On Sunday I finished a book that took me a long time to read. True, it wasn't a short read--weighing in at 980 pages. But it wasn't the page count that slowed me down. I read slowly because I knew that on the last page, Martin Luther King Jr. would be killed. As the author, Taylor Branch, wrote in the final sentence describing the Thursday afternoon in Memphis that he must have imagined writing for 20 years, "Time on the balcony had turned lethal, which left hanging the last words fixed on a gospel song of refuge. King stood still for once, and his sojourn on earth went blank."
The book is At Canann's Edge, which completes the "America in the King Years" triology by Branch begun in 1980s. All three books rest together on my book shelve--3,000 pages of civil rights church rallies, stone-pelted marches, tear gas and billy clubs, court room farces, and occasional transcendent success.
The books belong to the special category of history that I think of as impressionism. Branch spent years researching each book, conducting hundreds of interviews and sifting through great mounds of archive boxes (the endnotes for this last book extend for 200 pages). The resulting narratives capture both the grainy detail of a hotel room SCLC strategy session 40 years ago (who argued with whom, the food they were eating, and how King reclined on a bed and listened with his shirt sleeves rolled up), and the baited questions that King parried on the Sunday morning talk shows (which supposedly reflected the mood of the country). Branch's writing style examines each pixelated perspective of an event many times over, before sweeping on to the next multi-colored dot, or to an entirely different spot in his novelistic canvas. His books can be expasperating to read, especially if you want a single, resounding declaration of the history that happened. But if you persist, and endure some of his aimless pursuits historical alleys, you come away from his books realizing that history is an endless curve with no sharp, easy corners.
The most surprising revelations for me in these books involve the actions that the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover took to discredit, embarass, and even place King in grave danger (by not communicating threats to his life they received). Based on all of the formerly secret documents that Branch reviewed involving secret wire-tapping, and smear campaigns, I think it is only a matter of time before official Washington, DC realizes that naming the FBI building after Hoover is a poor choice. His name will come down, as has his reputation in history. And the second startling take-away from this books was how involved King became in the anti-war movement towards the end of his life. When school children are introduced to King, they learn about bus boycotts, bloody marches, "I have a dream..." speech, and the Nobel Peace Prize. But they don't hear about King's strong and very controversial stance against the Vietnam War--which, according to At Canaan's Edge, consumed much of his last year and half of activism. And then there are another thousand odd details that leave you amazed that history unfolded the way it has. But in the end, I believe, you are better for knowing all of what happened--even the stuff that that upsets and ashames you. I wish more history was taught the way of these books.