DATE January 16, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Taylor Branch, author of a three-volume biography of
Martin Luther King Jr., talks about the last three years of
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
On this Martin Luther King Day, we're going to talk about the last three years
of King's life with Taylor Branch. Branch has just completed the final part
of his trilogy on America in the King years. The first volume won a Pulitzer
Prize. The final part, titled "At Canaan's Edge," begins with the march from
Selma to Montgomery in 1965 and ends with King's assassination in 1968. It
covers his attempt to bring the movement to the North, his opposition to
Vietnam, his relationship with President Johnson, disagreements between
advocates of non-violence and more militant black power, and the ongoing
attempts of FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover to keep King under surveillance and
Taylor Branch, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
Mr. TAYLOR BRANCH (Author, "At Canaan's Edge"): Thank you, Terry. It's nice
to be here again.
GROSS: Your new book starts with the march from Selma to Montgomery, and you
write, `Selma will engage the world's conscience, strain the embattled civil
rights coalition and embroil King in negotiations with all three branches of
What was the reason for planning the march from Selma to Montgomery?
Mr. BRANCH: It was to win the right to vote for black people in Alabama,
which was a plan that had come to King--of course the movement had been
struggling for the right to vote from the very beginning in the 1950s in many
forms, including Freedom Summer in Mississippi. But this particular plan came
to King from two young people on his staff, Jim Bevel and Diane Nash, who
basically stayed up all night on the night of the Birmingham church bombing in
1963, crying and wringing their hands over the death of these four children
and vowing that by morning they would come up with a plan to answer it on
their own, as citizens. And they came up with a plan to try to paralyze the
state of Alabama with a non-violent army until it granted the right for black
people to vote. And that was essentially the blueprint for the Selma
GROSS: What happened on the first attempt to make that march, in March of
Mr. BRANCH: March 7th, 1965, 600 black people from Selma and surrounding
rural counties started to march 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery, to present
a petition to George Wallace. This was after two months of demonstrations in
Selma. And they got across the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River
and were blocked on the other side by Alabama state troopers and mounted kind
of sheriff's posse men, and--who drove them back in a cloud of tear gas and
truncheons and beat them across the bridge in what became known as Bloody
Sunday and caused a crisis in the--in national politics, but certainly in the
civil rights movement.
GROSS: And you write that Governor Wallace and his deputies debated a
suggestion to let the march go forward unmolested and basically this was a
scheme to set a mousetrap from Martin Luther King. What was the trap they
were thinking of setting?
Mr. BRANCH: The mousetrap option was simply to bluff like they were going to
block the march, and then let it go through and open the highway and let them
go, because Wallace's people knew that between Selma and Montgomery, there was
54 miles of some of the most forbidding country for black people in America,
including Lowndes County, which lay between Selma and Montgomery, where no
black person had voted in the 20th century even though they were some 70
percent of the county population, and that it was a county notorious for
lynching and brutality. And they thought that the marchers would not be
capable of marching 54 miles and that especially if they thought they were
going to be blocked, they wouldn't be provisioned. And their plan was to open
the road but then not let anybody on the road to resupply them and essentially
maroon them out in hostile Klan country and calculate that they would then
limp back into Selma in failure. But they ultimately rejected that plan.
GROSS: But on a subsequent attempt to make this march, the troops kind of
cleared the way for King and the marchers to go, and King didn't know what to
make of that and he didn't know what to do. What was this about?
Mr. BRANCH: Well, on the night of Bloody Sunday, Janu--March 7th, King put
out a nationwide call for people to come and try to march again so as violence
couldn't stop the movement. And only two days later, they made the second
attempt that you're referring to, but by then there were hundreds and hundreds
of people had come from all over America on almost no notice. And so there
was a whole host of people. Now it's an integrated group of several thousand
people, with King at its lead, and the federal government has in the meantime
issued an injunction ordering King not to march until the federal government
held a hearing and a court held a hearing over whether or not this was--should
be a protected activity and what the rights of the state of Alabama were and
what the duties of the federal government were.
And so the federal government privately interceded with King, telling him not
to march. The people in the movement felt they had to march. There were
tremendous rivalries. People were at one another's throats about whether they
should march, federal government or not. And King faced a very difficult
decisions all night about what to do, and of course nobody knew what Governor
Wallace was going to do, whether he was going to try to repress this march as
well or not. But ultimately he did open--order the troopers blocking the
march when this host went forward, which was an integrated host with a lot of
prominent politicians as well as clergy and students, and they opened the
And King went across the bridge far enough to say that he had marched, and a
little past where they were, but then when they opened the way, he turned
around and went back. It was called the Turnaround March, and a lot of--some
people lost faith in King permanently, but he was--as a sellout. Some people
felt that was the end of the civil rights movement. Other people were
relieved, because if they had marched forward they thought they would be
killed. So there was every emotion under the sun there. But it was about a
very fundamental issue, which was what is the best political strategy for this
movement to keep going and enact what became the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
And King felt that by marching halfway and back, he was basically doing the
best he could to preserve the momentum of his movement but also his
relationship with the federal government, which was going to have to enact
this law and...
GROSS: So was King more afraid of what the troopers had in store for him, or
of what--of the injunction from the federal government against the march?
Mr. BRANCH: He was afraid of losing his alliance with the federal government.
If the federal government had to put him in jail for the first time and say he
had blocked a federal injunction, he knew it would make it almost impossible
for President Johnson to introduce a voting rights bill, which was his
ultimate goal, to establish the right to vote by law.
And remember, this is a very special kind of law because the 15th Amendment
already guaranteed the right of black people to vote a hundred years ago after
the Civil War, but it had been effectively ignored, and many laws had been
ignored as well. This law set aside the entire right of states to make
qualifications for voting and even provided for federal registrars, so it was
a very, very powerful and radical law that he was hoping to get passed. And
for that, he felt it was--he had to try to preserve the option of an alliance
with the federal government. That's what I mean by--because the courts were
involved in this as well as the Congress, as well as all the people in the
movement who were at one another's throats over what the proper strategy was.
GROSS: So how did King finally get federal protection to make the march?
Mr. BRANCH: Well, having essentially done his part of the bargain, the burden
King was in in court--he had to testify in court that he felt the first
march--after all the whole country is enraged over what had happened to the
first march--and he was testifying in court that he felt that the right to
petition for the right to vote was deep in America, before the federal judges
who were deciding, and at the same time, President Johnson--he met with
President Johnson about whether he was going to introduce a bill or not. Many
people felt Johnson never would because it would threaten his whole political
base in the South.
And within the next few days, which are action-packed days--I mean, I
essentially have almost a chapter a day in this period--President Johnson did
decide to go before the well of the Congress and propose the Voting Rights Act
in a historic speech, and that's the speech where he closed by saying, `We
shall overcome,' which was an odd, jaw-dropping moment in the well of the
House. Many people thought they would never see any president, let alone a
Southern president, say--adopt the slogan of the civil rights movement, to
enact a major piece of legislation. And within a day after that, federal
judges ordered the federal government to protect the march.
So after much, much drama, political drama, all of which raised the profile of
this effort to march through Klan country with non-violent, unarmed people,
the march took off a third time, two weeks after Bloody Sunday, on March 21st,
and a great host marched 54 miles into Montgomery, ending on March 25th when
King gave the speech, right under the dome of the Alabama Capitol, at the foot
of the Capitol, "How Long? Not Long," about the meaning of the voting rights
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Taylor Branch, and he just
published the final volume in his trilogy about America during the King years.
We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Taylor Branch, and his new book about Martin Luther King
is called "At Canaan's Edge." It's the final volume in his trilogy about
America during the King years.
Now we were talking about the march from Selma to Montgomery, and you write
that, you know, there was a woman who was killed, who came for this march.
She was killed by white supremacists. The FBI gave one of its informants
permission to participate in the assault. What's the story behind that?
Mr. BRANCH: It's one of the great hidden and pregnant stories, with meaning,
about secret government that reverberates down to this day. The FBI had had
informants inside the Ku Klux Klan for years, and, in fact, this particular
informant, Gary Rowe, had been working for the FBI since 1960, had been
beating people up, taking part in bombings and giving reports. And, as far as
the record shows, no criminal actions were taken against him. But he did let
the bureau know who's who within the Ku Klux Klan, so he served an
intelligence function that was, however, deeply implicated in, and served,
effectively, to condone, a large number of crimes. One of the ones most
spectacular was that he led the group that beat up the Freedom Riders in 1961
when they came through Birmingham, and he was never prosecuted even though his
photograph appeared in newspapers. And he was an FBI informant. The bureau
When the Luizzo murder occurred out on the highway in Lowndes County, right
after the conclusion of the Selma march, his kind of Klan bushwhacking team
drove up alongside her at a high rate of speed and shot her just because she
was a white woman with black people in the car. She was ferrying marchers
back and forth after the end of the march, and they shot her and it
caused--and killed her, and it caused an enormous crisis. And the next
morning, J. Edgar Hoover called the White House to say that he had solved the
Now he eventually said that he had an informant in the car, but most of the
people who were involved from the law enforcement side got the impression, or
cultivated the impression, or wanted to hear, essentially that they had a
contact in the car who decided to turn state's evidence once the crime
occurred and went over the line. In fact, he was a long-time employee who had
to always ask permission and get advance approval for what he was going to do.
That and his prior record and what all he did was kept strictly secret by the
FBI not only then but for years, because they didn't want to have to answer
for what their responsibilities were for this crime or any of the others.
GROSS: How'd you find out about this story?
Mr. BRANCH: Well, a lot of it is in the FBI records. Some of it was from FBI
agents. Another writer, Mary Stanton, did a book about Viola Luizzo herself,
and I think she did some--she provided some original research, too. I quote
her as saying that "Hoover panicked," which he certainly did. He essentially
put a cordon around the agent who became the witness--the informant became the
witness in the case and didn't allow any of the prosecutors, including John
Doar or Nicholas Katzenbach, the attorney general, to ask him any questions
about his background.
But he also went on a public relations crusade against Viola Luizzo so--to try
to dampen interest in the full dimensions of the crime against her. He told
the president that she was having a necking party and that there were signs
that she had been using heroin, which there weren't. And he basically
impugned her character.
Viola Luizzo was from Detroit, and the one thing that the FBI definitely
suppressed and did not transmit to the White House was the fact that in her
car was found a letter in which she wrote that what really made her decide to
go from--drive all the way from Detroit to Selma to take part in this march
was that she was inspired to Johnson's address to the country, his "We Shall
Overcome" address on March 15th, and she decided that night she was going to
go. That never came out. Instead, her name was kind of blackened and the
trials went forward.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Taylor Branch, and his new book
is about the last three years of Martin Luther King's life. It's called "At
Canaan's Edge" and it's the final volume in Taylor Branch's trilogy about
America during the King years.
Well, King and LBJ, you know, kind of agreed on civil rights. I mean, LBJ
wasn't out there in the streets with Martin Luther King, but you know, he was
an advocate, finally, of civil rights. But King and LBJ were opposed when it
came to the war in Vietnam. LBJ escalated the war; King opposed the war. How
did it affect their relationship to disagree so strongly about Vietnam?
Mr. BRANCH: It destroyed their relationship, but it destroyed their
relationship in a almost--in a haunting and respectful way. Johnson
apologized for the war to King, but I don't think that he distorted his view.
Johnson wanted anything he could do to avoid the war. He hated the war. I
think the record pretty clearly shows that there was no argument that an
anti-war person ever made against the Vietnam War that Johnson didn't think of
first and probably agree with. He was--knew from the beginning that stalemate
was likely and that lots of bloodshed was likely to produce no satisfactory
result. But he did it anyway because he said, `Otherwise they'll call me a
coward and run me out of office.'
King knew that. He knew Johnson didn't want to do the war and he also felt
that Johnson's commitment to civil rights, since after all, he consciously
surrendered the South from the Democratic column and said, `I'm giving it up
for my lifetime and future ones to the Republican Party,' and that he was
consciously changing the partisan structure of the United States, that he was
genuine about civil rights. He felt that Johnson made a terrible mistake, a
tragic mistake about Vietnam, knowing that he was doing it, but King felt
sympathy for Johnson to the point that he always said, `I have never
criticized Johnson,' and even used his name. He never, in all of his
criticisms of Vietnam, he never said, `This is President Johnson's war.' He
never said, `Lyndon Johnson is wrong.' He said, `I have never called the
president's name. This is our war, our country is doing it, and I'm not going
to blame it all on one poor Texas schoolteacher.'
GROSS: What was the reaction within the civil rights movement to Martin
Luther King's opposition to the war in Vietnam?
Mr. BRANCH: The major civil rights leaders, like Whitney Young and Roy
Wilkins, criticized Dr. King, said he should stay out of foreign policy.
They were loyal to the Johnson administration. Some others felt that he
didn't go far enough in criticizing the war and welcomed his criticism. The
reaction that hurt Dr. King the most was the reaction of the major news
organizations, the editorial boards of The New York Times and The Washington
Post, kind of the established opinion, said he should stay out of foreign
affairs and stick to race relations, which is what most senators and
congressmen said, that he disgraced himself and that he should stay in for--in
race relations. Those opinions hurt Dr. King the most because he felt they
were essentially denying his right to speak, segregating his citizenship.
GROSS: Taylor Branch has just published the final book in his trilogy,
"America in the King Years." The new book is called "At Canaan's Edge."
Branch will be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
Here's an excerpt of King's speech "Beyond Vietnam," which he delivered on
April 4th, 1967, at the Riverside Church in Manhattan. Laying out his
arguments against the war in Vietnam, he said he had seven reasons for
bringing Vietnam into the field of his moral vision. His third came out of
his experiences working in the ghettos of Chicago.
(Soundbite of "Beyond Vietnam")
Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING Jr.: As I have walked among the desperate, rejected
and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would
not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion
while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully
through non-violent action. But they asked, and rightly so, `What about
Vietnam?' They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence
to solve its problem, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions
hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the
violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly
to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government.
For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of
the hundreds of thousands trembling under our bombs, I cannot be silent.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, Martin Luther King takes the civil rights movement to the
North, and the FBI keeps him under surveillance and tries to discredit him.
We continue our interview with Taylor Branch.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Taylor Branch. For
nearly 25 years, he's been researching the life of Martin Luther King and his
impact on America. The final volume of his trilogy "America in the King
Years" has just been published. It's called "At Canaan's Edge," and it covers
the last three years of his life, 1965 to '68. The first volume won a
When we left off, we were talking about King's opposition to the war in
Vietnam. Now let me quote something of his that you print in your book. He
criticized Americans for admiring nonviolence mostly when it was practiced by
blacks for the comfort of whites. And he said, quote, "They applauded us on
the Freedom Rides when we accepted blows without retaliation. They praised us
in Selma and Birmingham, Alabama. Oh, the press was so noble in its applause
and so noble in its praise that I was saying, be nonviolent toward Bull
Conner." There's something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press
that will praise you when you say `Be nonviolent toward Jim Clark,' but will
curse you and damn you when you say `Be nonviolent toward little brown
Who was he talking about?
Mr. BRANCH: Well, actually, nonviolence was very much in falling from repute
then because of the climate of the war. When war and stepping up to military
duty became kind of the measure, and soldiers were the measure of patriotism.
So I think that was in the air. This speech, though, was really more to show
that he felt this question for those who were still nonviolent but were really
chaffing under it. This speech was really more to people like Stokely
Carmichael, who were asking that question. They were asking that question:
`Why should--why is it that we have to be nonviolent when we are the ones who
are the aggrieved party? We're the victims. And you tell us that we have to
sacrifice further to get people who are doing the wrong thing to do what they
ought to do right in the first place. Why should the victims have to keep
being sacrificed?' And there's no answer for that. It's not fair. Except
King said, `You are providing leadership for the whole country.' And but they
weren't appreciated as leaders for the whole country. And so he was trying to
show--he was really trying to head off the black power rebellion against
nonviolence by preaching to them how much he understood the pain of having to
keep the witness of nonviolence when it's first of all assumed to be only your
burden, and second of all not appreciated by a larger country.
GROSS: You know, a lot of people say looking back on the civil rights
movement, what made it successful, one of the things that made it successful,
was that it was--to the extent that it was successful--that it was
two-pronged. You know, in the sense that you had a nonviolent movement led by
King, but then on the heels of that you had the black power movement and you
had Malcolm X. So there's a sense of, you know, either respond to this
nonviolent movement or there's going to be something much more aggressive right
behind it. And if nonviolence doesn't work, there's going to be another
alternative. Did King feel that way, too? Do you think there was any part of
him that felt relieved or appreciative of the fact that there was another
alternative, you know, beyond nonviolence? Or do you think he was just so
opposed to the more militant approach to black power?
Mr. BRANCH: Well, first of all, he didn't consider it more militant. He
thought it was noise. He said...
Mr. BRANCH: Yes, because it was--it never did anything. He felt that it was
a sign of death in the movement. He and his aides even said, `These
organizations are dying and they're going to make a lot of noise while they
die.' This wasn't right in 1966 because there was no coherent strategy to use
violence or even the threat of the violence for major change. You couldn't do
it. And he knew that. And he knew that most of white America was gleeful to
hear that the black power movement was accepting kind of language of
braggadocio because it really wasn't going to do anything. So I don't think
King felt anything other than sadness by the decline of nonviolence and, in
fact, it seems to me that it's pretty clear in the record of these last three
years that the more it became neglected in public, the more he emphasized not
only nonviolence as a discipline of the civil rights movement but nonviolence
as the key to the whole democratic grounding for the civil rights movement;
that this wasn't just about black rights, but this was about black rights
leading on to the enlargement of everybody's rights.
GROSS: Martin Luther King's nonviolent approach to the civil rights movement
was really pretty effective in the South when he was dealing with Jim Crow
laws. And then he tried to move the movement to the North and he lived for a
while in Chicago where there weren't--there was still a lot of segregation,
but there weren't Jim Crow laws. Why did he want to move the civil rights
movement to the North? Why did he want to try things in Chicago?
Mr. BRANCH: Because he wanted to show that the race issue--after all, there
were as many people--black people in Chicago as there were in all of
Mississippi. And they were--many of them had just come from Mississippi. And
they moved into similar conditions and similar problems there, where
segregation was enforced not by state law because of demographics, but what
was enforced in Chicago through banking codes and city ordinances and the real
estate boards and, in fact, explicit resolutions by the real estate--Chicago
Real Estate Board that minority populations should be confined within
contiguous areas. So he wanted essentially to move upward in dealing with the
issue of race as an issue of democracy and equal citizenship. It's hard to
remember now, like a lot of things from that era are hard to remember, but a
lot of people thought that the race issue in America was simply a problem of
ignorance, and that was concentrated in the South, and that if any black
people lived north of segregation laws than they were as free as white people.
And he wanted to demonstrate that not only racial segregation but racial fears
and animosities and hatreds were a national rather than a sectional human
GROSS: How did he change his strategy for the North?
Mr. BRANCH: Well, I think he made one of his big mistakes in the North in
the sense that--or certainly it was a departure. It was the only time he did
not frame the Northern campaign as a quest for the national government and the
American people as a whole to the address the issue. He addressed it as a
campaign in the city of Chicago, directed mostly toward the mayor of Chicago,
Mayor Daley. He didn't say, you know, in Chicago, `We want America to rise up
and live out the true meaning of the American Dream,' which he had said from
the bus boycott all the way to the end of his life. The reason he didn't do
that was because Mayor Daley had very skillfully already destroyed King's
lines of appeal to the White House by getting President Johnson to say that
Chicago school segregation was off limits, and also by lobbying President
Johnson to say that Martin Luther King hated President Johnson on Vietnam.
And so King already had knew through the grapevine in pretty clear political
signals that he wasn't going to be able to appeal from Chicago to President
Johnson to help frame some sort of national response to the urban segregation
as revealed in Chicago the way he had done in Birmingham. And in that sense,
he was stuck to make the best deal he could in Chicago, and that's what he had
to do, and demonstrations through the white suburbs and white neighborhoods
within Chicago where nonviolent marches ran into as much violence and
opposition as they had in Birmingham and Selma.
GROSS: So when King ended this Chicago chapter of his life, what did--do you
know what he walked away thinking about what he'd accomplished and what worked
and what didn't?
Mr. BRANCH: I think he realized--he went away feeling that he had escaped
with some measure of settlement. The settlement was, in my view, stronger
than the settlements that ended Birmingham and St. Augustine and some of the
other cities in the South where he had demonstrated. What didn't happen was
the national repercussions that came from Birmingham and Selma, with national
laws to deal with large issues. He just got agreements to form integration
groups and to do small integration projects and even large ones in Chicago.
So he had a local settlement at enormous cost and trouble achieved over a
year, 1966, when the Vietnam War really took hold and became very, very
violent, certainly by the standards of the war we're dealing with today. Lots
and lots of people killed, several hundred per week. And at the same time,
the black power movement had broken out to divide his movement, so that by the
end of Chicago, he's looking at a very, very different national standing for
the civil rights movement. And, particularly, nonviolence is no longer
respected. It has already become passe in intellectual journals and within
the movement itself.
GROSS: And was he given to discouragement or depression?
Mr. BRANCH: Yes. He was given to terrible discouragement and depression. I
mean, his wife Coretta said that even from childhood that he was a
guilt-ridden man driven by feelings that he was too privileged or that he
wasn't good enough. And this only added to that discouragement because he
thought that the Nobel Prize and the great Selma movement when--to deal with
voting rights had put America on the threshold of a wonderful era of
nonviolence to perfect democracy or to--for enormous advancement and that the
Vietnam War had curdled all of that and violence very, very quickly, along
with a lot of resistance and even some even within the civil rights movement.
GROSS: My guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Taylor Branch. He's just
published the final volume in his trilogy about America during the King years.
We'll talk more after our break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Taylor Branch. His new book
about Martin Luther King is called "At Canaan's Edge." It's the final volume
in his trilogy about America during the King years.
You have some fascinating stories here about J. Edgar Hoover, who was then
the head of the FBI. And, you know, one of Hoover's ambitions was to keep
King under surveillance and to do anything he could to discredit King. Why
was he so after King? Was it something personal about King? Was he so
against civil rights that he wanted to discredit King?
Mr. BRANCH: Well, I think Hoover had been against King right from the
beginning for a number of different reasons. A lot of his sensitivities
concentrated against Martin Luther King. First of all, the FBI didn't have
any black people in it. He--to accommodate King's movement he would have to
change 50 years of institutional FBI. Second of all, he had grown
increasingly sensitive to criticism, and King said that the FBI did not
aggressively investigate civil rights cases in the South, and at a time when
it was unheard of or very rare for people to criticize the FBI. Here is a
black man criticizing the FBI. Thirdly, Hoover's formative years were in
Washington in the 19-teens, which was a very nativist era, when the Clan
marched in Washington and when kind of WASP America was defining itself even
against immigrants, let alone against black people. And so I think he really
felt personally offended by the notion that African-American citizens were
demanding equal citizenship.
So all these things kind of concentrated, plus you had people in the movement
tell me--one of my biggest shocks one time was asking people how much they
blamed Hoover for dividing or oppressing the movement, and several of them
said, `Well, I don't blame Hoover. I blame myself. I blame America. We put
somebody in a position of secret authority for 50 years and we got just
exactly what the American Constitution says we're going to get. We're going
to get an abuse of power and somebody who doesn't want to be accountable to
anything except his own whims.' And in that sense there was a remarkable
sense of citizenship responsibility within the civil rights movement.
GROSS: What are some of the things that Hoover does during these final years
of King's life to discredit King?
Mr. BRANCH: Mostly propaganda, small, petty things. He sabotages a meeting
that King is trying to have to raise money when he's desperate from Jimmy
Hoffa by publicizing it and planting articles suggesting that Hoffa's buying
King. He suggests that in Memphis when King is in the Poor People's
Campaign--they distribute publicity all over America that King was both a
coward and violent in the demonstrations when violence erupted in one of his
demonstrations. He briefed senators on King, calling him a Communist and, of
course, on his private failings and his personal life. He blocked honorary
degrees that--had his agents go to officials at colleges that wanted to give
King honorary degrees and blocked those. So it was mostly--I mean, the rule
in the FBI, and it was written, was do anything that can--that will not cause
embarrassment to the bureau, meaning that cannot be traced to the bureau. So
everything that was done was done surreptitiously, but most of it was in the
realm of harassment and propaganda.
GROSS: We know now that Martin Luther King had extramarital affairs with
women. Hoover knew that 'cause Hoover was conducting surveillance on King.
Did Hoover spread stories about that?
Mr. BRANCH: Well, he did wherever he could, but the problem was that he
didn't want to take any responsibility for the information so it was--he
couldn't get it in print because no newspaper was going to print it without
being able to say that `I have this according to the FBI.' But he certainly
spread that information wherever he could, just as he did on other people's
sex life, including columnist Joe Alsop. I mean, there was lot of scurrilous
information 'cause lots of people had extramarital sex lives in Washington
during that period. And Hoover was known to traffic them, and that was the
political use of his information.
GROSS: Was he worried that this would undermine the civil rights movement and
his credibility? Was he worried that he would be discovered and that it
would, you know, reflect badly on the whole movement?
Mr. BRANCH: Yes. And of course that just added on top of all of his other
worries that he was going to get shot tomorrow, or that he was going to fail
and that nonviolence was going to be ignored, or that violence was going to
break out in one of his demonstrations, or that his staff members were going
to revolt or mount a coup against him, or that some of the other civil rights
leaders were going to call him a coward or a faker. That's what made the
civil rights movement such a pressure cooker for King from beginning to end,
that he--and I think you hear it in his voice. I--the--what's distinctive
about King in many respects is that anguished voice because I think it
communicates that he's feeling a lot of pain, not only of his own failings and
sense of doing penance for his own mistakes and shortcomings, but that he's
bearing or at the center of a lot of hatred and spite that America's having a
hard time shedding in order to reach toward a freer country.
GROSS: My guest is Taylor Branch. His new book about Martin Luther King is
called "At Canaan's Edge." It's the final volume in his trilogy about America
during the King years. We'll talk more after our break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Taylor Branch, and he's just
published the final volume in his trilogy on America in the Martin Luther King
years. And the new volume is called "At Canaan's Edge."
Right before King was assassinated in Memphis, he was working with striking
sanitation workers, and a march there ended in violence. There was looting.
Sixty people were hospitalized. What turned this march violent? What
Mr. BRANCH: Sabotage. Sabotage and people who had convinced themselves that
nonviolence was passe and that King was passe and that they could run rampant
a little bit and get more attention paid to them and get a program and get
some money out of it or get a job as a police informant and that sort of
thing. So young groups that were--of college students who had been partaking
in kind of essentially rap groups about politics in the tradition of--this is
the time of the Black Panther Party and the rise of groups who thought that
they would go beyond what the civil rights movement did, waited for the
movement, pretended to embrace him and then deliberately sabotaged the march;
meaning broke windows and recruited young people to break windows and so on
and so forth, thinking that they would get attention, and they certainly did.
GROSS: Your new book ends with the assassination of Martin Luther King. And,
you know, reading the end I was thinking about how the end of his life had one
of his great high points and one of his great low points, the low point being
the march in Memphis that ended in violence because, as you say, it was
sabotaged, and a high point being an incredible and now very famous speech
that he gave in Memphis. I'm sure you know most of the speech by heart.
Would you quote some of the most famous lines from that?
Mr BRANCH: "Oh, it doesn't matter to me now because I've been to the
mountaintop. I have seen the Promised Land. I've looked over and I've seen
the Promised Land." And, of course, that's where I get my title, Canaan's edge
meaning basically after wandering in the wilderness they got close to Canaan,
and the leader Moses was allowed to go up to the mountaintop and look over
into the Promised Land, but he was told that for his failings he wouldn't be
allowed to go but that the people would go. And King said, you know, `I may
not get there with you, but we will--as a people, we will get to Canaan. We
will get to the Promised Land.' And essentially what he wrote was that `We
will get there because the goal of America is freedom, and however much she
strays from it, we will be free, too.' And I think that that message kind of
fuses the--his religious heritage and his political heritage as a figure who
put one foot in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the
other foot in the Scriptures--and both in nonviolence--and said,
`We're--America has only one story, freedom, and we are refining it.'
GROSS: Now that you've finished your trilogy on Martin Luther King, everybody
wants to talk with you about Martin Luther King. But I think everybody also
wants to know how does it feel to have finished this incredible series of
books? I mean, it's really quite an accomplishment, and you've devoted--was
it 24 years of your life to writing this trilogy?
Mr. BRANCH: Almost 24 years. Yes, well, the true answer is I don't know
yet because I'm--still can't quite believe that it's done. I'm giddy about
it. I feel that the lessons of it are very topical, much more than I thought
when I started. And I don't know that anyone else will agree with me, so I'm
nervous about that. But I also feel that the real blessing is that these are
just wonderful stories of people struggling in great language with what
freedom means, and at one another's throats. And on every page for me is just
wonder. I thought I knew something about this, and I didn't know LBJ was like
this, or I didn't know Hoover could be like that. And so I count myself lucky
for every extra year it's taken.
GROSS: Taylor Branch, thank you so much for talking with us about your book
on Martin Luther King and...
Mr. BRANCH: Terry, I can't tell you how glad I am to be here and finally be
able to talk to you about the last volume. It's a privilege to talk to you.
GROSS: Taylor Branch's new book, "At Canaan's Edge," is the final volume in
his trilogy "America in the King Years." You can find an excerpt on our Web
site along with audio and video clips at freshair.npr.org.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Here's Martin Luther King speaking in Memphis in support of striking
sanitation workers on the day before he was assassinated.
Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING Jr. (Civil Rights Leader): Well, I don't know what
will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead.
Unidentified Man #1: Amen.
Unidentified Woman: Go ahead, talk.
Dr. KING: But it really doesn't matter with me now...
Unidentified Woman #1: Yeah!
Dr. KING: ...because I've been to the mountaintop.
(Soundbite of applause)
Dr. KING: I don't mind.
(Soundbite of applause)
Dr. KING: Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its
place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will.
Audience Members: Yeah. Yeah.
Unidentified Woman #2: That's right.
Dr. KING: And he's allowed me to go up to the mountain.
Unidentified Man #2: Go ahead.
Dr. KING: And I've looked over.
Unidentified Man #2: Talk forever.
Dr. KING: And I've seen the Promised Land.
Unidentified Man #2: Glory, glory, glory!
Unidentified Man #3: Watch out!
Dr. KING: I may not get there with you...
Unidentified Man #2: Yeah, go ahead.
Dr. KING: ...but I want you to know tonight...
Unidentified Woman #3: Yes!
Unidentified Man #4: Yeah!
Dr. KING: ...that we as a people will get to the Promised Land!
(Soundbite of applause)
Unidentified Man #2: Go ahead! Go ahead!
Dr. KING: And so I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything! I'm
not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!
(Soundbite of applause)
GROSS: On the next FRESH AIR, Steve Coogan. He's a very funny man, something
Brits know even better than Americans. On his BBC TV series, he played a bad
talk show host who becomes a bad radio deejay. His movies include "24 Hour
Party People," "Happy Endings" and "Coffee and Cigarettes." He stars in the
new film "Tristram Shandy."
I'm Terry Gross. Join us for the next FRESH AIR.
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