The Promised Land: Dr. King’s Civil Rights and Anti-War Organizing

At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Year (1965–1968) is Taylor Branch’s last installment of his trilogy of Dr. King and the Civil Rights struggle in the context of America’s Cold War years. The book continues the story of the volume two Pillar of Fire (1963–1965), highlighted by Freedom Summer, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, and passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Volume One, Parting the Waters (1954–1963) was the Montgomery bus boycott and the coming to prominence of Malcolm X. That book’s living history of Dr. King’s call for “an army of nonviolent witnesses” to come to the South was, in part, the model for our Wisconsin boat-landing Witness for Non-Violence during the racist harassment of Chippewa spearfishers, 1987–1992.

As always, Dr. King’s courage and dedication are at the fore, on marches to Montgomery and in Chicago and Cicero. King worked hard to calm street crowds in Watts after its eruption, and was vilified for doing so in the “climate of poisonous blame” in L.A. In the final three years of his life, he had to keep moving past personal doubts and exhaustion, past continued FBI harassment, and escalating death threats. Of King’s character, Branch comments early on, “King possessed all Abernathy’s raw hunger, thrown against his own leveling obsession with stubborn, flawed human nature. The combination made a furnace of his prophetic voice at full throttle. In repose, it revealed astonishing breadth and beguiling good nature, tinged with depression.” (p. 198)

In this inspiring, sad culmination of Dr. King’s political sojourn, Branch articulates the impact and legacies of the Civil Rights movement:

By refusing to give up a bus seat in 1955, King argued, Rosa Parks sparked nonviolent power that opened prospects a decade later for Negro seats in the Alabama legislature. Protests against a constricted economy unleashed reforms that “ultimately will benefit more whites than Negroes, just as the crusade against segregated schools “brought to the fore” a larger realization that the antiquated educational system had been designed for 19th century rural America.” (p. 393)

Once loosed, doctrines of equality and nonviolent strength resonated broadly…from altars and bedrooms to Olympic Games in distant nations…Changes beyond imagination soon became commonplace. (p. 201) [Branch recounts, among many examples, Native American and Chicano rights movement and LBJ’s landmark immigration reform; women ministers and rabbis, jurors and jurists; LBJ’s call to “begin a historic cleansing of the environment (the “shameful” and “continued poisoning of our rivers and our air”); the Supreme Court striking down laws in sixteen states against interracial marriage (p. 622); and even the 1966 University of Texas El Paso starting five Black players in NCAA championship game against Kentucky.]

Economic justice came to the strategic fore with plan’s for the Poor People’s Campaign to take a mule train and three thousand pilgrims to D.C. for “lobby-in against Congress” with a legislative agenda based on the recommendations of the Kerner Commission (on Civil Disorders). King “promised freedom schools and music festivals along with demonstrations every day” on the caravan to D.C. (p. 721)

Grounded in spirituality and reaching for political high ground, “nonviolence [was] tested at the forge” (p. 393):

“The stirring lesson of this age is that mass nonviolent action is not a peculiar device for Negro agitation,” King told the Synagogue Council in 1965. “Rather it is an historically validated method for defending freedom and democracy…” Earlier that year, King had said, “It is an axiom of nonviolence action and democracy that when any group struggles properly and justly to achieve its own rights, it enlarges the rights of all,” King asserted. “This element is what makes both democracy and nonviolent action self-renewing and creative.” [emphasis added] (pp. 225–26)

As I said in my review of the second volume, Pillar of Fire (in Milwaukee Shepherd Express, 1–1−01), King was every bit as good an organizer and strategist as he was a speaker. In volume three, King negotiates with Chicago realtors over red-lining, with youth gang leaders in Memphis and Chicago to try and keep marches calm; with Black nationalists readying a break with King and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s nonviolence; and with President Lyndon Johnson, but without any public attacks on LBJ. King’s common touch with supporters is evident throughout, lifting up young Black organizers weary of struggle and inspiring Southern whites to change sides (p. 716). King said, “I try and emulate all the saints of history…and I think it is necessary for anyone who is working in these areas to have a keen sense of political timing” (p. 395). King took Bayard Rustin’s advice—no movement success without support of the middle class (p. 196)—but Martin always affirmed pride in the race and advancements on any front.

The veil of the Vietnam War was over all the 1960s in America, including the Civil Rights movement, with King questioning the violence hypocrisy and rationale of war. King opposed the military draft, and SNCC counseled young Black men to stay out of the military. “The murder of [Navy vet] Samuel Younge in Tuskegee, Ala., is no different than the murder of peasants in Vietnam (a people seeking self-determination) …”We ask: where is the draft for the freedom fight in the Unites States? …” (p. 407)

King declared, “This war is a blasphemy against all that America stands for!” at his NYC Riverside Church speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” exactly one year before his assassination. He said the Vietnam War had “broken and eviscerated” the historic momentum for justice since the bus boycott [and eventually killed funding for the Great Society programs and promises]. Rev. King marveled that religious leaders “so readily evaded their core convictions to excuse violence.”

Branch’s book uncovers that LBJ knew early on, from his own military and intelligence advisors on Vietnam that it would take 500,000 U.S. soldiers five years just to “arrest the deterioration” in the South Vietnam (SVN) military situation; that the reason for going to war was “70% to avoid a humiliating defeat and 20% to keep SVN from Chinese hands” ( p.102), and that, in private, General (then Ambassador) Maxwell Taylor consistently opposed the introduction of U.S ground troops as politically and militarily self-defeating (p. 156). In remarks I heard Branch make at UW Whitewater (4–9−07), Branch said King’s model was one that would “turn tragedy into blessing,” whether it was Birmingham or 9–11. “King would have been in jail over the Iraq War today.”

By now, the story of the FBI’s character assassination program against King (for perceived disloyalty on Vietnam and the U.S South’s status quo) is well known, but it took decades for the real story to be revealed. Branch details its terrifying unfolding (outlined here for those who may not know this chilling history):

  • preparing for a federal mediator: “a poisonously targeted report,” “a compendium of the FBI top secret allegations against King as a philandering subversive” (p. 181);

  • hiding illegal wiretaps (pp. 367–8), and “a decade of freelance bugging (p. 420);

  • providing the White House with “derogatory information of King’s people” (p. 370);

  • “a gaping void of authority or procedure in law” for wiretaps, that is, playing on unofficial remarks by the Atty. General in order to gain dubious authority for wiretaps (p. 402–3);

  • FBI failure to report Klan death threats to King (p. 487 & 752), and FBI negligence in doing anything about an informant’s warnings of the Klan-police agreement to beat demonstrators in the Birmingham Freedom Rides, 1961, or warnings of Alabama Klan violence before the death of Viola Liuzzo (p. 419);

  • “FBI hamstrung any federal investigation with false information” (p. 692); and

  • FBI approval of COINTELPRO actions [that] ran heavily to propaganda and petty sabotage [against King and the Civil Rights movement]—planted news stories, forged tips, fake death threats, and rumors of King’s greed and glory seeking (p. 709).

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover stood unchallenged through King’s lifetime, for both his obstruction of civil rights and for, as Branch puts it mildly, “his [Hoover’s] penchant for spy vendettas over public service” (p. 708).

Other special scenes from history are painted in words in the book: LBJ raking Gov. George Wallace over the coals (the moderating effect lasted only 2 days); the unraveling of the FBI informant’s role in the KKK killing of Viola Liuzzo; how King built eulogies, sermons and speeches; and the remarkable people-of-color alliance meeting at Paschal’s Motor Lodge in 1968 in the heart of black Atlanta where:

“Wallace Mad Bear Anderson spoke for a poor Iroquois confederation in upstate New York. A deputy came from the bedside of Cesar Chavez, who had barely survived a twenty-five-day fast in penance for violent lapses by striking California farm-workers. Tillie Walker and Rose Crow Flies High represented plains tribes from North Dakota, while Dennis Banks led a delegation of Anishinabes.” … King “absorbed a fiery speech [from Chicano leader Reies López Tijerina] about regaining communal land stolen by noncompliance with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in which the United States had acquired the territory that became seven Southwestern states to end the Mexican-American War of 1848.” (pp. 716–718)

Not only are these scenes rendered in detail, inspiring to chilling at times, but Branch’s eloquent turns of phrase in this invaluable political history kept me engaged throughout the masterful volume:

  • “Historic wonders and woes tumbled over each other. Medicare did pass the House… Both education and voting rights cleared Senate hurdles the next day, the centennial of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.” (p. 207)

  • “There were spirited arguments about priorities at an odd juncture of giddy triumph and primitive gloom, with laws passed but rights advocates still targeted to a murderous extreme, like Jonathon Daniels and George Metcalf.” (p. 331)

  • “Chicago nationalized race, complementing the impact of Watts. Without it King would be confined to posterity more as a regional figure. The violence against Northern demonstrations cracked a beguiling, cultivated conceit that bigotry was the province of backward Southerners, treatable by enlightened but firm instruction.” (p. 523)

  • “In America, the Six Day War crystallized two historic transformations of Jewish political culture—‘muscular Judaism’ [precursor to neo-conservatism] …and the arc of Max Schactman, … the spellbinding luminary of backroom New York dialectics.” (p. 618–19). King supported Israel’s right to exist as secure “outpost of vibrant democracy” (p.725), but King argued for a Marshall Plan to relieve the desperate poverty among the mass of Arab citizens and refugees, “a state of imposed poverty and backwardness that must threaten peace and harmony.” (p. 639)

In the midst of life-and-death civil rights struggles and sounding the anti-war clarion, King and the SNCC ministers also wrestled with questions of the urban crisis, education, and black families. If cities and the economy were collapsing, what was integration then for? Which schools would their children go to—Black community or integrated ones? When “[r]ace propelled family issues to the forefront,” in the Moynihan Report, calling urban Black families infected with a “tangle of pathology” (p. 332 and 371–2), King tried to salvage hope from a past he called too ghastly for words. “No one in all history had to fight against so many psychological and physical horrors to have a family life.” All the while, King “upheld nonviolence until he was nearly alone among colleagues weary of sacrifice.”

King was ahead of many in looking at the racism and structural inequalities of northern cities. Strategically, the “northern blueprint” targeted “economic exploitation that crystallized in the SLUM.” The Chicago blueprint identified trade unions and welfare boards among twelve institutions that perpetuated slums. (That same day the blueprint was announced, five unions shut down final construction on the St. Louis Gateway when the first Negro plumber was hired; p. 407) “Ever since the bus boycott, [King] had extolled an alliance between national politics and the nonviolent movement, first as a patriotic dream ‘deeply rooted’ in the democratic heritage and finally in the historic consequences from Birmingham to Selma. If the pattern held true, the best hopes for the Chicago movement required validating engagement on the larger scale, with [President] Johnson drawn in—preferably also with Congress and the courts—to clarify principles at stake in the competitive dialogue with Mayor Daley.” (p. 444)

Branch acknowledges the lasting political backlash emerging in the 1965–1968 years, including Ronald Reagan’s candidacies (successfully in 1966 for California Governor and unsuccessfully for President in 1968): “Reagan was discovering a talent to communicate both martial fervor for Vietnam and revolt against the liberal era within a sensibility of freedom…While disputing Martin Luther King’s prescription for the body politic, [Reagan] consoled the fearful and guilty with anesthesia potent enough to numb whole decades of adaptation to the broadening thrust of equal rights.” (p. 480–1)

King’s assassination in Memphis gutted the emerging cross-cultural (Paschal’s Motor Lodge meeting) and cross-class (Poor People’s March) campaign. The Nixon backlash victory in 1968 would cement itself later in the Reagan era’s permanent backlash against Civil Rights, as “Phoenix-like, the opponents of civil rights landmarks would refine themselves to govern” (p. 202). The blue/gray states’ divide became the blue/red states of today.

Most striking in this day and age, and usually forgotten on King’s birthday every year, is his call to shut down D.C. on the planned Poor Peoples March. “We are coming to Washington in a “poor people’s campaign,” King said in his D.C. sermon on March 31, 1968, at Washington’s National Cathedral. Branch recounts King’s call, “They would not settle for a ‘histrionic gesture,’ nor seek ‘to tear up Washington,’ but they would ‘engage in traumatic nonviolent action.’” [emphasis added] “King grounded his purpose in nonviolence because it unified the method with the necessary twin goal, to end the Vietnam War” (p. 746).

Branch ends with a reminder, almost a call, to renew the lessons of nonviolence:

A paradox remains. Statecraft is still preoccupied with the levers of spies and force, even though two centuries of increasingly lethal “total warfare” since Napoleon suggest a diminishing power of violence to sustain governance in the modern world. Military leaders themselves often stress the political limits of warfare, but politics is slow to recognize the glaring impact of nonviolent power … [such as] student protests in South Korea (1987)… dockworker strikes and the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989)… Tiananmen Square (1989). (pp. 770–71)

And, of course, the Southern Civil Rights movement, 1954–1968—the King years.

Rick Whaley near the middle of the back row with glasses. On his right but to the left in the picture, in exactly the middle of the picture and fireplace mantle, is his wife Ellen Smith. The rest are their children (including adopted and fostered, plus some of their partners) and their grandchildren (as of a number of years ago).

c) Rick Whaley, 2011
Rick Whaley is co-author of Walleye Warriors: The Chippewa Treaty Rights Story (a Witness for Nonviolence and for the Earth)

Taylor Branch’s latest book is based on the regular meetings Branch had with Clinton during the Clinton presidential years: The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President (Simon & Schuster: 2009).

Branch also did an early biography of basketball great Bill Russell: Second Wind, in 1979.

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Last edited by Tyler Schuster.   Page last modified on February 03, 2011

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