Martin Luther King, 'At Canaan's Edge' In historian Taylor Branch's At Canaan's Edge, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is a citizen of his time. The peace marches of 1963; the Watts riots of 1965; the Vietnam conflict that dominated the late '60s — King spoke about them all.

Martin Luther King, 'At Canaan's Edge'

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The third volume of Taylor Branch's monumental history of the civil rights movement will be officially published on the 1st of February. The first book in his trilogy, "Parting the Waters," won the Pulitzer Prize for history. "Pillar of Fire," his second installment, was published in 1998. It followed the path, the movement and its leaders from President John F. Kennedy in the White House, to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Dr. Martin Luther King.

The new volume, "At Canaan's Edge," begins in Selma, Alabama, just before a bloody confrontation on the Edmund Pettis Bridge on Sunday, March 7th, 1965, between state troopers and marchers on their way to petition Governor George Wallace for the right of black people to vote. The book ends in 1968 on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where Dr. Martin Luther King was shot and killed. In between, there are more than a thousand pages of stories of a turbulent time in American history. Taylor Branch is in the studios of WYPR in Baltimore to tell us some of those stories.

Taylor, welcome to the program.

Mr. TAYLOR BRANCH (Author, "At Canaan's Edge"): Thank you. Thank you, Liane.

HANSEN: Begin on the bridge. Paint a picture for us. Describe the dynamic on that bridge that Sunday, and terrible violence ensued.

Mr. BRANCH: Dr. King had come to Selma from the Nobel Prize against the will of most of the people in his inner circle, who wanted to rest and implement the end of the segregation era in the 1964 law. But he had promised some of his young staff people that he would take up the right to vote as soon as the Civil Rights Bill passed, and he fulfilled that promise and went to Selma. He demonstrated for months and, impulsively, to some degree, as the movement was declining, they decided to mount a dramatic march of 50 miles through the heart of Klan country with a petition.

The violence broke out on the bridge that day. The sheriff's posse and the Alabama troopers, with trudgeons and tear gas, drove them across, these people, all the way back into Selma, all the way back into churches; broke windows, charged into churches, threw people through glass. It was quite a terrible time, and it was--footage of it was shown on television that same night, Sunday night. They broke into "Judgement at Nuremburg" network premiere where they were arguing about what ordinary Germans might have done to stop Hitler, with footage from the fundamental violence against the right to vote in Alabama. And it caused a national reaction that same night. King put out a plea for all Americans to come down and march with the black people there, and they did. Overnight hundreds and thousands of nuns and seminarians and pastors and housewives got on planes and went down there and stood with them. And that began the great conflict over whether they'd be allowed to march to Montgomery at the zenith of the civil rights movement.

HANSEN: Non-violent civil disobedience was Dr. King's creed. But not everyone agreed with him in the movement.


HANSEN: What were the other leaders' thoughts about putting people in harm's way for the sake of the movement?

Mr. BRANCH: At the time of Selma there was tremendous deferment within the movement about what to do. Some people felt that it had outlived its usefulness. Other people felt that white people should bear more of the brunt. People shifted their views. Some of the students felt King shouldn't have had the march because there would be violence. But then they felt they should march after that whether there was violence or not--non-violently. So these are signs of weariness. People had been subjecting themselves to non-violent discipline for five years. That's as long as, you know, World War II. And there were a lot of battle casualties, and it's a tremendously demanding discipline to essentially be willing to die for something without being willing to kill for it. And it required a tremendous amount of discipline. There was a lot of strain over it.

(Soundbite of speech)

Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING Jr.: There may be some tear gas ahead.

Unidentified Man: Yes.

Dr. KING: But I say to you this afternoon that I would rather die on the highways of Alabama than make a butchery of my conscience.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

Dr. KING: I say to you, as we march, don't panic. And remember that we must remain true to non-violence. I'm asking everybody in the line, if you can't be non-violent, don't get in it.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

Dr. KING: If you can't accept blows without retaliating, don't get in the line.

HANSEN: '65 was a fascinating year, the very beginnings of the Black Panther movement. Many of us who were alive at the time remember, of course, Huey Newton and the raised black fist. But the Black Panthers actually begin in a county in Alabama and an outgrowth of these early attempts to get the right to vote.

Mr. BRANCH: Yes, it did. The Black Panther Party was born in Lowndes County, Alabama, largely the creature of Stokely Carmichael. I would say Stokely's probably the third most affecting character to me in this book, after Johnson and King. He went to Lowndes County alone. It's the county between Selma and Montgomery the march had to go through. No black person had voted there in the 20th century. It was a county of lynchings.

Stokely went there by himself and registered the very first people to vote, risking his life every day. But he had this idea that people trying to vote for the first time--they educated themselves about voting and about local offices. He created a party for them to run for local offices in--called the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. They had to have a ballot symbol under law to run and he essentially got his friends in Atlanta to trace the football symbol of the Clark County Panthers, which was a football team in Atlanta, and it became their ballot symbol.

The Panther symbol was borrowed and exported out to California and transported into an icon of armed rebellion by Huey Newton. So that the origins of the real Black Panther Party that Stokely built over that year were lost. He was either ignored or denounced for doing this work, which I believe ss a great sadness, and it only drove him into greater frustration, so that within a year he renounced, not only non-violence, which he had been observing for six years, but he renounced the vote and said the vote was no good for black people, after all this effort to risk his life.

HANSEN: Exactly one year before his death, on April 4th, 1967, Dr. King gave a major speech on Vietnam policy.

(Soundbite of 1967 speech)

Dr. KING: I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak of that--speak for the poor of America, who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and dealt death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken.

HANSEN: Why did he embrace this as such a cause when so much was already going on domestically?

Mr. BRANCH: Well, he thought that the war was bankrupting America because it was costing so much money, and he thought that it was poisoning America's soul and that no progress could be made on any domestic issues while the country's heart was invested in the war. It got an enormous amount of attention because he made it a major policy statement. And it was a great tragedy for him because it was almost uniformly rejected in the court of American public opinion. And The New York Times and The Washington Post said that he should stick to civil rights and he had demeaned his good name and that people wouldn't even listen to him any more because of this. And he felt that they were segregating his citizenship and telling him that he should only speak about race relations, in spite of the fact that he won a Nobel Prize and had spent a whole career that, you know, all citizens had--should have equal rights.

HANSEN: So he lost a lot of support because of it?

Mr. BRANCH: I don't know how many people dropped their support for civil rights because of that, but there were significant numbers of them. And certainly, his own rivals within the civil rights movement, Roy--the head of the NAACP and Whitney Young, the head of the Urban League, criticized King for mixing the--saying that he was mixing civil rights and the war. And they, in effect, increased their alliance with the Johnson administration at King's expense. So there was a lot of internathian(ph) rivalry involved in this as well.

(Soundbite of vintage news broadcast)

Unidentified Reporter: Dr. Martin Luther King has urged the Memphis Negro community to engage in a general work stoppage and school boycott in support of the city's striking sanitation workers. He says the Memphis garbage strike demonstrates the dignity of labor.

Dr. KING: All labor has dignity.

Unidentified Man: Yes.

Dr. KING.: You are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.

(Soundbite of applause)

HANSEN: I was struck by a picture in your book actually from--it's from Memphis after the violence broke out with the march led by King during the sanitation workers strike. And it--there was a picket line and there was a black gentlemen walking along with a hat and he's wearing kind of a poster board. And he says: `I am a man.' And he's right next to, you know, Natianal Guard armored vehicles. It's so reminiscent of that scene later on in Tienanmen Square.

Mr. BRANCH: Yes, it is. I am a man. King was diverted to Memphis because of the sanitation strike as part of the poor people's campaign. He didn't want to go there, but the issues there were so stark. And that slogan grew out of the precipitating incident that started that strike there, which was that two sanitation workers were in the back of a sanitation truck in a rainstorm, and Memphis city policy forbade the black workers from seeking shelter in rainstorms in the white areas. And they were obliged to stay in the truck. And the--a short in the truck literally crushed them in the garbage compactor--crushed the garbage men. And the city didn't pay for their funerals, and, basically, this was the last straw for the--all black garbage workers. And they struck saying, essentially, `I'm a man. I'm not a piece of garbage.' And that's where the slogan came from. And their demand for union rights was from the crushing to death of their two fellow garbage workers on February 1st, 1968.

HANSEN: We know what died on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel on April 4th, 1968. But what was born there? What do you think was born that day?

Mr. BRANCH: There was born a realization that something enormous had been lost, that we'd kind of lost track of King in the preoccupation of the larger '60s of, you know, Monterrey Pop and the anti-war movement and that sort of thing and black power and the Black Panthers. And then this was a vivid reminder that he meant so much and that he had set so much in motion that hadn't even begun to bear fruit yet, but that would for women, for black people, for the South.

So what was born was the question--was: Where did this come from? What was he really trying say? And what's the connection between his method of non-violence and his message of equal souls and equal votes that resonated so deeply with people? And I think, basically, that question and that quest, which is profoundly patriotic and spiritual as well, is what's still going on. And it's still kind of an issue in King holidays where I think, by and large, most people haven't gotten very far down that path. We tend to treat the holiday as kind of a--this is a nice time to remember black people but not the depth of the rediscovery of that time that really caught all of America's--Americans up in the relationship between democracy and religion and non-violence and violence and race.

HANSEN: Taylor Branch is the author of "At Canaan's Edge: America In the King Years, (1965-68," the third volume of his trilogy on the civil rights movement. The first is called "Parting the Waters," and the second is called, "Pillar of Fire." Taylor Branch joined us from the Baltimore studios of WYPR.

Taylor, thank you so much.

Mr. BRANCH: Thank you, Liane. A pleasure to talk to you.

HANSEN: There's more information, pictures and more of our interview on our Web site,

(Soundbite of vintage speech)

Dr. KING: We've got some difficult days ahead, but it doesn't really matter with me now...

Unidentified Man: Yeah!

Dr. KING: ...because I've been to the mountain top.

(Soundbite of applause)

Dr. KING: And I don't mind.

(Soundbite of applause)

Dr. KING: Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And he's allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I've looked over and I've seen the promised land.

(Soundbite of crowd response)

Dr. KING: I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.

(Soundbite of applause)

Dr. KING: So I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything! I'm not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!

(Soundbite of applause)

HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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