Death & Transfiguration (At Canaan's Edge) Apr 9, 2007
This third and final volume of Branch Taylor's trilogy is of all the three the most unambiguously tragic. At times, reading the previous two volumes, I was so heartbroken at the succession of tragic setbacks in the movement that I wondered when and where the great, decisive victories against segregation ended. And ACE is of all the three the one with the most devastating setbacks. It leaves one to ponder if the Civil Rights Movement eventually achieved its immediate goals so sweepingly precisely because the white power structure finally recognized --so to speak--that those goals were compatible with its continued flourishing.
For readers interesting in buying this book: bear in mind that this trilogy is to all intents and purposes a biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. It is NOT a hagiography; Branch frequently mentions the roiling emotions and infidelities of MLK. When contemporize observers remark that a particular appearance or speech fell flat, Branch says so. Perhaps Branch knows this narrative technique is more effective at inspiring admiration than unalloyed praise would have been; perhaps not. But in truth, it's difficult to imagine any sensitive reader not being filled with wonder that such a moral giant like King could even exist.
I believe the single most important theme in the trilogy was the exposition of King's doctrine of "nonviolence." I use quotes because "nonviolence" is such an inadequate word to describe the doctrine. Elsewhere, Branch alludes to King's opposition to "enemy-ism," in which King rejects lines of reasoning that culminate in demonization or vilification of one's adversaries. First, King's doctrine acknowledged the common humanity of all people; humans deviated in different paths of moral conduct depending on reasons that are compelling--perhaps irresistible--at the time. Perpetrators are also victims. Second, the resolution of injustice through violence was untenable; the oppressor in any relationship would always win any challenge that employed violence, if for no other reason than because the victorious liberator would become a new oppressor. Third, the practice of nonviolence required unusual discipline and courage, and King was able to transmit the latter through the force of his oratory.
In POF, the rival doctrine was belligerent posturing as practiced by the Nation of Islam and by the segregationist authorities. The upheaval of the '64 elections tended to reflect the loss of face of an earlier generation of white elites, and their replacement by redneck "enforcers." While the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) remained true to the principles of nonviolence, a major ally, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) repudiated nonviolence in favor of Black Power. The new SNCC was utterly ineffectual and quickly vanished. The Black Panthers was doomed from the start with its scorn of all "white" ideologies and its lack of any coherent replacement. New converts to the ideology of self-defensive violence like Charles Evers could not even bring themselves to target known killers; Byron de la Beckwith, universally known to have murdered Ever's brother Medgar, was never threatened by the SNCC.
White supremacist violence now became endemic; before, there were exceptional cases such as the 9/15/63 bombing of a church in Birmingham; but cases of ambush and murder proliferated dramatically after 1965. The destabilization of white supremacist violence now challenged the very survival of American institutions and Southern police forces increasingly intervened against their former Klan allies.
Looming over everything was the Vietnam War, which for King was the most urgent injustice he faced. Johnson hated the war (Stanley Karnow's *Vietnam* confirms this) but was unable to accept defeat in it; King was unable to compromise with a known evil, and the most conservative 60% of white American public opinion dreaded facing up to an unbeatable foe. Frustration and ambient racism further stimulated conservative support for the war, while the fiscal woes inflicted by the war extinguished every remaining trace of Johnson's Great Society. The failure of progressive initiatives, when void of King's own nonviolent doctrines, was universal and inevitable. At the time of his death, King was not so much defeated or even overwhelmed, as he was offset in a floodtide of squalid reaction.
After King, the depressing deluge; and after that, his stunning achievements, like a field of tulip bulbs, bloomed amid the receding glacier. But the triumph of nonviolence was like the glimmers of lightning in a summer electric storm, flashing without warning in random corners of the sky.