Tragic, But Not in Vain: The Final Years of King’s Life

By 1966, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. had boycotted Montgomery buses, marched on Washington and secured the ballot for all races. When he arrived in Chicago in January, however, he was unable to do much of anything. In the city that had served as the Promised Land for thousands of blacks pushed north by rural poverty, King couldn’t get any traction.

The landlord of his apartment quickly made renovations once he found out who his new tenant would be, weakening King’s attempt to dramatize the conditions of Northern ghettos. Slumlords turned out at fair-housing rallies, saying sincerely, “We’re with you,” and arguing that they were unable to secure funds to repair their buildings because of redlining by downtown banks. The ever-mercurial Mayor Daley co-opted the campaign’s mission by declaring that he would eliminate all slums in Chicago by Dec. 31, 1967! As it turns out, neither King nor Daley met that deadline.

King’s move to Chicago comes about midway through the final book of Taylor Branch’s trilogy on “America in the King Years.” It is by far the most depressing volume—and also the most moving. The first two installments, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Parting the Waters and the subsequent Pillar of Fire, were downright inspiring, full of examples of King’s moral dedication to the cause and his political astuteness. At Canaan’s Edge begins in the same spirit, recounting the troubled but ultimately successful Selma-to-Montgomery march that opened voter-registration rolls. But after the first 200 pages, King becomes increasingly involved in—some would say distracted by—Vietnam and buffeted by the growing black-power movement. In the period that Mr. Branch recounts here, from 1965 until his assassination in 1968, King was far from Canaan’s edge. Like the rest of the country, he stood at the brink of chaos. Even King lost faith, saying shortly before his death, “Maybe we just have to admit that the day of violence is here.”

Having taken his campaign north in response to the Watts riots, King found that income disparity and geographic segregation were more intractable than the South’s legal discrimination. And he underestimated the depth of racial prejudice in Northern cities. The protests that King did manage to organize in Chicago quickly became unsustainable. A candlelight vigil outside a discriminatory real-estate office was called off after a few hours of taunting from bystanders. During a march through white ethnic neighborhoods, crowds lining the street shouted epithets and threw cherry bombs. A rock hit King behind the ear. “I have never in my life seen such hate,” he famously declared afterward. “Not in Mississippi or Alabama.” After a couple of weeks, King was forced to stop the protests. He agreed to a vague plan to increase the number of blacks in white neighborhoods—the final version never said even what that number should be.

King got pulled into Vietnam the same way as everyone else: He couldn’t stay out. His conscience dictated that he address the single most violent activity that the country was engaged in, and yet the consequences of speaking out were devastating. Vietnam hampered his fund-raising, scattered his focus, and strained relations with his erstwhile ally, President Lyndon B. Johnson. At first, M.L.K. and L.B.J. almost apologized to each other for taking opposing points of view on the war, but soon they stopped speaking entirely.

More so than his marriage to his wife or his friendship with the ever-wise Stanley Levison, King’s relationship with Johnson is the most poignant in the book. After his speech on Selma, the President told King, “Well, you helped, I think, to dramatize and bring it to a point where I could go before the Congress in that night session, and I think that was one of the most effective things that ever happened.” Two years later, King roared in a speech, “This war is a blasphemy against all that America stands for.” The President felt spurned. “He’s canceled two meetings with me,” Johnson told aides, “and I don’t understand it.”

WITH THIS BOOK, MR. BRANCH HAS COMPLETED more than 20 years’ worth of research and written more than 2,800 pages to create what’s already regarded as the most detailed and extensive narrative of the civil-rights era. At Canaan’s Edge is as much a page-turner as his previous volumes, bringing the reader to the precipice of each crisis King faced, then pulling back to some semblance of relief. Entire conversations are reproduced verbatim, thanks to J. Edgar Hoover’s wiretaps and Johnson’s Oval Office tape recorders. Digressions on apparently unrelated events, like the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, provide a panoramic perspective. The Vietnam sections could form a book in themselves, and dramatically contrast Johnson’s fatalism abroad with his bulldog stance on civil rights at home.

And yet, At Canaan’s Edge comes off more as chronicle than history. Relentlessly objective, Mr. Branch organizes the book not by theme but by day—sometimes by hour even—and he mentions details in what appears to be little more than a way to acknowledge having interviewed certain people. (“In downtown Birmingham, seminarian Judith Upham unwisely wore high heels to picket the Bishop of Alabama on Friday, April 30.”) Interpretive comments come so rarely that they appear as dessert must to a dieter, and they’ll indeed be licked up by readers. “Black power was hot, whether or not it would last,” Mr. Branch writes. “King was too Sunday school, and he no longer commanded attention at the White House.”

That insight is about the only one that Mr. Branch offers to explain the main narrative arc of the book: the eclipse of nonviolence by violence. Did black power grow popular because, as King contended, Vietnam poisoned the country? Or was it because civil-rights breakthroughs raised too high the expectations of Northern blacks? Or was it because Stokely Carmichael, in an episode never fully explained, defeated John Lewis as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, setting the stage for the rise of the Black Panthers?

The demise of nonviolence is important because, as Mr. Branch indicates, King’s true legacy wasn’t so much the advancement of racial equality as it was his demonstration that social change could occur without resorting to armed conflict. After all, racial inequality persists in the United States more than a generation later in a way that even the most skeptical 1960’s civil-rights activist would never have imagined. King’s assassination itself symbolizes the victory of violence over nonviolence, but in an epilogue that brightens the book considerably, Mr. Branch suggests that that victory was only temporary. The anti-war movement had largely adopted nonviolent techniques, and 20 years later the doctrine would spread to Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and even China. The United States lost the Vietnam War, but communism fell nonetheless. It was defeated not by military means but by civil disobedience. King turned out to be right after all.

Matthew Schuerman is a reporter at The Observer.