Illuminating the pain and promise of Martin Luther King's final years

Review Civil rights history

January 22, 2006|By GARY MAY | GARY MAY,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years 1965-1968

Taylor Branch

Simon & Schuster / 1,041 pages / $35

A visit to the mall. A three-day weekend. That's probably how most Americans observed the 77th birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He is at risk of becoming just another lifeless figure in America's historical wax museum.

That he does not deserve this fate is again made powerfully evident in At Canaan's Edge, the third and final volume in Taylor Branch's monumental history of "America in the King Years." 1965 to 1968 were the years of King's greatest triumphs and ultimate tragedy and are brought alive by Branch's meticulous research and elegant prose. Like his two earlier King books, Parting The Waters and Pillar of Fire, Branch re-creates the civil rights movement in all its extraordinary complexity while reminding us of the importance of the man who led it during his brief lifetime.

Branch devotes the first 220 pages to the 1965 Alabama campaign, which culminated in the 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery and the later passage of the Voting Rights Act, which revolutionized Southern politics.

That success cost three lives. First to die was Jimmy Lee Jackson, "a twenty-six-year-old pulp [wood] worker whose application to vote had been rejected five times," murdered by rampaging Alabama state troopers as he tried to protect his mother from their blows. Jackson's death galvanized the movement. Some called for a march on Montgomery, where they wanted to lay Jackson's body on Gov. George Wallace's Capitol steps. From this impractical scheme grew the idea of a march from Selma to Montgomery.

On Sunday, March 7, 600 marchers began the trek but were stopped while attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge leading to Montgomery. When Sheriff Jim Clark yelled, "Get those god-damned niggers," troopers on horseback and volunteer police attacked the group, beating them with bullwhips, bats and electric cattle prods until they fell back, broken and blinded by tear gas.

The day would be remembered as "Bloody Sunday," and television brought the assault into American homes that evening. It was estimated that more than 48 million Americans watched these horrific scenes, and many dropped everything they were doing to join King in Alabama.

Among them were the other two victims, a 39-year old Detroit housewife named Viola Liuzzo and James Reeb, a Unitarian minister from Boston. After dinner the night of March 9, Ku Klux Klansmen attacked Reeb and two colleagues. Reeb's skull was fractured - "Here's how it feels to be a nigger down here," screamed his killer. Two weeks later, after the successful conclusion of the march, Liuzzo was shot to death by a carload of Klansmen that included an FBI informant. In telling the stories of Jackson, Reeb and Liuzzo, Branch emphasizes that the movement consisted of thousands - mostly black, but for a time, whites too - a thoroughly American movement. "The great glory of American democracy," King noted, "is the right to protest for right."

Five days after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law on Aug. 6, 1965, Watts, a Los Angeles black ghetto, erupted in a six-day riot that killed 34, injured more than a thousand and cost $100 million in damage. King was shocked and visited South-Central Los Angeles to assist in restoring order. His reception was unfriendly: Some didn't know who he was, and others didn't want to hear about peace, love and nonviolence.

"Get out of here, Dr. King! We don't want you," yelled one man, while a woman, Branch says, screamed, "Get out, psycho!" King quickly understood that his Southern, church-based movement had not affected the plight of blacks in the rest of the country who suffered from poverty, unemployment, drug addiction, little or no formal education, and disintegration of the family. He turned his energies toward dealing with these problems, hoping that the tactics that proved so successful in the South could be replicated elsewhere. That effort would cost him dearly.

King chose Chicago as the site of his new campaign, moving his family into a rundown tenement in North Lawndale, better known by its occupants as "Slumland." The building reeked of urine. "We were told that this was because the door was always open," Coretta Scott King noted, "and drunks came in off the street to use the hallway as a toilet." While his aides protested that such quarters were beneath the dignity of a Nobel Prize winner, this was where King wanted to be. "I can learn more ... by being with those who live and suffer here," he said.

But the economic injustice symbolized by "the SLUM" proved more difficult to solve than winning access to a restaurant or a voting booth. King's forays into segregated Marquette Park and Cicero were met by angry whites who pelted marchers with rocks, one striking King in the head. "I have never in my life seen such hate," he later said, a sign of the backlash against the movement that would soon become a national phenomenon.

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