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Memory is a tricky thing, but I’m reasonably sure that the first time I ever heard of Martin Luther King Jr., it was to hear him cursed. Growing up in Louisiana in the early 1970s, I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s house. She was a stern woman, a believer in the edifying effects of both Greek literature and a sound paddling. She spent hours drilling us on multiplication tables, correcting poor grammar, and passing along her love of language. And yet she despised King. Even years after his death, after he fashioned some of the most noble prose in American history, and led a movement that would garner him both the Nobel Peace Prize and an assassin’s bullet, even after all that, she dismissed him as a huckster and a troublemaker in league with the country’s enemies. Reflecting on it later, I suppose I attributed her attitude to a certain kind of moral myopia common even among white Southerners who should have known better. For all my grandmother’s education and intelligence, she could never, as is said down there, get past her upbringing, at least when it came to matters of race. Reading Taylor Branch’s At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965-68, the third and final volume in his massive history of the civil rights movement, I could once again hear my grandmother’s thundering denunciations of the Georgia preacher ringing in my head. In these days of hagiography for King, it is easy to forget that her view was held by much of white America, and by some of black America, as well. Branch’s latest book covers the last three years of the civil rights leader’s life, from his triumph in Selma, Ala., to his murder in Memphis, Tenn. Along this winding path, Branch shows King increasingly beset, not just by demagogic Southern governors and violent backwoods sheriffs but also by erstwhile political allies upset by his stand against the Vietnam War and fellow activists increasingly disenchanted with his strict adherence to nonviolence and a belief in racial reconciliation. Branch’s narrative follows the movement as it expands beyond MLK, leaving King to focus on other players in the drama, particularly President Lyndon Johnson. Indeed, in many ways it is Johnson — who in these years sees the early promise of his administration burn to ashes on the battlefields of Vietnam and in the street riots of Watts — who is the central figure in the book. For all his physical and moral courage, King had motivations that are readily understandable and born of self-interest. DELIVERING THE SOUTH The calculus behind Johnson’s decision to champion the cause is less clear. Certainly President John F. Kennedy, in whose memory Johnson pushed both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, understood the danger civil rights posed for Democrats and never truly committed his administration to the effort. Johnson, by contrast, was willing to stake his and his party’s political future on a radical push for racial equality. Johnson knew the risks. On the night he signed the civil rights bill into law, he remarked to aide Bill Moyers that he had “just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.” Today the idea that the upsurge of Republican political fortunes owes a large debt to white backlash in the South against racial integration is offensive to conservatives. But Branch convincingly shows that, starting with the 1964 presidential bid of Barry Goldwater, the acknowledged ideological father of the current conservative movement, Republicans sought to harness the anger of Southern whites to power a political shift in the nation. In the 1966 midterm elections, Republicans gained 47 seats in the House of Representatives, three in the Senate, and eight governor’s mansions. One of those mansions went to the genial Ronald Reagan in California, who said he would have voted against the Civil Rights Act had he been in Congress (as Congressman and future President George H.W. Bush did do), and who argued that the Voting Rights Act the following year was “humiliating” to the South. But Reagan was not one to ape the crude race baiting of politicians like Alabama Gov. George Wallace. Instead his tack was to treat the civil rights movement as if it were over before it had really begun. The race issue was “somewhat passé,” he said while on the stump in California in 1966. During a primary debate before a group of black Republicans, he stalked off the stage when questioned about how he could ask for black votes while opposing civil rights legislation. Even two decades later, the Gipper had not fully reconciled himself to King’s status as an American icon, expressing little enthusiasm for establishing a national holiday in his honor and suggesting that secret FBI files might yet show King to be a Communist sympathizer. Given the political stakes involved, Johnson’s championing of civil rights, particularly his appearance before a joint session of Congress for his 1965 State of the Union address, seems all the more remarkable. Word that Johnson would use the speech to announce a major civil rights initiative had leaked out, leading to a boycott by the entire Mississippi and Virginia congressional delegations. In Alabama, King and hundreds of marchers were still corralled in Selma, blocked by court order from making their historic march to Montgomery — a march Wallace was vowing to prevent. Americans had been riveted by televised images of the marchers being tear-gassed and beaten by club-wielding troopers as they tried to cross the Pettus Bridge leading out of town. One marcher, James Reeb, a white minister from Boston, was attacked and killed by toughs on a Selma street corner. Suddenly, the “Negro problem” was at the forefront of the American conscience. But in his address, Johnson quickly dispensed with that formulation of the issue. “There is no Negro problem,” Johnson told lawmakers and a record 70 million television viewers. “There is only an American problem, and we are met here tonight as Americans . . . to solve that problem.” And the solution, Johnson made clear, would not be hamstrung by notions of federalism and states’ rights. “We have already waited a hundred years and more,” noted Johnson, invoking the failed promise of liberation and Reconstruction. “And the time for waiting is gone.” A voting rights bill was necessary so that blacks could gain the “full blessings” of American life. “Their cause must be our cause too,” Johnson told stunned lawmakers. “Because it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.” JOHNSON THE TURNCOAT Even from a distance of four decades, Johnson’s audacity is stunning. The first Southern politician in a century to be elected president, one who was given to racial bigotry in private and who owed his political rise to many of the staunch segregationists seated before him, was now lecturing these same men and the country about racial equality, invoking the anthem of the protest marchers. And on national television! Little wonder, then, that after the speech, Johnson’s close political ally and longtime mentor, Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, would call him “a turncoat if ever there was one.” Others were more impressed. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley told Johnson that it was among the greatest speeches on the subject of race since Lincoln, an assessment which seems to hold up. In Selma, King watched and wept with joy. The period of good feeling between Johnson and King was brief. King’s increasingly vocal opposition to the Vietnam War soured Johnson, as did the poison dripped in his ear by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover alleging King was a Communist dupe or worse. Three years after Johnson’s historic speech, his presidency was in ruins and King was dead. The civil rights movement fractured, given over to radical calls to black power and tilting at diffused issues such as poverty and war. Even today some question the extent to which King’s legacy produced fundamental change in America. The numbers, however, tell a compelling tale. A little more than a year after the Voting Rights Act passed, registration of black voters in Alabama doubled, approaching a quarter million. In tiny Lowndes County — scene of some of the worst violence against civil rights workers — a black candidate ran for sheriff, losing narrowly. Within a decade, Wallace, the emblem of Southern bigotry, would be actively courting black voters — and winning them over — completing one of the strangest transformations in American political history. Today thousands of African-Americans hold elected office in the old Confederate states. Now, of course, King is hailed as a hero even among the descendants of those who hated him, and, as Branch notes, the impact of the civil rights movement has spread well beyond our shores. At the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, jubilant Germans sang “We Shall Overcome.” But King’s larger legacy, a commitment to nonviolence as a means of social change, has largely been lost. Whether in pop culture or foreign affairs, the cachet of violence as a marker of strength has only grown in the intervening decades, and in the new century some of the same fear and paranoia that confronted King’s movement has returned in other guises. To the end, King resisted the lure of tribal allegiance as a means of obtaining political power and maintained his belief in the fundamental goodness of the nation. He never lost faith in America. But has America lost faith in him?
Douglas McCollam can be reached at [email protected].

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