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Examining the last years of Martin Luther King Jr. Next an evening exchange. OK. Examining the last years of Martin Luther King Jr. next evening Xchange. Hi I'm Kojo Nnamdi in many ways the last.
Hi I'm Kojo Nnamdi in many ways the last three years of Martin Luther King Jr's life were filled with contrasts with the federal government the growing fractions of the civil rights movement and in his own feelings about his leadership. In his latest work At Canaan's Edge our guest Taylor Branch examines these conflicts. The book is the final part of a trilogy on King's work in the civil rights movement that began with parting the waters in 1909 and the Pillar of Fire published in 1999. Taylor Branch received the Pulitzer Prize for parting the waters. Welcome to evening exchange. Thank you Cojo nice to be here. This part of Dr. King's life you deal with the years 1965 through 1968 the years that seem to be least publicized and least understood about Dr. King it may be the most significant one. I think they're the most significant because of the very fact that the incandescent 1960s that we still haven't sorted out yet. And in a way I think it's the
most significant because our politics is still confused over whether or not it proved to be a good thing whether the political system worked whether civil rights movement was a success in the later years. And nonviolence what was its contribution. And because this was the Vietnam War period in America still hasn't sorted out very well you know what what happened in Vietnam and that's exactly what's happening here you have the zenith of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war going on at precisely the same time personified in many cases in many ways by the relationship between then President Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. talked about how all of those things were into woven. Yes. It's a remarkable Greek or Shakespearean relationship because King and Lyndon Johnson cooperated subtly and brilliantly and historically behind the scenes to advance the Voting Rights Act. Change the partisan structure of all of American politics to get 4 million new black voters in the south
introducing two party competition in the south. It was an enormous change at the at the in the same year of Medicare and. The elementary and secondary of first federal Education Act. And yet at the same time they or coming at odds over Vietnam King opposed Vietnam at the same time so he and King have an intimate behind the scenes cooperation on freedom where Johnson knew that he was risking the future of Democratic presidents their base in the south. He said I'm going to do it anyway he thought it was that vital and he did it. But he also knew that he was likely to come to grief in Vietnam and he did that in a way because he said otherwise they'll call me a coward and the king said You know I was with him in the first case and against him in the second. Well let's go back to 1965 before we got to Vietnam and talk about the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the Selma to Montgomery march and how many ways that was a high point in king's of Dr. King's life. And yet
at the same time he had he was called on to make a sudden decision that could have caused things to go one way or the other. Yes well 600. People all black mostly from Selma some from the surrounding counties tried to cross the Pettus Bridge to march all the way 54 miles to Montgomery with a petition for the right to vote. They were beaten on national television. Dr. King in a great example of leadership that very night March 7th put out a nationwide call to Americans of all kinds to come and stand with those who were beaten for the right to vote the most precious and essential part of democracy the right to vote. And thousands of people showed up and he didn't ask them to come in weeks he asked them to come tomorrow he didn't ask him to write a letter or give me a contribution. He said Come put your body on the line with these people who were beaten. And they did. And the federal government basically a judge put in an injunction telling him Don't try to march again until I can review the situation. King is
negotiating with the judge with President Johnson with the Congress with all three branches of government with Governor Wallace and with movement people all over the place about what to do and when they set out on the second march just two days later on March 9th. The whole world was watching is he going to defy the order. Is he going to march and Governor Wallace try to trick him by opening moving the troopers who are blocking the way and opening the highway. And King had to make a split decision in 10 seconds do I march through and get out into Klan country and it'll be triumphant until we realize that we're out and we've got 50 miles of hostile country ahead of us and we violated an order or do I stop and run the risk that everybody who came all this way to March will be mad and call me a sellout. And he marched a little way and turned around. And in retrospect I think historically that preserved the hope of the Voting Rights Act because then they did after they had a hearing. And Lyndon Johnson and Doris that they did march all the way from Selma to Montgomery they did get the Voting Rights Act.
They did change. The future of American politics by doing it was a tense moment could anybody else have turned those people around. I don't think so and in fact a lot of the younger people who were there said if they had 10 seconds warning that that's what he was going to do that they could have hijacked the market by saying The road is open let's march you know. But they didn't know and by the time they realized what had happened they were all headed back and half the crowd was immensely grateful that they didn't have to march out into Klan country and risk getting killed. And one man was killed that very night in Reverend James Reed from Washington and who had moved to Boston so people knew that it was a tense time but it's also a time of very very fundamental politics. You mentioned some of the younger people who participated in the march. And this book At Canaan's Edge is dedicated to Diane Nash. Diane Nash personifies in many ways that literally thousands of activists without whom the modern civil rights movement as we know it today could not take place. A lot of people think that
well the civil rights movement Dr. King lets the marches. We got the Voting Rights Act in the Civil Rights Act wasn't that way. Who was Diane Nash or who is that and that's Diane Nash is the personification of the people who became heroes by taking citizenship seriously. What it what it means to be a citizen in a country that says you have equal rights. She didn't have equal rights but she said the first thing you have to do is act like you do. And she came from Chicago. She was a Catholic girl quite rare in the civil rights movement she went south and got involved in student workshops at this University in Nashville and I saw a picture in the book a skinny little girl and a little girl and she was quite beautiful too and striking. She became a leader of the sit ins one the leader of the Freedom Rides in the sense that it was her idea for students to take up the for the first Freedom Ride. Once the first Freedom Ride of adults was largely adults was beaten in Birmingham and they went home. She
said We can't let violence defeat the movement and sensually brow beat the whole bus load of her fellow students to go take up the Freedom Ride which then became the contagion you know of Freedom Riders that whole summer who captivated the whole country and indeed the whole world over the question of whether we would be true to the promise of integration there so she was a leader there. Then she became a leader with her Dr. King in Birmingham. And most importantly for this she and her husband James available stayed up all night on the night of the Birmingham church bombing when the four little girls were killed. And in 1963 because it had been their idea to use small children in the Birmingham demonstrations which was one of the great risks for Dr. King they felt responsible for the fact that little girls were killed in the same church that the children marched out of to face the dogs and fire hoses. And by the next morning Diane wrote a plan to answer the Birmingham church bombing and it became the blueprint for Selma it was a plan to paralyze Alabama with a nonviolent army until it granted the right to
vote to black people in Alabama and of course out of that grew the Voting Rights Act which gave those new rights to four million new black voters not just in Alabama but across the south. One of the things that impressed the young Taylor Branch most was when you turned on your television set and you saw young children singing the same things that you sing the same hymns that you sing in Sunday school every Sunday and they were being hosed and set on by dogs what effect would that have been. It was. I was transfixed I just couldn't believe it I did not come from a political family I was there in Atlanta. I was 16 years old right in the middle of my formative years. The movement had been going on for a long time by then. But you know when I was 12 13 and like most white southerners and I think I learned later like a lot of black southerners people were frightened by the civil rights movement but that just kind of broke down all my emotional resistance in the sense that I didn't understand how these kids and a lot of them were eight years
old had had the motivation and the courage to keep marching into those dogs of fire they weren't running away they were marching into it until the hoses hit them and and knocked them down the street like tumbleweeds. And there were a lot of people who were who were transformed by that but for me it was really the birth of my interest in politics because I said where did this come from and I never got a satisfactory answer. And then Dr. King takes a position against the war in Vietnam and to a large extent one can tell from reading At Canaan's Edge It changed the view that a large number maybe a majority of whites in America ahead of Dr. King. Could you explain why that happened. Well. Warriors bring out fear and a desire to subdue people. It's against the whole psychology of the civil rights movement which is to overcome your fears and try to bring a new sense of fellow citizenship among people so the
climate of war collided with the hope of the civil rights movement and hurt really bad. Dr. King was reaching out to get some new allies in the white community. He got a lot but as soon as he opposed the war there were a significant number of people who said you know that's it for you we don't want to hear from you about about race relations. And that included not just his opponents in the civil rights era but it included a lot of his friends who patronized him. The New York Times said you know we don't want to hear from you about foreign affairs you're not qualified to talk about the Washington Post said never again will he be heard with respect as a spokesperson for his people and which was doubly patronizing because number one they're saying we don't want to hear from him about foreign policy. And number two we only listen to him as a spokesperson for black people. Dr. King was trying to speak for. The whole of American democracy. That's the reason he was so effective he was a leader of black people and anybody who cared about American justice.
And because he was so badly pilloried as a result of that because he was put in this box that said you can only speak on civil rights issues. You're not qualified. It seems to me that that reflected a lot on black people as a whole who felt at that time that oh so we're only supposed to be interested in America. And so far as it has to do with race we're not allowed to speak on anything else. When you look in later years Congolese or Rice or Colin Powell becoming secretary of state that seems to have changed that that changed but it it took decades for it to change and we still haven't outgrown all of that people are still kind of pigeonholed to some degree as to what issues they're supposed to address in the way we look at them but we've we've come a good good ways in that. But this whole question of you know Dr. King was a success and at first people thought he could only speak about black issues was part of many sophisticated issues that curdled the hope of the movement and of course one of them was nonviolence because
a lot of black leaders themselves question why is it that America expects only black people to be nonviolent. And they don't extol nonviolence and white people white people like James Bond and John Wayne and people who are tough but they want black people to be nonviolent so they won't be a threat. Well that's not fair and war on people who have been subjecting themselves to jail and beatings for years why they were expected to be nonviolent and to invite further sacrifice just to get America to do what it should have done in the first place. And Dr. King said it isn't fair. I'm not trying to argue that is fair. But we are leaders for the whole country. And that's a pretty hard argument for a 25 year old black kid who's been getting beaten for five years to to hang onto and so there was a split in the nonviolence was rejected and that was one of the major challenges that Dr. King faced also all going on at the same time the emergence of people who were nonviolent
protesters like the students Fernand the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Snick and other groups deciding that nonviolence was no longer going to be the primary manner in which they conducted themselves. How did Dr. King deal with that. He understood the burden that these people were under he pleaded to me one of the most moving parts of this whole thing he pleaded with Stokely Carmichael Stokely Carmichael the new chairman of snake who had just proclaimed Black Power and who after six years in the nonviolent movement beginning at Howard. Had renounced nonviolence and the vote and even democracy saying you know all these are tricks because he was so frustrated that he wasn't getting recognition and results that he felt the movement to deserve. Dr. King pleaded with Stokely to come to Ebenezer. So it was not a big church goer to come to Ebenezer and hear him preach essentially on why he believed that nonviolence was still the answer. But that I understand what you are feeling about this and your frustrations Stokely we
we're trying to be leaders for the whole country in this. This was the vision. So he understood why Stokely had done this. And quite ironically they became friends even as they were becoming politically strange. But Dr. King did feel he was losing his grip so to speak on the African-American community. Yes and of course in Memphis very toward the end actual violence actually broke out in one of King's own demonstrations. It was kids who ran through a broken windows and everything in the deliberate provocation. But nevertheless he couldn't control people even in one of his own demonstrations and that that led to one of his great and final fits of depression. A number of things that Dr. King have to deal with that we are now dealing with today in contemporary America. We are now involved in a controversy over the National Security Agency and wiretapping. A lot of people forget that that wiretapping controversy reached its height when it was disclosed that the FBI was in fact wiretapping
Dr. King. Talk about J. Edgar Hoover the wiretapping of Dr. King and his associates and why it was that Hoover felt the visceral hatred for Martin Luther King Jr.. Well Hoover was a character from a different era. He was the Victorian character who grew up right not far from here went to Central High School which is now Cardoza High School in Washington at a time when Washington was establishing segregation. And when black people were being subdued and the federal government was being segregated he saw all black people as chauffeurs. The only FBI agents he had were a few chauffeurs there. He had no foreign agents no foreign speaking agents and no female agent and no black agents except. So his whole world was a world of privilege. And he had been in power for 50 years and he used the surveillance basically to to for political reasons and he's living proof that we haven't really dealt with the political problems of intelligence because when you
have a wall of secrecy and you and you use fear to justify it. Citizens never know what's going to happen behind that wall that's why you have to have accountability. You don't have to. You don't have to hide and you don't have to break all of your rules and you don't have to break your constitutional systems of government to to defend things. But Hoover convince people that he did by scaring them and he had an enormous personal ability to cation for Dr King he for example he put out an order that unlike any other person if the FBI got word that there was an assassination threat on Dr. King they would not notify Dr. King. You do not notifying because that will make him think that the FBI is a public servant to him and we don't want him to think that we don't want to give him the satisfaction of thinking that we recognize his rights as a citizen and that's literally what they said. But this is all behind the scenes and it's all kind of a perversion of constitutional checks and balances government and those issues are still with the wiretapping of American citizens there's
that. But what you just described is that analogous to what we're going through today to the degree that we have no idea what the motive. You can't know what the motives and the procedures or if you don't have checks and balances in reviews. And for somebody to say we have to not only do this wiretapping but we have to do it on our own authority and we don't want anybody else to know who is essentially challenging the American people to stand up for their own rights. Our system of government is built so that we can protect ourselves and have democracy too. It's a false choice to say that we have to choose between one and the other. The other thing that Dr. King was able to do so effectively you point out At Canaan's Edge is how he used religion to bring people together and to use religion to you to have people to unite behind his cause. Do you use religious concepts that everybody found appealing. Of course everybody except those who opposed the civil rights movement today we find ourselves in another era in which we do this playing a prominent role in political
movements but not the same. This time it seems more that it divides people rather than unites them. What's the difference with what he did and what's going on today. Well that's a good question I think one of the most remarkable things in my 24 years of scholarship on canning is that he had an enormous number of enemies and an enormous number of critics. He was talking about politics and religion every day and yet I can't find one single instance of anybody criticizing him for mixing church and state not once. And to me the answer to that riddle how can that be is the way he talked about it he talked about religion and politics in a general way of equal souls an equal vote that the democracy reforms reinforce spirituality and vice versa. That wasn't a threat to either side. He talked they gave people a sense of entering a world where of our best traditions but without sectarianism or dog of any kind. And he wasn't trying to subdue politics with religion or religion with politics
which is what most people do when they talk about church and state they're either trying to kick religion out of politics and have pure secularism or they're trying to subdue all of politics to some peculiar idea of God or salvation or something. Dr. King wasn't doing that he's just trying to say our deepest values spiritual values and political values our commitment to equal citizenship and commitment to equal souls are all involved in the test of what we really mean by freedom. And in that sense he made it almost impossible for he invited in the spirituality. But without making it possible for people to argue over the role of religion in politics the last three years of Dr. King's life which you cover in the book would there that would be the use that that showed us the greatest complexity in Dr. King's life. I think yes there was tremendous complexity because he's trying to say that religion and that our democracy is a very deep subject and that it in gauges all of our mind and all of our courage and
just to be a citizen in this country. He was trying to say that nonviolence is at the heart of both of them that it's at the heart of a politic democracy because a vote is nonviolent and and it's at the heart of our spirituality because nonviolence is at the heart of our hopes for justice and love which is a religious imperative. These are all complicated things and at that time we were all getting confused about Vietnam and people. Some people were feeling they had to be violent to stop the Vietnam War. Some people were feeling that the federal government was not a hope. You know war was no longer a hope for justice. And so Dr. King got lonelier and lonelier in his commitment that nonviolence had really redeemed the world. A lot of good things in motion but was being ignored in a climate of war and recrimination at the time of his death he was working to organize a poor people's campaign in Washington D.C. and we see today that with about 40 or so members of something called the Congressional Black Caucus with the elected officials that the words poor and black have now become in some ways into changeable
because if you look at the Congressional Black Caucus and to a budget it's a budget that's geared towards lifting the poor out of poverty. Is that in a way the part of Dr. King's legacy that is least explored. Yes it is he tried to say and he said he said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1984 that nonviolence had been proven to be an instrument for democracy to address the three great scourges of humanity racism war and poverty violence of the flesh and violence of the Spirit. And he called poverty of violence of the spirit in that we weren't seeing people. And. The tragedy though to some degree most poor people are not black. Black leaders in working to end poverty are fulfilling Dr. King's legacy and taking the next step of Democratic hopes. But to the degree that people equate poverty and race together they're they're confusing themselves and
not really dealing with the full breadth of what he had to say. Julian Bond the chairman of the board of the end remembers meeting you in 1968 when I guess he was a state senator in Georgia at the time. Neither he nor you knew at that time that you would spend some 24 years of your life the largest period of your of your professional working life. Writing and researching Dr. Martin Luther King was that a surprise to us. Oh absolutely. I knew it was going to take a while but I certainly wouldn't admit it even to myself let alone to my wife. Twenty four years. But you know I met Julian when I was twenty one thousand nine hundred sixty eight. I'm a student. I was basically his go for I are you sure. And I was privileged to do it we've been friends ever since but it's because and we both kind of stayed interested in and devoted to this cause ever since because we think it goes so deep into what still makes America the
promise of the world. In many respects it makes it sad that we're squandering that with violence and selfishness today and a lack of hope and cynicism. And it makes in that sense it makes the example from the movement that's much much more pertinent because we need those values today to rescue a sense of hope and an optimism for American democracy. How long did you take and how long did you think it would take when you started on this trip. I signed up for three years which was three times longer than my previous books I've done a whole string of books in one year so I knew this was a big project but I didn't know it was going to take twenty four years and three books but I feel blessed for every extra year. But here's here's the thing that you spent so much time doing this that's so engrossed I'm in the Now this is over. You're not exactly quite sure what you're going to do next. Know that that's true. I was hoping to find some shorter books hoping maybe that we can make a breakthrough to get
Evening Exchange
Taylor Branch Discussing Martin Luther King, Jr.
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Taylor Branch discusses his book, "At Canaan's Edge," which follows Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life from 1965-1968. The author talks about King's interactions with Lyndon B. Johnson, the Selma to Montgomery March, and the Vietnam War.
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Guest: Branch, Taylor
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