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At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68
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At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68

by Taylor Branch

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

One critic called Taylor Branch's America in the King Years trilogy "one of the greatest achievements in American biography." That it certainly is, but, like its predecessors, At Canaan's Edge is not simply a biography of Martin Luther King Jr. This magisterial, 900-page book encompasses far more, presenting the struggles of American culture and politics through the prism of King's life. This capstone volume possesses a tragic ring: In the three years before his assassination, the civil rights pioneer was forced to confront challenges to his leadership and his philosophy of nonviolence.
Anthony Lewis
This is the last of three volumes in which Taylor Branch chronicles those years. It is a thrilling book, marvelous in both its breadth and its detail. There is drama in every paragraph. Every factual statement is backed up in 200 pages of endnotes.
—The New York Times
James T. Patterson
At Canaan's Edge is a deeply researched book that completes a superior narrative trilogy of America's civil rights struggles between 1954 and 1968.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
The engrossing final installment of Branch's three-volume biography of Martin Luther King Jr. maintains the high standards set in the previous volumes, the first of which won a Pulitzer Prize. Moving from the protest at Selma and the 1966 Meredith March through King's expanding political concern for the poor to his 1968 assassination in Memphis, Tenn., Branch gives us not only the civil rights leader's life but also the rapidly changing pulse of American culture and politics. The America we find in this last chapter of King's life is on fire--the Republican Party has begun to court white Southern voters; the Civil Rights movement itself has fractured; King sees bold challenges to his teaching of nonviolence in the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles. King himself has evolved, spreading his interests beyond civil rights to become a more outspoken critic of the Vietnam War and of poverty. A turning point in King's legacy, says Branch, was his housing actions in Chicago in the summer of 1966. This work "nationalized race," showing that it wasn't just a Southern problem, and ensured that King would go down in history as much more than a regional leader. As a literary work, Branch's biography is masterful. About midway through, the author begins to foreshadow King's death--by, for example, quoting his 1965 statement to a filmmaker: "I would willingly give my life for that which I think is right." If Branch indulges in predictable throat clearing about the lessons from King's life that endure in America today--well, that is to be expected. This magisterial book is a fitting tribute to a magisterial man. 24 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. 150,000 first printing; first serial to Time magazine; 15-city author tour. (Feb. 1) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Foreign Affairs
The third installment of America in the King Years, Branch's extraordinary history of the civil rights movement in the United States, is exhaustive, monumental, and indispensable. Like the preceding two volumes, At Canaan's Edge is a carefully researched, scrupulously sourced narrative that takes readers moment by moment through key events. In the final three years of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life, the clouds thickened and darkened — over King, over the civil rights movement, over the country as a whole. When King, aged 39, was felled by an assassin's bullet in Memphis, the presidency of Lyndon Johnson had already been ruined by civil discord, inflation at home, and the Vietnam War. For students of American politics and history, this book is an extraordinary history of the ways that foreign and domestic policy overlap; Johnson would alternately field calls from Justice Department officials over civil rights crises in places like Selma, Alabama, and Pentagon officials pressing for difficult decisions on military policy in Vietnam. The consequences of things done and left undone in the last years of King's life continue to shape American life today; At Canaan's Edge is a book that demands to be read.
Library Journal
Moving from the Selma march to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Branch completes his Pulitzer Prize-winning study of the Civil Rights Movement. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Branch closes his monumental trilogy on Martin Luther King Jr. with gravity and grace. By 1965, scarcely a decade after he had begun working for it, King had become the voice and face of the civil-rights struggle. Yet, writes Branch, in that year, King, who was arrested and beaten by southern deputies in Selma, Ala., where the movement saw perhaps its finest hour, "willed himself from the pinnacle of acclaim straight to ‘the valley' of a new campaign to seek voting rights for black people." King's leadership was remarkable for many reasons, including his insistence on nonviolence, following the model of Mahatma Gandhi. That insistence would isolate King from other black leaders, and he "would grow ever more lonely in his conviction that the [nonviolent] movement offered superior leadership discipline for the whole country" in a time of rapidly escalating violence at home and abroad. King's tragic counterpart in these years would be Lyndon Johnson, whose efforts to move the promises of the Voting Rights Act and Great Society programs forward ground to a halt in the mud and blood of Vietnam; so weary was the Cabinet, warned one White House counselor, that "they are beyond asking the hard questions now." The hard questions were coming from the likes of J. Edgar Hoover, who had made a special project of King; under Hoover's direction, FBI agents "were scrambling to fashion a more productive line of attack on him" than that of the pre-Selma days, attempting to recast him as a philandering communist, and possibly an embezzler besides. The ploy did not work, but King faced an array of enemies. As Branch writes at the close of this always moving book, King foresaw that, delivering his famedPromised Land speech with its "thunderclap ending of little more than one hundred words" only hours before being assassinated in Memphis. A hallmark, essential to an understanding of the civil-rights movement, Dr. King and 20th-century America. First printing of 150,000; first serial to Time magazine
From the Publisher
"The crowning achievement of Branch's King trilogy is to show anew the moral power of [nonviolent] philosophy."

— 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

Product Details

Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
America in the King Years Series
Product dimensions:
6.50(w) x 9.50(h) x 2.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

At Canaan's Edge

America in the King Years, 1965-68
By Taylor Branch

Simon & Schuster

Copyright © 2006 Taylor Branch
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-684-85712-X

Chapter One


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.


Excerpted from At Canaan's Edge by Taylor Branch Copyright © 2006 by Taylor Branch. Excerpted by permission.
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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.

Brief Biography

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

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