cover image At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965–68

At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965–68

Taylor Branch, . . Simon & Schuster, $35 (1039pp) ISBN 978-0-684-85712-1

The engrossing final installment of Branch's three-volume biography of Martin Luther King Jr. maintains the high standards set in the previous volumes, the first of which won a Pulitzer Prize. Moving from the protest at Selma and the 1966 Meredith March through King's expanding political concern for the poor to his 1968 assassination in Memphis, Tenn., Branch gives us not only the civil rights leader's life but also the rapidly changing pulse of American culture and politics.

The America we find in this last chapter of King's life is on fire—the Republican Party has begun to court white Southern voters; the Civil Rights movement itself has fractured; King sees bold challenges to his teaching of nonviolence in the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles. King himself has evolved, spreading his interests beyond civil rights to become a more outspoken critic of the Vietnam War and of poverty. A turning point in King's legacy, says Branch, was his housing actions in Chicago in the summer of 1966. This work "nationalized race," showing that it wasn't just a Southern problem, and ensured that King would go down in history as much more than a regional leader.

As a literary work, Branch's biography is masterful. About midway through, the author begins to foreshadow King's death—by, for example, quoting his 1965 statement to a filmmaker: "I would willingly give my life for that which I think is right." If Branch indulges in predictable throat clearing about the lessons from King's life that endure in America today—well, that is to be expected. This magisterial book is a fitting tribute to a magisterial man. 24 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW . 150,000 first printing; first serial to Time magazine; 15-city author tour. (Feb. 1)