The Great Black Hope

The Great Black Hope

Taylor Branch concludes his staggering trilogy of the civil rights era with At Canaan’s Edge, a relentlessly detailed narrative of Martin Luther King’s desperate struggle to save the movement.


The June 1967 issue of William Gaines’s popular humor magazine Mad was devoted to race, with images of Alfred E. Neuman on the cover in several different racial guises. The “Special Racial Issue,” as it was called, featured two comic-strip satires of the kind for which the magazine was famous. One was a sendup of the television series I Spy, whose co-star, Bill Cosby, was the first African-American actor to have a regular supporting role in a television drama. The other comic strip, “Stokely and Tess,” cleverly drawn from the Gershwin/DuBose opera Porgy and Bess, explored the internal division in the civil rights movement between advocates of nonviolent resistance in the Martin Luther King Jr. mold and the emerging Black Power movement.

Stokely was, of course, Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael, former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a longstanding voter-registration organizer in Lowndes County, Alabama. Carmichael had marched side by side with King as recently as 1966, but by the following year he had become, for whites, the nightmare symbol of radical, unruly blacks. In the satire Tess, a fictional character, represents the uncommitted or unsure black person, whom Stokely tries to woo with the rhetoric of Black Power and self-determination, while King competes for her loyalty with the blandishments of nonviolence and Christian love. There were cameos by Sammy Davis Jr., Harlem preacher and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, comedian Dick Gregory, James Baldwin, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, all celebrities associated with distinct factions of the civil rights movement or ideologies critical of it. Tess herself is a caricature of Diahann Carroll, the most famous black actress of the time, who had a major role in Otto Preminger’s 1959 film version of Porgy and Bess (Bess was played by Dorothy Dandridge). In fact, what drove the entire satire was precisely the interconnection between the civil rights movement and popular culture. Mad writers and artists could expect their white adolescent readers to know who these black people were and to have some familiarity with what they were arguing about. It was probably the first time in American history when the political divisions among blacks mattered to whites, thanks in large part to the 1965 race rebellion in Watts and subsequently in other parts of the country, especially the North. Before this, the civil rights struggle, and the race conflict generally, was seen as a Southern problem. By the mid-1960s it had become a national crisis. As a result, the conflicts between black “militants” and “moderates,” to use the lingo of the era, had even become a form of popular entertainment.

“Stokely and Tess” also marked the end of an era, in the sense that the assassination of King the following April made it virtually impossible for anyone to treat the movement or King with such gleeful irreverence. Since then, liberal white guilt and black pride have transformed him into a civic and racial saint, so transcendent that even conservatives, who had no love for him when he was alive, pay him homage. It is hard to say who has benefited from King’s embalming, but it’s not the American public, which hardly needs to have the jagged edges of its past smoothed over by the sentimentalization of a figure so central to the debate over the meaning of our democracy.

Coming from a politically active family, with two older sisters who helped to launch Temple University’s Black Students Union and its first black publication, Maji-Maji, I read the Mad “Special Race Issue” at the time with some interest. I wasn’t supposed to appreciate a sendup of black politics by whites, but I found it hilarious. I don’t know whether the Mad writers were aware of how ambivalent blacks were about the opera, but it was precisely this ambivalence that made “Stokely and Tess” work as a satire. It was funny, in part, because no black person I knew liked Porgy and Bess but everyone knew the songs. Every black singer, professional and amateur, when I was a kid, sang “Summertime.”

Taylor Branch does not mention “Stokely and Tess” in At Canaan’s Edge, the concluding volume of his epic trilogy on America in the King years. This omission signals a certain weakness concerning how deeply black politics affected the way black people saw their cultural life in the 1960s, as well as how black politics shaped the perception of black people in popular culture. But the internal divisions in the movement, nonviolence versus Black Power, the splintering of the fragile but effective black consensus after the 1965 Selma March, is very much one of the subjects of this sprawling and intensely elegiac book. The collapse of the African-American consensus mirrored the breakdown in the New Deal liberal consensus itself, a breakdown caused in good measure by the Vietnam War; the course of what one might call Mr. Johnson’s War is also a major subject of Branch’s book. The demise of New Deal liberalism–in part because it failed to produce true equity, the hope of the civil rights movement, and in part because it presided over a cynical foreign policy that led to the anti-Communist catastrophe called Vietnam–is one of the great tragedies or, for resurgent conservatives, one of the great “corrections” of twentieth-century American history.

What Branch makes clear, though, is that New Deal liberalism was undone equally by hubris and by doubt, by rash action and by compromised hesitancy. Lyndon Johnson’s frantic rush to pass pathbreaking legislation while he still had the political capital to do so seems, in retrospect, to reflect not only his sense of the urgency of rendering justice but a preoccupation with his place in history and an overweening pride in fixing the country’s sins. King’s push for more demonstrations after 1965, at a time when even his most ardent followers felt exhausted and frustrated, mirrored the same pride and the same mad rush for change. Those who believed that change was occurring too quickly for it to be absorbed or understood or before a consensus of white working- and middle-class support could be generated for it were right.

Yet as Branch recounts, civil rights workers in the racist trenches of the Deep South felt that the government was moving too slowly, fearful of white (particularly Southern white) alienation, and that Johnson should seize the moment and complete the project of Reconstruction that had been aborted nearly 100 years earlier. To these activists King seemed, if anything, too hesitant in following the logic of his own message. Without a radical revolution in the relationship between black and white Americans, nothing in the end would really change. Those who felt that progress was coming in piecemeal fashion and that the search for a white middle-class consensus in favor of racial equality was not only unnecessary but counterrevolutionary were right, too.

The ultimate paradox of the 1960s was that its reformist urge simultaneously went too far and not far enough, as the country was consumed by the fires of two protracted wars: the domestic race war of whites against blacks and the foreign imperialist war of Americans against Asians. Race was not incidental to people’s views of Vietnam, among opponents as well as supporters. Henry Luce, founder of Time magazine–who considered himself something of an Asian expert, as he had been born in China–told Johnson that, in Branch’s words, “racial prejudice worked against the call to military sacrifice across the Pacific.” And on the left, particularly the black left, Vietnam was seen as a racist, neocolonialist war of a rich white nation against a poor “colored” nation. The idea of Third World “colored” solidarity had spread since the end of World War II with gatherings such as the Afro-Asian Unity Conference in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955 and such movements as Egyptian President Nasser’s Arab nationalism and various forms of Pan-Africanism. Race was the American Armageddon of the 1960s.

From the fires of these wars over race and poverty at home and Third World nationalism abroad came a resurgent, newly populist American conservatism that has become a vital, if not the dominant, force in American political life since the 1968 election of Republican Richard Nixon as President on a platform of “law and order” and “peace with honor.” (“Peace with honor” turned out to mean five more years of escalated bloodletting in Vietnam in what became Mr. Nixon’s War.) Yet it was not Nixon who breathed new life into conservatism but rather Ronald Reagan, whose rise to the governorship of California in 1966 Branch recounts. Reagan put a genial, optimistic face on conservatism and gave the dismantling of the New Deal legislative program, the aim of American conservatives since the 1930s, an almost reformist air of freshness and vitality. Still, as Branch makes clear, the Johnson legacy of 1960s liberal reform remains a cornerstone of American life: “federal aid to education, Medicare, voting rights, and immigration reform…. Each of the bills established a landmark national commitment–to the young, the elderly, minorities, and even aspiring foreigners. Together they extended America’s distinctive horizontal bonds of popular strength, in keeping with the founding principle of equal citizenship.”

Branch’s book opens with the Selma March for voting rights in 1965, “the last great thrust of a movement built on patriotic idealism,” then facing “an opposing tide of resentment and disbelief…contesting the language of freedom.” This march, which aided the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, brought together a perfect coalition of the federal government, white religious and political liberals, and Southern blacks, both middle-class and rural poor, young and old. As Branch reminds us, the Selma campaign was actually a series of marches–the first savagely attacked by Alabama state troopers and white militias; a second march that King led up to the Pettus Bridge and then turned back so as not to violate a temporary restraining order; and a final march that went from Selma to Montgomery, a trip that only a relatively small number made in its entirety, since the court would only grant permission for a limited number of people to cross a narrow section of the bridge. There were deaths–the murder of two whites, James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, made national headlines. But it was probably the most guarded march, by the federal government, of any civil rights demonstration.

At Canaan’s Edge concludes with the assassination of King in April 1968 in Memphis, where he was trying to help a black sanitation workers’ union negotiate with the tough, unsympathetic Mayor Henry Loeb. At this point, King was trying to hold on to his crumbling coalition–the federal government had abandoned him for turning against the Vietnam War; white liberals had grown weary of demonstrations and wary of the growing black separatism and truculence that now characterized the movement; and blacks themselves had grown sick of nonviolence, as it seemed to have produced nothing but white violence or episodes of black self-destructiveness. He was aching for a major demonstration that would prove the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance strategies, although, as Branch notes, he was “far from sure they would work.” Thus was born King’s plan for a poor people’s march on Washington, which he tried to get a variety of “non-black” minority leaders to support. This multiculturalist approach was, for him, the crucial next phase of the civil rights movement. The idea of the march seemed almost quixotic, even to King’s lieutenants–Ralph Abernathy, Hosea Williams, Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young and James Bevel, a remarkable collection of talented, committed men but often, with the exception of Young, prone to neurotic histrionics. Yet King staked his ego, his sense of political and religious mission, even his very sanity, on going ahead. He was waylaid by the trouble in Memphis, where he had been urged to intervene by longtime associate and nonviolent pioneer James Lawson. His advisers urged him not to become involved, as it would take time and resources from the Poor People’s Campaign. He didn’t listen.

Between these two events we learn about Johnson’s historic Congressional speech announcing voting rights legislation, where he committed the nation to equality (and, implicitly, to affirmative action). “Not only did Johnson embrace the fused spiritual and patriotic grounding of the nonviolent movement, but he committed the national government to vindicate its long-suffering promise of equal citizenship,” Branch writes. “A tear rolled down King’s cheek” as he listened to Johnson’s speech.

Yet the alliance between the two men, never an easy one, was soon to crumble over the Vietnam War. At first King tried to finesse matters by hiding his hatred of war under the mantle of being a minister, hoping not to alienate Johnson because he understood the risks Johnson was taking in his staunch support of the civil rights movement. And Johnson was not one to tolerate dissent on the war, viewing critics of Vietnam as, in Branch’s words, “disloyal, impractical, and unprincipled all at once.” Yet King could not conceal his opposition to the war for long, and in his Riverside Church address in April 1967, he passionately echoed the left’s view of the war as imperialist and racist. He had hinted at those views earlier, but under pressure from Bayard Rustin and other aides, he had muted them as well as he could.

In perhaps his greatest service, Branch helps us to understand why nonviolence lost its appeal to civil rights activists in the trenches, notably to Stokely Carmichael. During his courageous work with SNCC in Lowndes County, Carmichael came up against such tremendous white resistance that he and many of his fellow activists became disillusioned with democratic, representative politics. The movement he led resulted in the formation of the Black Panther Party, which in turn inspired a set of self-styled revolutionaries in Oakland, California, to take the name and make it famous, or infamous. James Meredith’s one-man March Against Fear in June 1966, during which he was shot by a segregationist, also hastened SNCC’s deterioration and the coming of Black Power. But if the repression and stresses of the Southern campaign and the inability to control “wildcat” actions like Meredith’s led to the breakdown of the civil rights movement, the Watts riot and its successors created a new set of fault lines.

King’s campaign in Chicago was a response to Watts, and Branch gives a typically comprehensive account of it. The minister’s staff was divided about going there because of the complexity of the local politics both outside and within the black community. King seemed to be almost desperate. “We have stood up for nonviolence with all our hearts,” he cried at one point. “I need help. I need some victories. I need some concessions.” The local white response to the demonstrations was horrific. “I have never in my life seen such hate,” King said. As Branch observes: “Chicago nationalized race, complementing the impact of Watts. Without it King would be confined to posterity more as a regional figure. The violence against Northern demonstrations cracked a beguiling, cultivated conceit that bigotry was the province of backward Southerners, treatable by enlightened but firm instruction.” Branch sees the Chicago campaign as less of a failure than many other commentators do, although he admits that it was not a success.

As sympathetic as President Johnson was to the aims of the civil rights movement, King faced a ferocious enemy in the federal government: the serpentine FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. There is much in Branch’s book about Hoover’s efforts to undermine and discredit the movement even as the FBI investigated violent crimes against civil rights workers in the South. This campaign of sabotage created an atmosphere of fear and loathing between many in the civil rights movement and the FBI. We are also given the story of the rise of the antiwar movement, from a few single individuals who set themselves on fire in protest of the brutality of the war to the surging power of a mass movement, almost exclusively populated by whites. Its relationship with the civil rights movement, which it eventually overshadowed, was always uneasy even though younger, more radical civil rights workers, like those in SNCC, were almost instantaneously antiwar.

It is a testament to Branch’s skills as a writer that he is able to keep all these balls in the air in the formation of a riveting narrative that doesn’t meander or get too trapped in the details, although it is extraordinarily, even relentlessly, detailed. It is clear that Branch’s sympathies lie with King, the movement and the emerging participatory democracy that was being generated largely through the committed actions of a small number of citizens. But Branch is more a chronicler of events than an analytic writer, and one of the weaknesses of the book for some readers will be the lack of a theoretical framework, its failure to make the reader see the meaning of the history in fresh terms.

King emerges in this galaxy as a man who is desperately trying to hold the center, trying not to go too far to the left and get swallowed by the white peace movement or the New Left. Unlike Bayard Rustin and W.E.B. Du Bois, King didn’t run the risk here solely of being politically marginalized by pacifism but of being used by the white left, since, as a Nobel Prize winner, a man who talked with Presidents and helped get legislation passed, and as the leader of a successful mass movement, he was bringing far more to the table than the white left was. Branch notes that King thought several leaders of the white peace movement were pushy and eager to take advantage of his fame and political legitimacy. One of his advisers, Stanley Levison, remarked at one point that he could understand why Dr. Spock had “difficulty with these people.”

But King fought equally hard not to be absorbed by black cultural nationalism (Amiri Baraka, Maulana Ron Karenga, Kawaida, the Nation of Islam) or Black Power or black leftist radicalism (the Black Panther Party). He hated separatism, although he understood its causes. For King, separatism was simply not a practical or even rational solution to the problems of blacks in America. Part of his dislike of black cultural nationalism might have reflected his inability to escape the bourgeois Christian conventions that had shaped his life. Part of it probably sprang from a conviction that nonviolence and Christian love were the truly revolutionary forces for positive change and that all other things were simply versions of authoritarian despair or nihilism. Black cultural nationalism, Black Power and the cries for redemptive violence were all, to King, signs of defeat and black political and cultural breakdown. King was convinced that only he offered hope, for the only way to change America was to believe in it, and the only way to expand the democratic possibility was to believe that democracy was worth sacrificing for, not that it should itself be sacrificed.

Addicted to sleeping pills, cheating habitually on his wife, downing straight whiskeys in quiet moments (which his denomination forbade), smoking cigarettes while trying to cope with the constant threat of death and consumed by self-righteousness, egotism and guilt over his affairs and his fame, King comes across as an amazingly courageous, if fatalistic, man, by turns practical and romantic, and far tougher than our plaster-saint version of him comes close to suggesting. He accepted the real possibility of an untimely death with the Christian shrug of “if it is God’s will.” And what else could he do? He could hardly fret about staying alive, and he was far more concerned about threats to his family. He worked astonishingly long hours, embarking on grueling fundraising tours and adeptly dealing with the press. He tolerated a group of nearly unmanageable advisers and the grand egos of all the clerical members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who knew that he ultimately called the shots, and who remained loyal to him to the end. Although he was not an especially good administrator, he was deft at handling the domineering personalities around him, much as Duke Ellington handled the stars of his band. He was a star in a way that no other black leader before or since has been.

There were two elements I felt this book lacked as a “life and times” work: a brief account of the Black Arts Movement and the influence of black writers like Amiri Baraka, Don L. Lee (now Haki Madhubuti), Sonia Sanchez and others on the thinking of younger blacks and a paragraph or so on the publication and impact of John Williams’s novel The Man Who Cried I Am (1967), the most important black novel of the 1960s. Second, a bit more, perhaps a page or so, about trends in African-American popular music–Curtis Mayfield, Motown, James Brown and others–would have been nice, and perhaps a bit on the rise of the natural or bush as a hairstyle (later to be called the Afro). It might be argued that this is strictly a book about politics, but the Black Power movement cannot be fully understood and its impact cannot be fully appreciated unless its cultural claims and manifestations are delineated or at least acknowledged. Many black people then made virtually no distinction between their politics and their culture. William Van Deburg’s New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, 1965-1975 complements Branch’s book nicely in this regard.

This final volume in Branch’s staggering trilogy reminds us of what a mighty contribution the civil rights movement made to the transformation of American democracy, how, for a certain number of years, it gave black people a sense of hope, of optimism, of belief in their native land. It also reminds us of how extraordinary Martin Luther King was, a conspicuously flawed but astonishingly brilliant vessel, a man central casting would not have selected to be the centerpiece of the greatest and most well-organized mass movement for social change the United States has ever seen. It was true, for a time in America during the King years, as King so famously misquoted the Bible, that “justice rolls down like the waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

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