The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement
by Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster
by Clayborne Carson, Palgrave Macmillan
Taylor Branch’s deft abridgement of his epic three-volume America in the King Years is the ideal entry into those epochal days. The sheer monumentality of his award-winning trilogy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and times has daunted many. This single-volume version is far leaner (256 pages) but far from dumbed-down, making it a perfect fit for audiences of almost all ages. As historical overview, it agilely takes in the key points of the mid- 20th-century pageant that marked America’s social, political and cultural transformation. As biography, it evokes King’s life, from the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott to his final moments on a Memphis motel balcony in 1968, with the same authoritative detail as in the magnum opus. It is an astounding feat.
Remarkably, given its compression, The King Years offers significant looks at those who made history with King, whether they were antagonists (FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover), allies (activists Bob Moses, Diane Nash, Fannie Lou Hamer) or, at different times, both (President Lyndon Johnson, whose support of King’s civil rights objectives was replaced with resentment of King’s opposition to the Vietnam War). You come away from this trim digest inspired and enlightened—and maybe with enough whetted curiosity to tackle the original tomes.
Where Branch’s book serves as a guide to King’s era, Martin’s Dream grapples with what it means to live and work with his legacy. In August 1963, 19-year-old Clayborne Carson traveled from his home in New Mexico to the March on Washington, where he witnessed King’s famed “I Have a Dream” speech. He was as roused by it as everyone else, but admits that “discovering its deeper meanings would take many decades.” Carson should know: He spent decades as an activist, academic and eventually archivist for King’s papers and founding director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. And so his book winningly blends the historical with the autobiographical. Recalling 1960s protests he was part of on the streets of Los Angeles, for instance, lets Carson explore the complicated drama of how King’s nonviolent tactics came under siege by more militant “Black Power” activists.
In 1985, Coretta Scott King chose Carson to edit her late husband’s papers, which spawned another drama. Carson discovered King had plagiarized other writings; that inevitably provoked a series of awkward moments with the King family. Yet while relating how he smoothed things over with them, Carson also manages to explain how King assembled his sermons and speeches—and why that matters beyond the issue of plagiarism. A skilled veteran at bridging divides and defusing confrontations, Carson has explained King’s legacy to Chinese and Palestinians, and dealt with some of the controversies over the King Memorial in Washington, D.C. So along with its other virtues, Martin’s Dream makes you realize the challenges of acting as the custodian of a Great American Dreamer’s vision.
Originally published in the April 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.