the mountaintop of the Nobel Prize right to the valley to struggle over the right to vote.
So the voting rights struggle is to apply nonviolence to the most basic element of democracy, the right to vote for almost four million black Americans who were denied that right at the time.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now one thing you make clear over and over again is the degree of debate and controversy within the civil rights movement itself. How did Dr. King negotiate that? And what toll did it take on him?
TAYLOR BRANCH: Well, he was under tremendous strain because he had the opposition from virtually all the South and a good bit of the rest of the country.
And he had only a small minority of the black minority on his side. And they were at one another’s throats over tactics. And he had — it took all of his patience and all of his aplomb and humor to say we are trying to do something that’s crazy, to change the power relations of a great nation without an army. And you have to have an extra measure of tolerance for people who are trying to figure out the basics of strategy.
JEFFREY BROWN: There were challenges to his leadership. There were, of course, challenges in these years to the whole notion of nonviolence. Tell us about that.
TAYLOR BRANCH: I think it’s pretty clear that nonviolence was the most potent and historically consequential idea from the move — from the movement of this era. It was also the first to become passé. It became passé among black people who resented the special burden that most Americans wanted only black people to be nonviolent and otherwise they admired John Wayne and James Bond, but it also became passé to the intellectual journals of the North who considered a greater potency to militants or radicals just from anybody who shook their fist and said “I’m mad” and Dr. King, you can see the quotes here saying this is very sad because these groups are dying. They’re going to make a lot of noise but they seem to be seducing America away from nonviolence.
JEFFREY BROWN: One of the key events in these years that you write about is the effort to nationalize the movement, particularly going up to Chicago. Tell us about that as a turning point.
TAYLOR BRANCH: It was a turning point after Selma. Selma is a great struggle involving all three branches of the government and getting Americans mobilized to go down there and risk their lives. And a number of them became martyrs for the right to vote.
But looking back on it, it is striking to see at this distance that a lot of people thought the race problem was only a problem of southerners, and perhaps one of education. And Dr. King knew better. And he wanted to get America at least to begin to understand that race was a national issue. And to do that, he had to take the campaign to the North. He auditioned a number of cities, chose Chicago, struggled there in 1966 in an atmosphere of the Vietnam War, but at the very least he established in the demonstrations full of hatred there that race was not a sectional problem but a national one.
JEFFREY BROWN: You just mentioned Vietnam. Of course this is the other great churning point for the country in these years. And it led to a tough decision for Dr. King as well, didn’t it, in terms of how much energy to devote to opposition to that?
TAYLOR BRANCH: How much energy and how much internal division to risk further division. Uncannily, the first Marine divisions landed in DaNang, Vietnam within hours of the Bloody Sunday repulse of the black voters marching nonviolently for the right to vote in Selma. Both of them on March 7th — early March 1965, and the Vietnam War gained momentum at the same time the civil rights movement was cresting. So these are parallel stories about how do you protect freedom — by nonviolence or by force of arms?
JEFFREY BROWN: And there you have the parallel stories of the other great — the two great leaders I guess of the era, Dr. King and President Lyndon Johnson. What about their relationship, what role did that play in the story?
TAYLOR BRANCH: Well, I think the — ironically some of the surreptitious sources, the wiretaps, plus Johnson’s own telephone conversations, which are a new historical resource show them to have had a common union, a close communion in the early period over civil rights and the very complex negotiations to try to establish voting rights throughout the South and Lyndon Johnson consciously choosing to risk his southern base not just for him but for the Democratic Party for all time. And I think, and he did it anyway.
But at the same time, Vietnam, Johnson agonized over Vietnam, predicted that he was going to have trouble, feared that he would lose but did it anyway because he was afraid of being called a coward and it poisoned his relationship with Martin Luther King in a very poignant way that you can follow and capture, follow along and capture on the wiretaps and telephone conversations.
JEFFREY BROWN: I think a lot of people will remember the speech that Martin Luther King gave the night before he was assassinated. It was almost kind of a premonition of his death. How much did that fear weigh on him? How much did he have to live with that fear?
TAYLOR BRANCH: He had to live with it every day. And I think that it’s a measure of his sturdiness that he — there are only a couple of occasions, one in Miami where he stayed in his hotel room for a couple of days when there were very explicit threats that he was going to be shot there.
But other than that, it’s very hard to find that it affected his schedule at all. He did preach a number of times about the threat of death and about his funeral. He did that just a month before.
What was unique about the one on the night before his death was there was a sense there for the first time that the movement he was doing, he had a sense that it was not going to succeed in the hardened climate of war, and that he wasn’t really capturing public attention. But he felt he would leave it behind as a testament. That is what made it so poignant when he said, I may to the get there with you but I believe we as a people will reach the promise land, Canaan’s Edge, which is where my title comes from.
JEFFREY BROWN: So you lived with this man and his story for so many years, well-documented flaws and all. After this period of time, tell us what you think of Martin Luther King the man, not so of the legacy but just the man.
TAYLOR BRANCH: I admire him a lot more now than I did when I began. I tended to think that he was a preacher who got carried away with turning the other cheek. He showed a remarkable balance that I don’t think we are likely to see again to keep on a message of freedom at the heart of his political and, spiritual life through pressures that are almost unimaginable. And I think for him to have maintained his aplomb and his sense of humor and his political stability is a remarkable trait.
JEFFREY BROWN: And you wrote in the preface to your first volume that your thesis was that King’s life is the best and most important metaphor for American history in the watershed postwar years. These years later does the thesis hold up? What does it tell us as we look back today?
TAYLOR BRANCH: Well, I think it does. I think that we all stand on the shoulders, not specifically of Dr. King, but of the movement that he was at the center of — not just black Americans because the movement erased terror and segregation and introduced the possibility of freedom — but for me as a white southerner as he correctly predicted, it liberated the South. It created the Sunbelt. It removed the political stigma of the South, letting American southern political leaders rise to leadership in both parties. And it spread all around the world. It liberated women, allowed them to go to Harvard and Yale where they couldn’t and become priests and rabbis which was unimaginable.
So I think there are a lot of things that we take for granted from this legacy that should remind us that the patriotic and spiritual legacy that he represents of equal souls and equal votes is very, very powerful, especially at a time now when we are trying to spread democracy around the world.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the book is “At Canaan’s Edge.” Taylor Branch, thank you very much.
TAYLOR BRANCH: Thank you.