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BOOKS IN THE MIRROR: Climactic Moments:

AT CAANA’S EDGETaylor BranchSimon and Schuster: January 2006

On Wednesday, August 14, 1965, California Highway Patrol officers pulled over Ronald and Marquette Frye at the corner of Avalon Boulevard and 116th street in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. The Frye brothers’ childish antics during a routine sobriety test drew a crowd. When the CHP officer drew his gun, the boys’ mother stepped in front of the officer to protect her sons. The crowd began to agitate. According to At Canaan’s Edge author Taylor Branch, shortly after all three Fryes were handcuffed and driven away, “crowds returned to Avalon Boulevard as though to work from a night’s sleep, and looted a supermarket.”The 1965 Watts riots had begun. What followed was a week of police brutality, looting and fires. When the curfew was lifted, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech in Watts, but was frequently interrupted by his audience. One man shouted, “Sure, we like to be nonviolent, but we up here in the Los Angeles area will not turn the other cheek!”At Canaan’s Edge, Taylor Branch’s latest book on the civil rights movement, is an original, extensively detailed account of each civil rights struggle between 1965 and 1968. Branch describes all the sit-ins, marches, and strategy sessions related to the Voting Rights Act, the Black Panther Party, the Poor People’s Campaign, and many other actions in the fight for racial equality.In Parting the Waters and Pillar of Fire, Branch covered the years 1954 – 1965. At Canaan’s Edge begins a month after Pillar of Fire’s conclusion. As in his previous works, Branch hits the ground running. His voice is so hurried and intense that this reader imagined Branch in a half crouch in front of a comfy chair. He wants to sit down and relate an epic of unsung heroes and misunderstood leaders, but there is so much to tell, and he is so passionate about his subject that he seems to have forgotten that a space for reflection and analysis (i.e., the chair), can be a valuable tool for historians, and a smart way to engage contemporary readers. This is not to say that At Canaan’s Edge is difficult to read. Branch relates a seemingly limitless amount of minutiae regarding all the players in the Civil Rights Movement, no matter how small their roles. He employs a strict chronological order, and given the level of detail, larger chapters can cover only a few days at a time. To his credit, Branch frequently includes humorous and ironic episodes. He also tosses in a great deal of eyebrow-raising trivia, with special attention paid to the internal strife amongst Dr. King’s followers and President Lyndon Johnson’s daily frustrations in Vietnam.While At Canaan’s Edge is ostensibly about Dr. King, it is not simply a biography of King. Branch carefully presents readers with the results of King’s work, notably President Johnson’s famous March 15, 1965 speech shortly before the passage of the Voting Rights Act:“I say to all of you here and to all in the nation tonight that those who appeal to you to hold on to the past do so at the cost of denying you your future. This great, rich, restless country can offer opportunity and education and hope to all—all, black and white, North and South, sharecropper and city dweller. These are the enemies: poverty, ignorance, disease. They are our enemies, not our fellow man, not our neighbor. And these enemies too—poverty, disease and ignorance—we shall overcome.”Branch places Dr. King in context – he is not leading a herd of sheep toward salvation. Rather, toward the end of his short life, Dr. King was a vortex of power and influence. Readers will enjoy watching Andrew Young, Stokey Charmichael, Malcom X and Ralph Abernathy weave in and out of Dr. King’s orbit, alternately worshipping and reviling him. Readers will also discover the stories of remarkable Americans, black and white, who fearlessly gave their lives in the fight for racial equality.It is clear from his aversion to analysis and evaluation that Branch has no political agenda. He presents all his facts with an equal level of detail and detachment, regardless of whom he might raise up or offend. This is a courageous and rare path for a historian to take, and while it requires heightened focus to absorb pure fact without the flavor of opinion, At Canaan’s Edge is well worth the effort. Readers will naturally add their own views, draw their own conclusions, and perhaps take a look around, to see what else is left to be done.(see interview with Taylor Branch, this page)

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