America in the King Years
On Taylor Branch’s monumental trilogy about the life and times of Martin Luther King Jr.
As a biography of Martin Luther King, Taylor Branch’s nearly 3,000-page trilogy stands alone in its understanding of its subject’s place at the center of a pulsing network of moral convictions, political pressures, practical demands, historical forces, and committed people — from the powerless to the prominent — arrayed on both sides of his cause. As a history of that cause, it is both meticulous and majestic in its attention to the strategy and tactics — as well as the suffering and bravery — of a generation of civil rights advocates as it battled brutal proponents of bigotry and the entrenched cowardice and cruelty of local and national institutions. As a portrait of the United States in the tumultuous era from 1954 through 1968, it has few if any rivals in its scope, significance, and emotional force.
Branch did not begin his narrative exploration of America in the King years with the intention of devoting a quarter-century of his own life to it, but the material demanded no less. In May 1954, two weeks before the Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Martin Luther King gave his first sermon as pastor-designate of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama; from that month forward, Branch traces in tandem the path of King’s career and the spread of the civil rights movement. His first volume, Parting the Waters, 1954–63, details, among myriad other events, the arrest of Rosa Parks and the launch of the Montgomery bus boycott, which King was drafted to lead; the lunch counter sit-ins and the bloody Freedom Rides; King’s unswerving commitment to nonviolence and his imprisonment during a demonstration in Birmingham; his “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington; and the Klu Klux Klan’s bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four young girls. As the movement and resistance to it grow, Branch’s broad focus continues, in Pillar of Fire, 1963–65, and At Canaan’s Edge, 1965–68, to illuminate the character and contributions of King’s growing — and increasingly fractious — band of allies, while his close examination of federal documents and records affords insight into the roles played by presidents and power brokers in aiding or thwarting the activists in the South. From the hesitant support of the Kennedys to the nefarious subterfuge of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, Branch reveals King’s relations with Washington as alternately hopeful, unreliable, and desperate.
Despite the historical sweep of the material and the monumental scale of the research he marshals, Branch’s hold on the reader’s attention never loosens its grip. His narrative is often propelled by a page-turning suspense, as in the first hundred-odd pages of the third volume, which describe an astonishing two-week period in early 1965. When marchers attempting to cross Selma’s Pettus Bridge are savagely beaten by Alabama state troopers, King is moved to summon help from around the country for a second confrontation. Ministers who heed King’s call and journey to Selma are ambushed and murdered. Inspired at last to action, President Johnson delivers his stirring “We Shall Overcome” speech, calling upon Congress to immediately set in motion historic voting rights legislation. The reader — chased by feelings that run the gamut from revulsion toward hatemongers to awe of the desperate nobility of King and his followers — races through Branch’s chapters with breathless anticipation; it is hard to imagine a more compelling portrayal of the public life of the nation, or of the motives, fears, and faith of public figures.
Individually rewarding, together Branch’s three volumes deliver an unparalleled portrait of America in the twentieth century as reflected in the looking-glass of the fateful life and times of one remarkable man. The view is upsetting and uplifting, troubling in what it reveals about the often benighted history of a country born of the Enlightenment, inspiring in its testimony to the force of visionary dreams, despite — or perhaps because of — the responsibilities they entail.