Best Book Review: At Canaan’s Edge, by Taylor Branch

Branch, Taylor, At Canaans Edge – America in the King years, 1965-1968 (vol. 3 of 3), 2007, Simon & Schuster (NY, Londen, etc). ISBN 978 0 684 85713 8

4 stars


And again… after finishing the first two volumes of Taylor Branch ’s book serie on Martin Luther King & the Civil Rights Movement, I soon started reading the third & last volume: At Canaan’s Edge.

The Civil Rights movement is one of several US themes I like to read about. Along others ones, mentioned in the introduction to the segment: Book reviews on the History of the USA.

  • To get more insights in my overall reading preferences, go to My Books page on Goodreads.

As between the first & second volume, it took the author almost ten years to finish the third one. All together the volumes cover about three thousand pages. Filling in all the details of King’s public life & the Civil rights work. From the first time he became a public figure in 1955 (Montgomery Bus Boycott, Alabama) until his death in April 1968.

Always on the move

Although soon tired of his role as a leader, reverend King went on & on. Preaching all over the US, and in different parts of the world. Always on the move, fighting for equal rights for the people he represented. Foremost, the Black citizens of his home country.

Through the story you can almost follow King on a day to day basis. Strangely though, I have to admit that after reading it all, I have no idea who the man really was. That is to say, on a personal level.

Maybe that wasn’t meant to be. Apparently, the private King lived in the shadow of the public one. At least, that’s the impression Branch left us in this historical three volume-work: Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire & At Canaan’s Edge.

Simultaneously with King’s growing public role, the reader feels the pressure on his person building up. Up until the last moment.

A life’s struggle

King’s was a hard fight. Not only because of the White resistance and life threats. Also because of the infighting within his own ranks. The continuous political struggle on all levels. The backlashes after every battle won. The expansion of the protests to the Northern cities, like Chicago, Detroit & NY. The suspicion & eavesdropping of Hoover’s FBI (partially backed by the administration in Washington).

And while battling it out, it seemed like the whole society was on the move. “The Times They Are a-Changin’”. In the first place young people, protesting the Vietnam war while their peers had to go overseas to fight another people’s war.

President Johnson surely made some historic steps concerning the Civil Rights & the War on Poverty. All his good intentions though – highly motivated by his own poor upbringing – were overshadowed by the costly war in Asia.

  • Note: If you want to know more about LBJ, read the terrific books written bij Robert A. Caro. One of my favorites. Click on: My personal Top 10 or the picture below.
Robert A. Caro work on Lyndon B. Johnson, mentioned in my book review on At Canaan’s Edge, written by Taylor Branch.

Martyr King

Until the end King preached Non-violence. He even held on to that strategy when a mayority of the American people got tired of it. When the press started criticizing it as outdated. And younger leaders within the Civil Rights movement chose a more aggressive approach, starting the Black Power movement.

It hurt King deeply, but it didn’t change his mind. Non-violence for him was the best option to better the lives of his fellow African Americans, and later on other marginalized groups.

A conviction he literally took to the grave, when on April 4 1968 he was murdered in Memphis.

Martin Luther King, Lorraine Motel, Memphis, April 3 1968. Accompanying book review Canaan’s Edge, written by Taylor Branch.
April 3 1968. King in front of room #306 of the Lorraine Motel, Memphis with Hosea Williams, Jesse Jackson Jr. & Ralph Abernathy. The next day, King would be shot on almost the same spot. A shot fired from a another building across, by an escaped convict.
  • Note: King’s murderer, James Earl Ray (1928-1998) was caught two months after the murder at London Heathrow Airport. And sentenced to life in prison.
King’s Legacy

As happens so often, King in many ways was more successful after his death then while living.

The public figure Martin Luther King still lives on. There isn’t a day going by without someone mentioning his name. Like for example – just a few days ago when writing this post – during the inauguration of the 46th president of the US, Joseph Biden. The new president referring to King’s famous “I have a dream” speech on the steps on the Lincoln Memorial nearby.

At the end of the third volume: At Canaan’s Edge, Branch gives some other examples that at least make you think about King’s Non-violence heritage. Like the fall of the Berlin Wall, Tiananmen Square or the way Nelson Mandela governed South Africa after becoming president in 1994. All events somehow inspired by the strategy King preached his whole life.

It would be interesting to know what King would have thought of later events. Like the election of the first Black president, Barack Obama. Would he have cried like Jesse Jackson did, watching Obama’s inauguration? What a moment for King’s friend & colleague, who stood almost next to him when he was killed in Memphis. The long road.

Third volume by Branch: At Canaan’s Edge

Like the first two volumes, this last one wasn’t always that easy to read. So many names, so many events. Sometimes I got the impression the story was primarily written for a US audience. On the premise that the readers were supposed to know beforehand all about certain people & incidents.

That said, what a work. A life’s work to remember reverend Martin Luther King. Forever. A man who literally lived to be a martyr. He knew it. He talked & even preached about it. The only thing he didn’t know was how his life would end. In that sense, the way Branch describes the final scene. Phenomenally. As if time came to a standstill, just or a moment, … and Martin Luther King’s other life went on.

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


For book reviews on the earlier two volumes, click on: Parting the Waters, or Pillar of Fire.

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