At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68by Taylor Branch
At Canaan's Edge concludes America in the King Years, a three-volume history that will endure as a masterpiece of storytelling on American race, violence, and democracy. Pulitzer Prize-winner and bestselling author Taylor Branch makes clear in this magisterial account of the civil rights movement that Martin Luther King, Jr., earned a place next to James Madison and Abraham Lincoln in the pantheon of American history.
In At Canaan's Edge, King and his movement stand at the zenith of America's defining story, one decade into an epic struggle for the promises of democracy. Branch opens with the authorities' violent suppression of a voting-rights march in Alabama on March 7, 1965. The quest to cross Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge engages the conscience of the world, strains the civil rights coalition, and embroils King in negotiations with all three branches of the U.S. government.
The marches from Selma coincide with the first landing of large U.S. combat units in South Vietnam. The escalation of the war severs the cooperation of King and President Lyndon Johnson after a collaboration that culminated in the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act.
After Selma, young pilgrims led by Stokely Carmichael take the movement into adjacent Lowndes County, Alabama, where not a single member of the black majority has tried to vote in the twentieth century. Freedom workers are murdered, but sharecroppers learn to read, dare to vote, and build their own political party. Carmichael leaves in frustration to proclaim his famous black power doctrine, taking the local panther ballot symbol to become an icon of armed rebellion.
Also after Selma, King takes nonviolence into Northern urban ghettoes. Integrated marches through Chicago expose hatreds and fears no less virulent than the Mississippi Klan's, but King's 1966 settlement with Mayor Richard Daley does not gain the kind of national response that generated victories from Birmingham and Selma. We watch King overrule his advisers to bring all his eloquence into dissent from the Vietnam War. We watch King make an embattled decision to concentrate his next campaign on a positive compact to address poverty. We reach Memphis, the garbage workers' strike, and King's assassination.
Parting the Waters provided an unsurpassed portrait of King's rise to greatness, beginning with the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and ending with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. In Pillar of Fire, theologians and college students braved the dangerous Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 as Malcolm X raised a militant new voice for racial separatism. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed segregation by race and mandated equal opportunity for women. From the pinnacle of winning the Nobel Peace Prize, King willed himself back to "the valley" of jail in his daunting Selma campaign.
At Canaan's Edge portrays King at the height of his moral power even as his worldly power is waning. It shows why his fidelity to freedom and nonviolence makes him a defining figure long beyond his brilliant life and violent end.
The Washington Post
The New York Times
-- The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
"This is so far the best look at [the Sixties]. It is an essential tool for understanding what happened to and in America across that dizzying span of years."
-- Garry Wills, The New York Review of Books
"A magnificent account of witness and sacrifice."
-- John Leonard, Harper's Magazine
"A thrilling book, marvelous in both its breadth and its detail. There is drama in every paragraph."
-- Anthony Lewis, The New York Times Book Review
"Luminous...magisterial...At Canaan's Edge is a sweeping history of protest and politics, bursting with outsize figures."
-- Chicago Tribune
- Simon & Schuster
- Publication date:
- Sold by:
- SIMON & SCHUSTER
- NOOK Book
- Sales rank:
- File size:
- 4 MB
Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1: Warning
February 28, 1965
Terror approached Lowndes County through the school system. J. T. Haynes, a high school teacher of practical agriculture, spread word from his white superiors that local Klansmen vowed to kill the traveling preacher if he set foot again in his local church. This to Haynes was basic education in a county of unspoiled beauty and feudal cruelty, where a nerve of violence ran beneath tranquil scenes of egret flocks resting among pastured Angus cattle. Across its vast seven hundred square miles, Lowndes County retained a filmy past of lynchings nearly unmatched, and Haynes tried to harmonize his scientific college methods with the survival lore of students three or four generations removed from Africa -- that hens would not lay eggs properly if their feet were cold, that corn grew only in the silence of night, when trained country ears could hear it crackling up from the magic soil of Black Belt Alabama.
Lessons about the Klan arrived appropriately through the plainspoken Hulda Coleman, who had run the county schools since 1939 from a courthouse office she inherited from her father, the school superintendent and former sheriff. After World War II, when Haynes had confided to Coleman that the U.S. Army mustered him out from Morocco with final instructions to go home and vote as a deserving veteran, she explained that such notions did not apply to any colored man who valued his safety or needed his job in her classrooms. Haynes stayed on to teach in distinguished penury with his wife, Uralee, daughter of an engineer from the Southern land-grant colleges, loyally fulfilling joint assignment to what their Tuskegee professors euphemistically called a "problem county." Not for twenty years, until Martin Luther King stirred up the Selma voting rights movement one county to the west, did Negroes even discuss the franchise. There had been furtive talk since January about whether Haynes's 1945 inquiry or a similarly deflected effort by an aged blind preacher qualified as the last attempt to register, but no one remembered a ballot actually cast by any of the local Negroes who comprised 80 percent of the 15,000 residents in Lowndes County.
Despite ominous notices from Deacon Haynes, Rev. Lorenzo Harrison was keeping his fourth-Sunday commitment when the sound of truck engines roared to a stop outside Mt. Carmel Baptist on February 28, 1965. Panic swept through the congregation even before investigating deacons announced that familiar Klansmen were deployed outside with shotguns and rifles. Harrison gripped the pulpit and stayed there. He lived thirty miles away in Selma, where he knew people in the ongoing nonviolent campaign but was not yet involved himself, and now he switched his message from "How can we let this hope bypass us here?" to a plea for calm now that "they have brought the cup to the Lord's doorstep." He said he figured word would get back to white people that he had mentioned the vote in a sermon. Haynes reported that some of the Klansmen were shouting they'd get the out-of-county nigger preacher before sundown, whether the congregation surrendered him or not.
Harrison kept urging the choir to sing for comfort above the chaos of tears and moans, with worshippers cringing in the pews or hunched near windows to listen for noises outside, some praying for deliverance and some for strength not to forsake their pastor even if the Klan burned the whole congregation alive. There were cries about whether the raiding party would lay siege or actually invade the sanctuary, and Harrison, preaching in skitters to fathom what might happen, said he had been braced for phone threats, night riders -- almost any persecution short of assault on a Sunday service -- but now he understood the saying that bad surprises in Lowndes could outstrip your fears. Deacons said they recognized among the Klansmen a grocer who sometimes beat debtors in his store, a horseman who owned ten thousand acres and once shot a young sharecropper on the road because he seemed too happy to be drafted out of the fields into the Army, then with impunity had dumped the body of Bud Rudolph on his mother's porch. There was Tom Coleman, a highway employee and self-styled deputy who in 1959 killed Richard Lee Jones in the recreation area of a prison work camp. Such names rattled old bones. Sheriff Jesse Coleman, father of Klansman Tom and school superintendent Hulda, successfully defied the rare Alabama governor who called for state investigation in a notorious World War I lynching -- of one Will Jones from a telegraph pole by an unmasked daytime crowd -- by pronouncing the whole episode a matter of strictly local concern.
Noises outside the church unexpectedly died down. Uncertain why or how far the Klan had withdrawn, deacons puzzled over escape plans for two hundred worshippers with a handful of cars and no way to call for help -- barely a fifth of the county's households had telephone service, nearly all among the white minority. A test caravan that ferried home sick or infirm walkers ran upon no ambush nearby, and a scout reported that the only armed pickup sighted on nearby roads belonged to a known non-Klansman. The task of evacuating Harrison fell to deacon John Hulett, whose namesake slave ancestor was said to have founded Mt. Carmel Baptist in the year Alabama gained statehood, 1819. Hulett, a former agriculture student under deacon Haynes, was considered a man of substance because he farmed his own land instead of sharecropping and once had voted as a city dweller in Birmingham. He recruited a deacon to drive Harrison's car, put the targeted reverend down low in the back seat of his own, and by late afternoon led a close convoy of all ten Mt. Carmel automobiles some fifteen miles north on Route 17 to deliver him to an emergency way station at Mt. Gillard Missionary Baptist Church on U.S. Highway 80, where Harrison's father was pastor.
Celebrations at the transfer were clandestine, urgent, and poignant, being still in Lowndes County. Until Hulett pulled away to attend the stranded congregation back at Mt. Carmel, Harrison kept muttering in terrified regret that one of them had to follow through on this voting idea no matter what. "If I have to leave, you take it," he told Hulett with a tinge of regret, as though cheating his own funeral.
Just ahead lay fateful March, with a crucible of choice for Martin Luther King and President Lyndon Johnson. The Ku Klux Klan would kill soon in Lowndes County, but its victims would be white people from Michigan and New Hampshire. Lowndes would inspire national symbols. It would change Negroes into black people, and deacon John Hulett would found a local political party renowned by its Black Panther emblem. Beyond wonders scarcely dreamed, Reverend Harrison would vote, campaign, and even hold elected office for years in Selma, but never again in the twentieth century would he venture within ten miles of Mt. Carmel Church. Copyright ©2006 by Taylor Branch
Chapter 2: Scouts
February 28 -- March 1, 1965
Some fifty miles from Mt. Carmel, on the other side of Selma, James Bevel was preaching against an outbreak of fear in Perry County that same Sunday. He recited from the twelfth chapter of Acts about how King Herod of Judea had "laid violent hands" upon the followers of the Jesus movement by killing "James the brother of John with the sword," and how Herod, seeing that his vengeance pleased the public, "proceeded to arrest Peter also." The modern Herod was Governor George Wallace of Alabama, said Bevel, and the modern martyr James was Jimmie Lee Jackson, whose name was bound in grief to the crowd at Zion's Chapel Methodist because he had walked with them from this same church in a night vigil that had been set upon by state troopers under Colonel Al Lingo. Even the segregationist Alabama Journal called the ensuing mayhem "a nightmare of State Police stupidity and brutality," as officers first shot out streetlights, disabled news cameras for cover, and beat reporters into the hospital or distant retreat, which compelled a New York Times correspondent to report the ensuing rampage by ear: "Negroes could be heard screaming and loud whacks rang through the square." An officer put two bullets into the stomach of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a twenty-six-year-old pulpwood worker whose application to register for the vote had been rejected five times.
"I'm not worried about James any more!" Bevel cried from the pulpit, two days after Jackson died as the first martyr of the current campaign for the vote. "I'm concerned about Peter." Only twenty-eight himself, Bevel sang out in the spitfire tenor of a gifted Baptist orator -- more original than King, believed many admirers of both -- wearing the denim overalls common to those who came into the nonviolent movement as students, and on his head a yarmulke that marked him for an eccentric identification with the Hebrew prophets. By Peter, Bevel meant all those left behind "to be cowed and coerced and beaten and even murdered," yet to prevail by spirit. He said he had gone out into the countryside only hours after the death on Friday and found Jackson's mother still bandaged from the attack and his battered grandfather, Cager Lee, still pronouncing himself fit for the next march. Bevel said that while he should be accustomed by now to such plainspoken courage, somehow the exposure to Jimmie Lee Jackson's family "is falling kind of hard on me." He shifted his biblical text to the story of Esther, a Queen of ancient Persia who had concealed her Hebrew identity until a courtier's plot moved her to "go unto the king, to make supplication unto him, and to make request before him for her people." Just so, said Bevel, voteless Negroes should honor Jimmie Lee Jackson by hazarding a mass pilgrimage of several days to petition the ruler of Alabama. "We must go to Montgomery and see the king!" he shouted. "Be prepared to walk to Montgomery! Be prepared to sleep on the highway!" He preached the congregation into full-throated shouts of call and response.
Bevel returned to Selma that evening and was repeating his challenge when Rev. Lorenzo Harrison burst through the doors at Brown Chapel AME. A commotion ran through the packed congregation of seven hundred until Rev. L. L. Anderson brought the fugitive into the pulpit to tell of being chased from his church in Lowndes County that day. Harrison clung to bravado on the edge of hysteria. He declared that he would have stayed on to face the threats -- and would go back -- except that his deacons had paid him three months' severance pay of a hundred dollars. "I said you ought not to be crying, you should be like men!" he shouted. "I told them I was not leaving because I was afraid, but because I can't fight white folks and black folks at the same time!" Then Harrison himself broke down.
Rev. Anderson reacted in a fury: "I want the world to know that in Alabama you are through running Negro preachers out of their pulpits!" He reminded the crowd that terror almost this extreme had paralyzed Selma itself until less than two years ago, during the national upheaval over King's 1963 demonstrations in Birmingham, when the young civil rights worker Bernard Lafayette had persuaded Anderson, over the strenuous objections of his deacons, to open Tabernacle Baptist for the first church meeting about the right to vote, and Sheriff Jim Clark had brought intimidating deputies right into the Tabernacle sanctuary. Despite this early trauma, the Selma movement had grown slowly into a thundering witness, with nearly four thousand demonstrators jailed since King arrived in January of 1965. Anderson vowed to carry this newfound courage into the harshest surrounding countryside.
In a cable to headquarters, FBI observers downplayed the excitement from Lowndes County as a dubious tale "inasmuch as Harris [sic] could furnish no description of any vehicle that the white people were traveling in and could not furnish any description of the whites that allegedly contacted the deacons in his church." More accurately, agents reported from private sources that James Bevel was distraught over Harrison's flight. Recently, he and colleague Andrew Young had turned up glimmers of interest as they scouted into Lowndes County along Highway 80, ducking into makeshift sharecroppers' stores with low tin roofs and walls of rough-cut timber, where chamber pots and drinking dippers hung for sale, telling nonplussed customers that "Dr. King asked us to come down here like Caleb and Joshua, to survey the land and look for the giants." Most contacts hastily vanished, and no church yet dared to open its doors for a meeting about the vote, but one deacon had promised "to do what I can." A farmer had said he heard talk of Dr. King on his television, and others warily had gauged whether local whites might tolerate registration if Negroes confined themselves to small groups. Now the preemptive raid showed that such timid interest was betrayed already to the Klan, and shock threatened to reseal the most isolated part of Alabama behind its firewall of legend at the county line. One dire consequence for Bevel was that the pragmatic Martin Luther King might not approve his desperate new resolve to walk fifty-four miles from Selma to Montgomery, through Big Swamp and the expanse of Lowndes County.
King was returning to Alabama by way of Atlanta that Sunday, from a fund-raising excursion to California. "My few days here are a refreshing contrast to Selma," he told a crowd in Los Angeles, trying to look past the bubble of crisis that traveled with him. Because of death threats from callers who identified themselves with a newly formed Christian Nationalist State Army, a hundred Los Angeles police officers guarded his appearances at Temple Israel, Victory Baptist Church, and the Hollywood Palladium. News stories tracked a manhunt for the cultish group's leader, who was said to have stolen more than a half-ton of dynamite. Reporters pressed King to confirm rumors that Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach had just warned him personally of other murder plots in Alabama, and they bombarded him with questions about the assassination of Malcolm X the previous Sunday in New York. Did King suspect a conspiracy? Had he made arrangement for succession if "something should happen" to him? Was he afraid that support for the doctrine of nonviolence was evaporating nationwide? In his sermon at Victory Baptist, King decried popular culture that made heroes of fast guns and raised even children to think of dissent by murder. "This disturbs me," he said, "because I know violence is not the answer."
A charged atmosphere both galvanized and polarized press attention. When King defined nonviolence in a Los Angeles interview as a leadership discipline for public conduct, and said he could in good conscience defend his family from attack in their home, a local Negro newspaper excoriated him as "the biggest hypocrite alive" for excluding his own loved ones from the suffering witness he prescribed, and declared that his nonviolence itself failed the Malcolm X standard of manhood. In New York, by contrast, the normally reserved Times reacted to Malcolm's death with open scorn for a "pitifully wasted" life marked by "ruthless and fanatical belief in violence."
King made his way through Atlanta back to Alabama for a few hours of domestic refuge at the home of Dr. Sullivan Jackson, Selma's only Negro dentist, where he knew he would find the small guest bedroom stocked for him with Jackson's spare clothes in his size, including suits and underwear, plus matching pajamas and a twin bed for his movement companion, Rev. Ralph Abernathy. King regularly teased himself for failing to persuade Jackson to join the nonviolent demonstrations -- "I flunked on you, Sully" -- but he valued the respite of well-worn hospitality. Dr. Jackson's wife, Jean, was a childhood friend of Abernathy's wife, Juanita; her great-aunt had been one of Coretta King's music teachers. College ties and pulpit connections extended social bonds among the families that cushioned King's reentry to the Selma campaign. He knew of Jimmie Lee Jackson's death, which doctors had predicted before King left for California, but now he learned of the newly proposed march to Montgomery. He knew to expect danger on his scheduled tour of the outlying rural areas on Monday morning, March 1 -- one of only two days per month when Alabama law required courthouses to be open for voter registration -- but now he learned of the Klan raid in Lowndes County. Aides argued that it was suicidal futility for King to venture there with personal appeals for white officials to accept Negro applicants, and some traced anticipated disaster on several fronts to the lunatic streak in James Bevel.
Doubts about Bevel were legion in King's inner circle. Bevel himself claimed to hear voices. His rival, Hosea Williams of Savannah, regularly denounced Bevel to King as unstable, even though Williams himself had pioneered night marches through Klan towns in a semitrance that inspired playful remarks about side effects from the metal plate still in his head, courtesy of war wounds in Germany. Wyatt Walker, chief of staff from 1960 until 1964, had resigned from movement service in part because King refused his insistent demands to fire Bevel for insubordinate mischief. King had indulged Bevel, saying the movement required a touch of madness -- "maladjustment," he called it in sermons -- in order to crusade against the entrenched structure of racial caste in America from a base of powerless, nonviolent Negroes. Indeed, King was in Selma largely on a quixotic leap urged upon him since the Birmingham church bombing eighteen months earlier, when Bevel and his wife, Diane Nash Bevel, had concocted a grand design to answer the heinous crime by securing the right to vote for Negroes. Vowing never to rest until they succeeded, the couple had made a life's pact out of anguish intensified by their pivotal roles in urging King's Birmingham movement to use students, adolescents, and finally small children in great numbers -- girls mostly, many even younger than the four victims in the church bombing -- in the May 1963 demonstrations that at last overwhelmed the national and international conscience about segregation. While King knew that Bevel walked a thin edge between prophetic genius and self-destruction, the record of astonishing nonviolent breakthroughs made him slow to reject any of Bevel's schemes as crazy or immature.
King encountered new rumbles of amateur diagnosis about Bevel, who had been discovered wandering Selma's streets in the predawn hours on Friday, evicted by his wife from their lodgings at the Torch Motel. In one sense, friends considered the evident crackup a minor surprise compared with the mismatched wedding three years earlier between the unabashedly skirt-chasing Mississippi Baptist preacher and the reserved Catholic puritan from Chicago -- Hotspur and Joan of Arc. Introduced in nonviolent college workshops, where Nash emerged from the sit-ins of 1960 as the iron-willed leader of Nashville's vanguard student organization, they had achieved by harrowing common experience a spiritual respect that overcame their sniping incompatibility. Through the birth of two children, Nash had remained oblivious to her husband's rascally effusions -- blind to quips and rumors, dismissing one direct complaint from a movement colleague that Bevel had seduced his wife. In Selma, earlier in February, when Sheriff Clark had boiled over against the voting rights demonstrations and punched Bevel with his nightstick, then had him jailed, his cell stripped bare and hosed with cold water at night until Bevel ran a high fever from viral pneumonia, Nash mounted a telephone blitz to the Justice Department that prompted Clark to transfer the prisoner to a hospital, where Nash found him shackled and chained to the bed. Another round of calls and door banging by Nash secured Bevel's release, leaving friends puzzled anew over her ferocious loyalty and the mysterious personal chemistry of opposites.
Now King found the couple fractured, reticent in shock. Each insisted that personal casualties were incidental to the larger campaign for the vote, and other members of King's staff knew little as yet about the precipitating incident late Thursday night when Nash had found a baby-sitter for the children and slipped into the back of a nightspot to observe Bevel keeping one of his assignations rather than his promise to come home. Later, when she contradicted his alibi about car trouble, Bevel had struck her, in the face. "How dare you, lie to me and then hit me!" Nash shouted, so angry that she remained dry-eyed all night, which surprised her as a departure from her habit of crying privately through anxiety before demonstrations. She went instead to a lawyer, but the harsh realities of divorce made her hesitate. Nash remained partly under the spell of Bevel, who, always on the offensive, folded the conflict into a teaching tool for their ongoing commitment to answer the Birmingham church bombing. Citing Nash herself, ironically, he presented nonviolence as a kind of nuclear science by which truth properly applied could release stupendous healing energy in the larger society.
King knew there was calculated political strategy in Bevel's method, beyond his mystical exuberance and personal demons, and that the real target of the proposed journey to Montgomery was not Governor Wallace but the national government in Washington. For nine years now, since the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56, King's cohorts had experimented with the spiritual and political arts required to nurture a small inspiration, such as the arrest of Rosa Parks, into a movement of sufficient scope to make America "rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed," as he put it in his signature "dream" speech. For King, this meant steering a course that took account not only of Bevel's state of mind and the residual strength of the jailgoers in Selma, plus the likely effect of Lorenzo Harrison's flight into the mass meeting, but also the response from national leaders a world apart.
By far the most critical figure for him to read was President Lyndon Johnson, whose relations with King contrasted sharply with President John F. Kennedy's sympathetic, sophisticated aloofness. Whereas Kennedy had charmed King while keeping him at a safe distance, harping in private on the political dangers of alleged subversives in the civil rights movement, Johnson in the White House was intensely personal but unpredictable -- treating King variously to a Texas bear hug of shared dreams or a towering, wounded snit. After the assassination in Dallas, Johnson had burst with urgent intimacy in a telephone call, promising to show King "how worthy I'm going to try to be of all of your hopes," and the new President indeed played skillfully upon national mourning to enact the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Then Johnson had turned suddenly coy and insecure. Having consciously alienated the century-old segregationist base of his Democratic Party, he refused to see King, pretended he had nothing to do with his own nominating convention, and lashed out privately at both King's Negroes and white Southerners. Just as suddenly, after his landslide election in November, Johnson had rushed past King's congratulations to confide a crowning ambition to win the right for Negroes to vote. "That will answer seventy percent of your problems," he had said in January, rehearsing at breakneck speed speeches he urged on King to dramatize the idea that every American should "have a right to vote just like he has a right to fight, and that we just extend it whether it's a Negro or whether it's a Mexican or who it is." King, on his heels, had mumbled approval. He did not mention that he was headed to Selma for that very purpose -- knowing that Johnson would not welcome his tactics of street protest -- and the President kept pressing him to aim higher than conventional civil rights goals such as a Negro Cabinet officer. "There's not gonna be anything, though, doctor, as effective as all of 'em votin'," Johnson had told King. "That'll get you a message that all the eloquence in the world won't bring. . . . I think this will be bigger, because it will do things that even that '64 act couldn't do."
More recently, Johnson's mood had turned prickly again. When a haggard King placed an ad in the February 5, 1965, New York Times -- THIS IS SELMA, ALABAMA. THERE ARE MORE NEGROES IN JAIL WITH ME THAN THERE ARE ON THE VOTING ROLLS -- and posted bond to confer in Washington, White House aides had scolded him for presuming upon Johnson's schedule, adding to the grave burdens of state. Johnson had set for King an appointment with underlings, then concocted an "accidental" meeting at which he insisted upon his prerogative to choose the content and moment for any voting rights bill. This last encounter had put King back on edge with Johnson. Before he left California on Sunday, February 28, King called intermediaries to urge that prominent citizens send telegrams on his behalf, beseeching Johnson for federal protection of his life against death threats the next day in Alabama. He had no way of knowing that FBI agents overheard his call through a wiretap on the phone of his lawyer in New York, Clarence Jones, or that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover reacted to the intercept by maneuvering to escape such duty. Nor could King realize how sharply Johnson felt the tenterhooks of two fateful decisions that same weekend.
The President ordered his staff to evaluate a proposal to suspend local literacy tests, and to provide for direct registration by federal officials, in those areas of the country where Negroes voted drastically under their percentage of the population. Senior speechwriter Horace Busby promptly warned that white Southern voters would deplore such drastic measures as "a return to Reconstruction." More broadly, a stand for the rights of poorly educated and illiterate Negroes "will be unpopular far outside the South" as a "most radical intervention" in state affairs, Busby argued, and would jeopardize generations of accumulated public trust by touching the hot-button fear of government domination. Busby's objections circulated on Sunday, and Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach wrote a pained reply. Katzenbach himself strongly opposed any new civil rights initiative as premature. He believed the country had just begun to digest the law of 1964 -- moving toward gradual compliance in public accommodations but still segregated, now illegally, in nearly all schools and employment sectors, including the news media and government itself. He feared that another controversial race law would undermine the daunting task of enforcement, and meanwhile would snarl the Congress for months of a second consecutive year. Reluctantly, however, Katzenbach turned aside from Busby's tempting position that it was wiser to outlaw the "abuse" by state officials of their rightful duty to set standards for voters. Such abuse was forbidden already by statutes across two centuries, he said, but local officials consistently delayed, thwarted, and evaded prosecution by the Justice Department in dozens of recent marathon cases. He saw only a remote chance to win effective remedy under arrangements that "leave control of voting machinery in state hands," given the pervasive obstacles in Southern statehouses and courtrooms. "Therefore," Katzenbach concluded, "while I agree with Mr. Busby that the political consequences of the proposed message are serious, I see no alternative." If Johnson really meant to secure the right of Negroes to vote, he must try to extend the reach of national government and trust posterity to judge whether the result enhanced freedom or tyranny.
Katzenbach's memorandum landed on Monday at the White House, where officials bemoaned a simultaneous choice about whether American power should and could shape political order halfway around the world. In a cocoon of official secrecy, President Johnson was ending his own tormented war of decision before most people recognized anything of significance about distant Vietnam. "The game now is in the fourth quarter and it's about 78 to nothing," he had lamented on Friday to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Beneath public assurances of stability, Johnson faced a bleak reality that guerrilla armies were defeating the partitioned South, and would unify Vietnam under Communist rule unless the United States swiftly intervened. Worse, his military experts advised that a commitment of blood and treasure could stave off immediate disaster in South Vietnam -- but little more. Classified military projections stubbornly refuted the ingrained presumption that a flick of American power would prevail in backward Vietnam, and strategic plans failed to predict lasting success by warfare of any design, scale, or duration. Johnson, trapped between looming humiliation and futile war, erupted in moments of primal fury against resignation to Communist victory. This to him was spineless surrender and political suicide for the leader of a great power, because American voters would "forgive you for anything except being weak." Yet he also recoiled from a vision of bloody stalemate, saying, "this is a terrible thing we're getting ready to do," and that the prospect of sending American soldiers into Asia "makes the chills run up my back."
Bad weather still delayed the start of sustained bombing against North Vietnam, destined to last eight years, which Johnson had approved secretly on February 13 amid warnings of impending collapse in the South. (It was this crisis that had shortened his patience for King's visit from Selma.) In the interim, another military coup by South Vietnamese allies installed the latest of six chronically unstable governments over the past eighteen months. Nerves tightened, the President made the best of a decision no longer deferred. "Now we're off to bombing those people and we're over that hurdle," he told McNamara privately. "And I don't think anything is gonna be as bad as losing, and I don't see any way of winning, but I would sure want to feel that every person that had an idea, that his suggestion was fully explored."
On Monday, March 1, when McNamara explained the latest weather postponement and obtained clearance to "go ahead tonight" with the first of the new air attacks, he found the President transfixed by a report in the New York Times of plans for these continuous air strikes as well as ground troops to follow. "Am I wrong in saying that this appears to be almost traitorous?" Johnson asked shortly before noon. News about Vietnam decisions risked disclosure of the mountainous doubt and brutally frank pessimism inside his government -- with Johnson and most of his advisers skeptical of airpower in this guerrilla war, with General Maxwell Taylor, ambassador in South Vietnam and America's most illustrious active soldier, warning sharply against the introduction of American troops. Almost any candor about actual deliberations would erase the appearance of sovereign control, violating Johnson's first rule of successful politics. He ached to introduce the conflict matter-of-factly, confidently, and even as quietly as possible, and pleaded with McNamara that Monday morning to track down those leaking war news to the press. "Somebody ought to be removed, Bob," he said in a voice choked with emotion. "I just, you just can't, you can't exist this kind of thing . . . you just can't exist with it."
By then, a draining twelve hours since Los Angeles, King began registration day in Alabama with an explicit prophecy of relief in the national arena. "We are going to bring a voting bill into being in the streets of Selma, Alabama," he told a late-morning crowd at Brown Chapel AME Church, the twin-steepled gathering point for demonstrations in Selma. "President Johnson has a mandate from the American people." Then he led an orderly double file of some three hundred volunteers on the familiar short walk through downtown Selma -- a left turn from the church, two short blocks south on Sylvan Street, right on Alabama Avenue for five blocks to the Dallas County courthouse. Sheriff's deputies blocked the head of the line at the steps, and across the street, buffered behind a line of city police officers, clumps of reporters and bystanders waited to see what reception lay in store. Sheriff Clark had employed tactics of selective or mass arrest, elaborate stalls, and various forms of harassment including one surprise dispersal of some two hundred adolescent Negro demonstrators by forced march behind cattle prods for three miles, out beyond the city limits to the Cosby-Carmichael gravel pit. A cold rain fell steadily this Monday on observers and demonstrators alike. King, wearing a raincoat and felt hat, passed words of encouragement down the line of aspiring voters along the sidewalk.
During this wait in Selma, a slow accumulation of Negroes caused a hush to fall around the Lowndes County courthouse. As many as thirty-seven conspicuously nervous citizens arrived to mingle outside in the rain, unsure how or where to find the registrars and hesitant to enter without knowing. People stared from windows around the courthouse square. The Negroes formed a volunteer delegation of five that wandered the imposing halls, hats off, pausing at doorways. One of the white secretaries spoke to an office companion, asking, "Who is that little fella who keeps walking through the courthouse?" This gave John Hulett an opening to inquire about the registrars. He received no reply, but white men soon appeared to shoo the group back outside with a notepad and instructions to have all who wanted to register write down their names and come back in two weeks.
The Negro group huddled under the eaves for furtive debate. Were these really the registrars? If so, why did familiar white men including car dealer Carl Golson decline to identify themselves by name or title? They "refused to know their own selves," later recalled Elzie McGill, a fifty-nine-year-old railroad worker who came with his daughter Lillian from the White Hall area around Mt. Gillard Church, where preacher Lorenzo Harrison had taken refuge the previous day. McGill did not know Hulett or his carload from Mt. Carmel Baptist very well -- indeed, many in White Hall thought Negroes from Hulett's Gordonville area down Highway 17 spoke with an odd accent. They had been able to agree across community lines to show up this registration day in spite of the Klan scare, like regular citizens, with no outside civil rights workers to provoke the courthouse powers more than necessary. Such caution seemed especially prudent after the officials made goading remarks about whether the Negroes expected Martin Luther King to be the current local voter who would stand for their "good blood," meaning vouch for their character, as local law required for each new registrant. This barrier helped confine Negro voting to the mists of faith for things unseen, which allowed for disagreement about the notepad. Some worried that those who signed would be marked for retribution. Others said they were identified already by standing there in daylight, and that nonsigners would be targeted as defiant, or as weak. Emma and Matthew Jackson of White Hall led a majority who signed, and Hulett's small delegation returned inside to deliver the notepad so they could leave.
In Selma, where the line of potential registrants stretched more than a block around on Lauderdale Street by early afternoon, King knocked on the closed courthouse door and beseeched Sheriff Clark for shelter from the rain. Reporters pressed forward to hear some of their exchange. "In the name of humanity," King called out, "we are asking you to let them come inside." He said there was room for them to wait in the corridors and stairwells. "In the name of common sense," Clark replied, "they will have to stay out there until their numbers are called." The numbers, mandated by federal court, were the recent fruit of legal pounding by lawyers from the civil rights movement and the Justice Department, designed to prevent manipulation in the order of service and to discourage all-day filibusters by the registrars. Sheriff Clark improvised this day by calling out numbers for the registrar's office in a slurred whisper, then announcing that those who missed the call forfeited their number and must go to the back of a separate line for a new one. He dueled the movement staff in logistical maneuver until King led most of the sodden crowd in retreat back to Brown Chapel. No one knew whether any new applicants would be accepted as registered voters, if so, how many, or how long it would take to find out. These were separate, uphill battles. On balance, however, reporters judged the day's effort a success for the demonstrators. There were no arrests or casualties, and 266 people managed to finish the complicated application process -- twice the previous record.
A small caravan of reporters and federal observers followed King out of Selma for an afternoon pilgrimage to outlying areas, first south to the Wilcox County seat of Camden, which had been named in 1842 for the city in South Carolina. Many of the early Wilcox settlers brought from South Carolina the zeal of its famous "fire-eaters," who championed slavery and secession toward the Civil War in an era when one isolated Unionist balefully observed that his state was "too small to be a republic and too large to be an insane asylum." Although no Negro had voted in Wilcox County since an accommodating barber in 1901, the white minority still raised apoplectic cries from time to time. One prominent local senator issued a proclamation that the racial voting margin -- "2,250 whites registered, AND NOT ONE NEGRO" -- would be unsafe against "the onrushing black horde" without new character requirements, which he advocated as "our only hope for white supremacy, our only hope for peace, our only protection against a race war." Ghosts of yesteryear remained close in a county that had no electric lights until 1925, where temperament flickered between homespun gentility and raw tribal aggression. Ben Miller, elected on an anti-Klan platform as "the sturdy oak of Wilcox," took a cow with him to supply milk at the governor's mansion in 1930. Four years later into the Depression, a posse of mounted whites liquidated chattel liens in Wilcox County by seizing every crop, chicken, wagon, and plow from sixty-eight families of Negro sharecroppers, then setting them adrift on the Alabama River. Some of those who survived still never had seen a water faucet when King arrived at the Camden courthouse in 1965. He walked along a line of two hundred Negroes waiting in the rain -- "Doin' all right. How you feeling?" -- and sought out P. C. "Lummie" Jenkins, county sheriff since 1937. Voluble and commanding, boasting that he had never carried a gun, Jenkins fretted about wasted time for everybody. To be registered, he said, each applicant needed not only to pass the literacy and citizenship tests but also to present a current local voter who would vouch for good character.
"Well, how about you acting as voucher?" asked King.
"I'm not allowed," Jenkins replied. Elected officials were barred in order to avoid conflicts over vote trading.
"Mind if I look around town for vouchers?" asked King.
"Inquire around," Jenkins invited. He called King "preacher," and candidly advised that it might not "look right" for anyone to sponsor these new voters.
Practiced, jovial banter masked the edge of tension. One awed woman would summarize in her words King's quiet plea for them to put away anything that could cause harm or excuse violence: "Don't even carry a hair clamp in your head." Those in line eyed the fifty wet Alabama state troopers who stood vigil over them with guns and nightsticks, many knowing that a similar detachment had run violently amok in nearby Perry County when Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot. King himself was keenly aware of intensified threats against him, partly from Attorney General Katzenbach's confidential notice that two riflemen intended to shoot him on his previous visit to the counties around Selma. He climbed a stoop at the jail to pay tribute to those who "turned out in the rain" where no Negro had voted for decades. "This is a magnificent thing," he told those in line. Only ten were allowed to apply for registration, but this was a seismic number in Wilcox County. "Keep walking, children," King called out in his familiar closing from the spirituals. "Don'cha get weary."
There was no public spectacle at the last stop. The sleepy courthouse lawn was drained of everything but fear when King arrived at Hayneville, where John Hulett's group had been sent away hours ago. Lowndes County shared a South Carolina heritage with adjacent Wilcox but ranked higher on the intimidation scale. The county seat was named for Robert Y. Hayne, once South Carolina's junior U.S. senator to John C. Calhoun, the county itself for South Carolina congressman William Lowndes, namesake relative of Alabama's own fire-eating Senator William Lowndes Yancey, who in 1848 had advanced a Southern demand to extend slaveholding rights throughout newly settled territories. Racial solidarity remained a prime civic duty among local whites, resting on memories and practices that sometimes were peculiar or invisible to outsiders. No merchant in Lowndes County would sell Marlboro cigarettes or Falstaff beer, for instance, because of a report from the 1950s -- unnoticed or long forgotten everywhere else -- that the companies once made donations to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Mysteriously, the lone official who halted King's party in the courthouse corridor refused to give his name or title. He did allow that other Negroes might have come to the courthouse on their own that day. If they did, he added, they wanted nothing to do with outsiders.
King replied that local people had asked for help, but were frightened. "We had heard that if we work here, there would be violence," he said.
"I heard there would be violence, too," said the man. "And you can agitate that. Everywhere you have been, there has been violence."
King sparred about seeking justice instead of trouble. As minutes passed, his persistently mild words echoed down the hallway and the man's temper seemed to rise. Asked about religion, he said he was a Methodist but demanded to know what Christianity had to do with the vote. Asked about the county's voting procedures, he said testily that the information was reserved for county citizens.
"We don't understand," said King.
"You are damned dumb, then, if you don't understand," the man said angrily. Photographers snapped a picture of him pointing an index finger closely at King's nose as he denounced him for interfering where he had no business. "None of you can help the Negroes of Lowndes County," he said to Abernathy, Andrew Young, and observers close by. After he declared the courthouse closed and walked away, reporters identified the pointer as car dealer Carl Golson, a former state senator and one of three county registrars.
King returned safely from the outlying counties late Monday afternoon, March 1, completing a circuit of better than a hundred miles. He crossed the Alabama River over the Edmund Pettus Bridge into Selma on U.S. Highway 80, by the same route that Lorenzo Harrison had fled from Lowndes County into the previous night's mass meeting. The deposed minister was fired from his regular job as a bush-hog operator for a construction company.
FBI agents cabled headquarters that their personal observations "revealed no incidents throughout day." They reported that King left Sullivan Jackson's house after supper for Brown Chapel, arriving at 8:28 p.m. Monday evening, but he did not follow his usual practice of slipping into the pastor's study before making an entrance to the mass meeting. James Bevel was exhorting a crowd of five hundred to be ready for a foot pilgrimage all the way to Montgomery, and King debated how and when to respond from the pulpit. Still undecided whether to embrace or deflect the call for such prolonged, vulnerable exposure on Alabama highways, he hesitated for six minutes on the steps outside the church, then climbed back in his car to catch a night flight from the Montgomery airport. Copyright ©2006 by Taylor Branch
Meet the Author
Taylor Branch is the bestselling author of Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63; Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65; At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968; and The Clinton Tapes. He has won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
- Baltimore, Maryland
- Date of Birth:
- January 14, 1947
- Place of Birth:
- Atlanta, Georgia
- A.B., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1968; M.P.A., Princeton University, 1970
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews