Taylor Branch, “At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968” (2006) – “Non-violence is a tactic” is a phrase I’ve heard intoned many times over the last few years. Left unsaid but implied by context is the fact that non-violence is not the only tactic. People who say the line usually also include the implication that non-violence is not a strategy, a goal, or a politics. Like a lot of intoned phrases, “non-violence is a tactic” tries to foreclose on an argument ahead of time, because in a key moment in American life, non-violence was more than a tactic. It was a strategy, a goal, a politics, a tactic, a discipline, and, in language that has now become hackneyed but still retains some of its power, a dream.
“At Canaan’s Edge” is the last in a trilogy of books by journalist Taylor Branch covering the civil rights movement, largely through examining the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. These are big, long books written for an educated but popular audience. As such, they are relatively thesis-light and narrative-heavy. But coming to the end of King’s life, and with it, Branch heavily implies, the end of the “civil rights” portion of the black freedom struggle in the twentieth century, the theses become more pronounced.
The theses are not the strong points of the “America in the King Years” series. Branch identifies with the civil rights movement in a way it’s tempting to attribute to his being white, liberal, and well-off. His version of King is not the nice Santa Claus figure embraced by conservatives and by many liberals alike. Among other things, Branch, writing a substantial biography, does not steer away from King’s increasingly vociferous criticism of capitalism towards the end of his life, or the way white liberals from LBJ on down turned on King as King made his opposition to the Vietnam War clear or as the movement set its sights on de facto segregation in the north. But even in the late date of 2006 (the first volume of the trilogy came out in 1988), and even with caveats about the warm personal relationship between King and figures like Stokely Carmichael, Branch still holds to the old idea that the rise of the concept of black power did much to end the civil rights movement that a reader of the series had, by then, invested a good two thousand five hundred pages reading about.
Ultimately, Branch charts the declension narrative of civil rights going into 1968 “more in sadness than in anger,” as the saying goes. Carmichael and the rest, veterans of hard work and harrowing persecution in the struggle in the Deep South, had good reason to embrace black power and more robust self-defense. Struggle, in general and in the peculiar pitch of non-violence, wears people down, King included. Just, for reasons Branch doesn’t make clear, King could stand it longer than the others, could keep the non-violent faith, commitment to multiracial alliances, and a form of patriotism that even his closest allies could not. Then he was murdered, and that was that.
The stuff one comes to this kind of book for — narrative history — satisfies more than the theses do. Branch tells the stories well and in a lot of detail. If there’s an issue here, it’s that Branch gets a little too ambitious and gives us a lot of what’s going on in Vietnam along with the black freedom stuff. I get it- it was all part of the largest gestalt, and Vietnam helped drive King’s allies in the White House, President Johnson included, away. But we didn’t need all of the details of strategy meetings with the national security council for that. I think Branch wanted to make Johnson out as a tragic figure. I can even buy it, a little- Johnson probably would have preferred not to have inherited the Vietnam mess, and focus on his poverty programs. But ultimately, a man killing hundreds of thousands to stay in power… not that tragic. More just bad. And it slowed the book down.
Still and all, this trilogy was well worth reading. Like I said before, I probably knew more about black power movements than I did about civil rights. It’s almost as though universities assume that you get so much of (a bastardized version of) King and civil rights from elementary school onwards that it’d be redundant to teach it seriously in history classes.
What, beyond firming up the details instead of it just being a blur of compelling black and white images, did I get from reading these books? Well, I do think non-violence is best understood as a tactic, or really more of a strategy. Moreover, I think in many cases fighting is appropriate and justified. I certainly think the parody of King’s strategy that’s invoked by the media and on-the-ground peace police at street actions isn’t worth much. But I don’t think it makes sense to let the matter rest there. Reading these books, it is impossible to accept the picture of naivety, passivity, or even cowardice that leftists sometimes allow to develop of the civil rights movement, a kind of negative of the (frankly, often patronizing, naive, overly-sunny) picture of black power militancy we have created. Whatever their mistakes and flaws, these were serious people with a serious strategy, aware of alternatives, who made their choices with their eyes open. You don’t need to believe in non-violence in any capacity, and you certainly don’t need to accept Branch’s occasional dip into patriotic bathos, where he insists King was doing no more nor less than the Founding Fathers, to accept that.
Practically speaking, I think the main takeaway from King, the SCLC, and the “civil rights” side of the (debatable, heuristic) “civil rights-black power” dyad isn’t the power of non-violence but the power of discipline. The sort of non-violence King used took immense discipline, and no amount of militant sneering can efface that. That discipline meant endless work on recruiting, educating, organizing, and mobilizing many many often previously-unpolitical people. The movement’s inheritors kept the fire but did not, generally, keep the discipline, as though by coming out from behind the shadow of “Lawd” (as some SNCC hands called him behind his back) King, they could relax, let out long-suppressed breath. Sometimes it seems that they thought that dispensing with non-violence meant dispensing with any discipline beyond (often arbitrary) chains of command and adherence to lines. That didn’t answer, couldn’t answer, to the strains. I think we need to learn that discipline again, even if we don’t accept all of the premises King, Branch, or anyone else added to it. ****’