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I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS AND NOTES. When Taylor Branch set out to write a history of the Civil Rights movement, he wanted to tell the story through the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He planned to spend no more than three years on the project.
That was almost a quarter century ago, and Branch has, at long last, completed this epic trilogy about America in the King years. The final volume, At Canaan's Edge, looks more closely than ever at the personal side of Dr. King. Of course, that makes this latest offering more controversial, with King being the iconic figure that he is.
I wondered if Branch had any trepidation.
TAYLOR BRANCH (Author, At Canaan's Edge): Yes, because he was at the heart of this freedom struggle. But it just seemed to me that it had such power and it went so deep into what our spiritual and political values are that there was no choice but to show him. He got lonelier and lonelier toward the end during the Vietnam War and the Black Power Era. He got lonelier and lonelier with his message and so it became more and more his story toward the end.
GORDON: What did you see as King's biggest misstep in terms of just the human frailty?
Mr. BRANCH: Well, I think that he had a hard time dealing with all the pressure that he was under. He was under constant pressure within the movement, he said you'd have to be crazy to do what we're doing. We're a tiny minority with no army trying to change the power relations of a great nation and we've gotta be crazy and he said that's why you have to have tolerance for all these wild egomaniacs in the movement who were at one another's throats. So I think trying to keep his balance under stress through like a crucible over freedom and black power and riots and the Vietnam War was an enormous challenge to him.
GORDON: What's most interesting to me about the book is it really does debunk the romanticized notion that during these time everyone walked in lock step and that there weren't egos that play... You laugh.
Mr. BRANCH: I do laugh, it's a formula for melodrama which is why I think that the great lessons from this period are still lost. We tend to segment it, we put civil rights over here and let's be nice to black people, and we put Vietnam over here and say, well, whatever the heck that was, it was bad. And it seems to me that Dr. King was one of the few people trying to say, these issues are intertwined, this is, what's the relative power of nonviolence and violence to promote democracy and black Americans are leaders for all of America in this period. And that message has kind of diminished and gotten lost.
GORDON: There are those who suggest that King was struggling because he saw the civil rights movement, to a great degree, moving beyond him. Now that it had reached Washington, now that it had reached legal corridors, and that he was struggling to find his next place. Do you buy that?
Mr. BRANCH: no, I think that what haunted him toward the end of his life, and you hear it in his last speeches, was that he had thought the movement reached this great moment after Selma when the whole world would realize the potential of nonviolence to refine democracy, both at home and abroad and deal with economic issues, what he called the trilogy of poverty, racism and war, and then fatigue, the hardened atmosphere of the Vietnam War and riots and people's impatience and Black Power ambushed that moment in history and made him feel that he had lost people's attention at a time of great potential.
GORDON: How much do you see the idea of in the latter days, obviously, King started to take on L-B-J to a great degree because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. What does it do for King, the man, A and B, the icon?
Mr. BRANCH: Well, the man was struggling mostly behind the scenes with people who are myths, like Johnson. That, to me, is a Greek tragedy. You can hear them on both the wire taps and Johnson's telephone conversations kind of agonizing as they conspire together to enact the Voting Rights Act and Medicare and these great landmarks of that period and then fell apart over Vietnam. And King never thought Johnson was a warmonger, and I was surprised to find and hear on the wiretaps he said, I've never called the President's name in criticizing the war in the strongest terms. We can't blame all this on one poor Texas schoolteacher, this is all of America. And Johnson, at the same time, as much as he loathed King politically, for not being loyal on the Vietnam War, understood why he was doing it.
And you never hear any nasty language. So I think the fact that you are dealing with icons, the sad thing for history is that it lends itself to myth and conspiracy and makes it harder to sort out the history which is why I think the sixties have been this big bugaboo for people ever since.
GORDON: It's interesting as I read, and tell me if I'm wrong here, but the perception, and one might think that this is a ludicrous statement out front, but one could even sometimes look at King and feel that he's underappreciated by virtue of the idea of really sticking to the message of nonviolence, and as you say, sticking to the idea of merit versus allowing personalities to come in. Oft times we don't look at this side of it.
Mr. BRANCH: I agree, Ed. And I think it was a big surprise to me how much he emphasized nonviolence almost as a drumbeat toward the end of his career when nobody was paying attention. He kept saying nonviolence is leadership for all of America, he predicted it was gonna liberate the White South and it was gonna be, when people really struggle about what equal citizenship means, its gonna have benefits far beyond eliminating terror, it turn the poor South into the sunbelts and it de-stigmatized Southern politicians so they could run for President and run both political parties. And it spread all around the world. In South Africa and the Berlin Wall, you have the inspiration of nonviolence as a democratizing force, so, and yet we tend to pigeonhole him as a leader just for black people, so I do think King is vastly underappreciated as a historical force. I call him a modern founding father.
GORDON: Let me ask you this, and here's an interesting point. When you think of King in the latter days, again, speaking out, sometimes as a lone voice against the war, particularly in Black America for one who had a pulpit, there are going to be some who love the conspiracy theory, who simply suggest that he overstepped his boundaries and the reason that King did not live is because he stepped outside of his bailiwick, if you will, the idea of taking on the war. Did you hear that along the way as you researched the book?
Mr. BRANCH: Yes, I have heard that a lot and I think that that's an idea that's out there. Certainly I don't give much ground to anybody in the record of what the FBI did. It's disgraceful and I think even criminal, some of the things that were done here. It was petty, the FBI persecution against the movement. It was vindictive, it was everything it shouldn't have been, but I don't believe it reached to the point of ordering a hit contract. And beyond that, I think that the conspiracy theory of devil worship is dangerous in the sense that it goes against what Dr. King's message was. His last sermon was, I believe the goal of America is freedom. And however much she strays from it, we have to believe that that's what makes the flag wave. His whole movement was calling for Americans to rise up and live out the true meaning of their creed. So if you believe the government's implacably evil, then that undercuts his message and it undercuts hope. And in many respects, the remarkable thing about King was that he could hope in a time of lynching and unrequited crimes.
GORDON: You talk so much about whether or not he was truly consumed in the last days with the thought of dying, being killed, etc. I have heard both stories, that, in fact it was so true to him that in that last speech in Memphis he said, I may not get there with you. There are others who say that he said that before, that it was kind of dramatic license for him to allow the point to get across. What do you believe?
Mr. BRANCH: I think it's a combination of the two. It is true that because he had death threats almost every day of his life from the bus boycott on, it is a theme of his oratory. The drum major instinct sermon, where he preached his own funeral, was only a month before. So that was constant, that he felt these threats. But what was new was that he felt that the movement itself had lost the ear of the American people and that the poor people's campaign might not succeed and he talked about it as possibly our last movement, that he might be killed while people aren't really paying attention to him the way they had paid attention to the movement at Selma when he was right at front and center. In that sense, saying I may not get there with you, he didn't think that the movement itself was gonna be fully realized. We weren't gonna get to Canaan, we weren't gonna get to the promised land, which I think was the constant metaphor of American history during this period.
GORDON: I want to talk about the infidelity. How much did you understand what you had to do to tell that story but also be protective of what is a true American hero?
Mr. BRANCH: I think that's one of the hardest challenges, it's one reason I didn't call this a biography, I called it a history of America in the King years, because I don't want the burden of having to explain every heartbeat. Nevertheless, it seems to me that he valued truth above all else and that what you have to do here, particularly when it became an issue in the movement and he's having meetings with all of his staff, what am I gonna do about this, they're trying to blackmail the movement, the stakes are too high, I've gotta change my behavior. He felt that he was taking great effort, some people said, overboard, to reject money. And to reject disloyalty, anything to the idea of nonviolence. And to be pure in every respect. But he could never give up the straying on the road. And he called that a failure. And Coretta herself said he was a guilt driven man all of his life. And that was the one that kind of almost seemed to propel him to take greater risks in public because he said, I know I'm not a saint, I'm not a saint. Please don't call me a saint. I'm an American trying to live out the best meaning of what I believe our public promise to be.
GORDON: How difficult was it, though, to go into something so personal? I saw you struggle right then with the right language and what to say. It is difficult for us to look at the idea of him being human in that way.
Mr. BRANCH: I think that it's very difficult. It's the hardest part of my challenge. Particularly because it's a historical fact that people have always tried to dodge the challenge of what he had to say. You very rarely hear people say, gosh, that's really amazing. And since you're a flawed human being, I can be even a better example. You don't hear that. And I'm afraid that his personal life is the latest example of the way people dodge his message. And it's hard. You don't see people saying, well, gosh, we need to tear down thee Jefferson Memorial because Thomas Jefferson had children by a slave. It is an obstacle, there's no question. Because people are afraid or contemptuous of Dr. King, they will seize upon things to bring down his image. But, I, nevertheless, I think that in the long run of history we will deal with him as an historical figure and that King really is a modern founding father in the sense that he is doing just what they did. Confronting systems of oppression and converting them into fellow citizenships. That's just what Madison and Jefferson did and that's just what King did, and in that sense, that historical role will grow in appreciation in the long run.
GORDON: You've lived with this for a quarter century.
Mr. BRANCH: Yes, sir.
GORDON: When you look at the idea of King as a martyr, and he did become that. Do you believe that that ultimately helped the civil rights movement?
Mr. BRANCH: I think that it stunned people to remember what he really stood for. He had really faded out of the front of people's consciousness, quite frankly. And so I think that it did stun people and say, this was a man with a message and it touched us deeply and froze that moment, but, you know, we're still battling over what that means. And I think that's why his image, on the one hand, we wanna pat him on the head and say you did really good and let's be nice to black people on King day, and on the other hand you've got people like me coming around and saying this is a founding father with lessons for everywhere including Iraq when we're trying to extend democracy around the world. He's saying the heart of democracy is nonviolence and our movement lifted the whole country in ways we take for granted.
GORDON: At Canaan's Edge is the title of the book, America and the King Years, 1965 through '68. The author is Taylor Branch. We thank you very much.
Mr. BRANCH: Thank you Ed.
GORDON: You can hear an extended version of my interview with Taylor Branch on our website at npr.org.
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