Seeking the Promised Land

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Branch’s “America in the King Years” trilogy began with the 1988 Pulitzer Prize winner “Parting the Waters,” which covered the period leading up to the Kennedy assassination. It continued in 1998 with “Pillar of Fire,” which ended with the killing of Malcolm X. Now, Branch concludes the trilogy with a book about the years from 1965 to 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on a Memphis hotel balcony. “At Canaan’s Edge” is not only a monument of research but a moving drama. It reads like an ancient tragedy – scintillating, cruel, inevitable – as we witness King and his fellow travelers gradually descend into the deepening violence and cynicism of the Vietnam era. The whole thing has the foreboding of a smoke cloud.

In some places, Branch gradually boils up tension from a mixture of nostalgia, betrayal, indignation, and fate, as in chapter 23, which may be the best thing ever written about the 1960s. Identity politics dawns with the legal controversies over defining “race,” then rises through layers of meaning in the life of an Alabama bishop whose grandfather tried to end slavery by preaching, but who could not bring himself to stand against segregation a century later. Meanwhile, in Rome, Hanoi, and

Washington, old class hatreds begin to calm and new ones begin to swell; the Catholic Church moves toward dropping its hostility toward the Jews, and the American government begins to drop century-old immigration restrictions on Asians. Yet bombings in Mississippi and murders in Alabama plague civil rights workers, and the conflict in Vietnam leads disturbed pacifists to set themselves on fire in front of the Pentagon and the D.N. building in New York. The first word of this chapter is “ferment,” and it is well chosen.

Elsewhere, Branch reveals the savagery of institutionalized racism in sickening flashes of lightning, as when he describes a grand jury hearing conducted on Sept. 13, 1966. Seeking indictment of Klansman Tom Coleman, for blasting with a shotgun two preachers who dared register. Alabama sharecroppers to vote, the state’s moderate segregationist attorney general called Rev. Richard Morrisroe to the stand. Morris- roe had been severely injured, .and his friend Rev. Jonathan Daniels had been killed, while other friends ran for cover in an eerily vacant town square. The attorney general asked Morrisroe to remove his shirt to reveal his scars.

By exhibiting a priest on the witness stand in dramatically tom flesh, [the attorney general] intended to shame Tom Colerrlan’s claim of self defense.

A grand juror broke the charged silence. “Father, may I ask a question?” he said. When Flowers nodded approval, he continued abruptly, “Did you kiss that nigger girl in the mouth?”

Morrisroe shuddered. “Sir, I’ve never embraced a woman in my life,” he said. Scattered giggles punctuated further speculations of prurient interest in Ruby Sales and Gloria Larry, ignoring testimony that they had turned to flee with Jonathan Daniels the instant Coleman surprised them.

It has been a long time since a book moved me to a physical reaction, but I felt nauseated as I read this passage.

Meanwhile, among civil rights activists we see an astonishing, inexorable tale of mounting despair, well symbolized by Stokely Carmichael, under whose leadership the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) drifted toward the racist violence of the Black Panthers. The best word for the trend, if not for the book itself, is disintegration, a word that became literal in 1967, when SNCC finally voted to exclude its white members. Loyal Bob Zellner and his wife walked sadly away, saying to themselves, “1 will not accept any sort of restrictions or special categories because of race.” But by that time, King’s movement for brotherhood was being called passe by posses of swaggering semi-intellectuals who emulated Che Guevara and posed for photos with shotguns and berets.

“I have learned to hate,” boasted one. Even those who began by speaking only of equality and freedom found themselves demanding racial preferences and increased government con-

“At Canaan’s Edge” reads like an ancient tragedy – scintillating, cruel, inevitable.

 

trol over private lives. As Clint Bolick has written, the civil rights establishment lost its moral bearings in the.late 1960s, a tendency that led to “a profound transformation of the concept of civi~ rights” in which “equality of opporunity [was] replaced by equality of results, colorblindness by race-consciousness, individual liberty by group …reparations.” The three years covered by this book are when the change took place.

As with all tragedies, there is a sense of destiny about it all. At the end, the tragic hero usually pauses and wonders where it all went wrong. “There must have been a moment, at the beginning, when we could have said – no,” says a character in a Tom Stoppard play. “But somehow we missed it.” Maybe that moment came for King on March 9, 1965, when, after two violent failures and several days of negotiations, he once more led marchers over the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

He had violated a federal court order to come this far. On the other side stood a seething crowd of cops and national guardsmen. But halfway across, the troopers withdrew, and King faced a breathless moment. “If he stepped ahead,” Branch writes, “the thrill of heroic redemption . . . could give way to any number of reversals . . . all with marchers compromised as flagrant transgressors of the federal order. If he stepped back he could lose or divide the movement under a cloud of timidity. If he hesitated or failed, at least some of the marchers would surge through the corridor of blue uniforms toward their goal.”

King chose to tum around. Things were never the same again. His idealistic young allies in SNCC sarcastically sang “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round” as they headed back to their church meeting place. And although King immediately flew into negotiations that culminated in a successful march across the bridge, some of his most valued allies felt so sharp a sting of betrayal that they never trusted him. again.

It’s the sort of conflict an idealist often faces: confronted with the seemingly”realistic” need to put aside a worthy goal, he must choose: will he back off and try to navigate the murky waters of compromise, or will he demand, and thus risk losing, everything? It is along such weak points that coalitions fracture, often leaving a cynical debris of disappointed idealists and burned out compromisers.

It is tempting to see King’s decision to use diplomacy at the Pettus Bridge, rather than to march through hostile troops, as the moment when he ceased to think of himself as a citizen and began identifying himself with the political establishment – indeed, the moment when the Civil Rights Establishment was born. Yet that instant symbolized, and did not spark, the disintegration of the Civil Rights Era from a movement for liberty into a movement for privilege and entitlement.

As King and his allies drifted away from freedom and toward “democracy,” away from equality and toward race balancing, away from the Declaration of Independence and toward the Great Society and the War on Pover~ there were other moments that stood out: Lyndon Johnson’s speech at How- ard University three months after ] Petrus Bridge, when he told the crowd that “freedom is not enough” and that he would seek “not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result”; King’s decision to speak out against the Vietnam War, which alienated moderate supporters and distracted the public from the civil rights agenda; James Meredith’s March to Mississippi in June 1966, when King and Stokely Carmichael shared their idealism for the last time, and Carmichael took up

In history, there is no one moment “when it all went the call of “Black Power” instead. In history, there is no one moment “when it all went wrong”; there is only the gradual falling of the leaves.

 

But there is a fundamental cause for this failure: the lack of a coherent theory of freedom and equality that could resist both corrosion by collectivist hangers-on and the disillusionment of idealists. King’s belief that America would “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed” needed to rest on a clear understanding of that creed, yet that was precisely what he lacked. He led the single most successful reaction ever seen against the progressivist ideology that held that society should be controlled by experts entitled to restrict individual liberty in the service of the collective good. Yet his own understanding of the relationship of the individual to society was tragically tainted by that same ideology. His belief in the principles of equality and liberty could not resist the collectivists pulling at him.

This becomes most obvious in the bitter irony of his position on Vietnam. While he was leading a massive and heroic resistance to the oppression of southern people by their own state governments, he simultaneously embraced the view that Vietnamese communists had the “right” to oppress southern Vietnamese people in the name of “national self-determination.” His entire domestic project was to illustrate that the supposed right to “self-determination” could not be grounded on violating individual rights, and that no government that sought to enslave its people could lay claim to legitimacy – yet he devoted his energies to defend- ing a regime that did precisely that in Southeast Asia.

The Vietnam War, he claimed, “put us against the self-determination of a vast majority of the Vietnamese people.” Yet southern racists accused King of the same meddling when they defended segregation. The same King who began by chiding modern liberalism for be- ing “so bent on seeing all sides that it fails to become committed to either side . . . so objectively analytical that it is not subjectively committed,” and who insisted that liberalism must “be thoroughly committed to the ideal of racial justice and . . . not be deterred by the propaganda and subtle words of those who say, ‘Slow up for a while; you are pushing too fast'” – ended by defend- ing the power of communists to impose tyranny on a defenseless people. It is not that King was wrong to oppose America’s involvement in Vietnam, but his position on the issue lacked the philosophical integrity necessary to preserve a vision through the pressures of such trying times.

Branch, alas, says little about such paradoxes, and in fact seems to share some of King’s philosophical blind spots. While he is perceptive enough to respect the nuances of the whole spectrum of ideas within the civil rights movement, his attitude toward the Republican Party is tainted with something very much like prejudice. He is absolutely convinced, for example, that Ronald Reagan was a racist, even calling him an “anti-civil rights governor” like the gun-toting Lester Mad- dox of Georgia, or Lurleen Wallace of Alabama, who stood in for her rabidly segregationist husband George.

Branch appears incapable of believing that one could have nonracist reasons for opposing the Great Society. He says, for example, that Reagan thought “government was bad … at least when aimed toward the purposes of the civil rights era,” ignoring the fact that Rea- gan at the time consistently opposed government interference in everything from environmental policy to health care to mining for copper on the ocean floor. Notably, Branch cannot cite a single instance of Reagan’s making even a trivially racist remark; he twice quotes a Reagan campaign commercial describing riots and crime with the sentence, “our city streets are jungle paths after dark,” because that is the closest thing to racism he can find in a politician who was simply devoid of the flaw.
Branch then quotes someone as writing, “In Irving Kristol’s famous apothegm, ‘a neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by realit}’,’ it’s not difficult to guess what color the mugger was.” This is simply a childish smear aimed at Reagan’s perfectly valid concern with the growing welfare state – an institution, by the way, that has profoundly regressive effects on blacks. For a writer who can follow the evolution of so confused a thinker as James Bevel – who went from serving as King’s right-hand man to running for vice president under Lyndon La Rouche – Branch shows an embarrass- ing will to portray the Republicans as a monochrome collection of reactionaries and racists.

Reagan’s support for Proposition

14, for example, which repealed California’s Fair Housing Act, had nothing to do with racism; it had to do with his legitimate concern that the law interfered with the rights of private property owners. The same is true of Goldwater’s

Branch appears incapable of believing that one could have nonracist reasons for opposing the Great Society.

 

qualms about the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Branch ignores these points, regarding interference with property rights as irrelevant to what he sees as the expansion of freedom. That such expansion comes at the expense of the freedom of property owners, black as well as white, matters little to him.

Such matters aside, “At Canaan’s Edge” is everything that the conclusion of Branch’s trilogy ought to be: a sweeping, tragic, moving, and definitive chronicle of an awesome and disillusioning age. The Bible tells that God warned Moses not only that he would die before reaching the promised land, but also that when the Israelites did arrive, they would find there a plague of leprosy in a house, and that they would have to cleanse, and if necessary, dismantle the house. As Branch reveals, the civil rights movement set out in pursuit of a land of dreams, only to be contaminated by collectivist theories of racial balancing and paternalistic government. The dreamers of today should cleanse the house, and set it on its proper foundation in equality and individual rights.

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