Promised Land

Of King and Country, from Montgomery to Memphis



Search for the first mention of James Earl Ray in the pages of Taylor Branch's At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68 (Simon & Schuster), and there on page 763 he is -- unnamed -- in early April 1968: buying a pair of Bushnell binoculars on Main Street in Memphis; returning to his room ($8.50 per week) at Bessie Brewer's flophouse on South Main; from his window, training those binoculars on the Lorraine Motel, 70 yards away; and from that same window, positioning a Remington rifle.

But the building next door to Ray's rooming house sits at an odd angle. He'd have to lean out of the window to fire on Room 306 of the Lorraine. Better to wait for his target to appear on the motel's balcony, then for Ray to run down a hallway to the rooming house's common bathroom. The view from there is better, but he'd be shooting from a window above the bathtub. Which is what he did at 6:01 p.m. on April 4th. An hour later, at St. Joseph's Hospital in North Memphis, Martin Luther King Jr. was pronounced dead.

This scene, save for two more minor references, is the sum total of Taylor Branch on the actions of James Earl Ray. Ray's motive for killing King is not Branch's subject, and conspiracy theories are not Branch's concern. America in the defining King years, set down as the very subtitle of this book, is the major concern, and in an interview that accompanies the press release for At Canaan's Edge, Branch explains:

"[T]he conspiracy fixation is not only wrong but harmful. I think it's more of an appetite than a factual judgment, resting on conviction that the federal government was and is implacably evil. Such a corrosive belief contradicts the central tenet of King's public message that America's destiny is to make our people's government an instrument of freedom -- no matter how cruelly or long we have strayed from the goal.

"Sadly, some of King's heirs have fallen into an obsession about how he died. They would do better to honor how he lived."

Point well put. But let me reemphasize: At Canaan's Edge -- volume three of Branch's 20-year project documenting the life of King (and following on his Pulitzer Prize winner Parting the Waters and Pillar of Fire) -- is as much about this country as it is about the slain advocate of nonviolence. Violence, how-ever, crowds its pages. Infighting as well: from arguments within Lyndon Johnson's administration on America's conduct in Vietnam to tensions between King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Of equal concern: the violence done to ordinary citizens inspired by King to join the civil-rights movement. "Extraordinary" better describes the commitment of scores of individuals, black and white, including a white woman from Michigan, Viola Liuzzo (gunned down by whites on an Alabama highway in 1965), and a white seminarian from New Hampshire, Jonathan Daniels (gunned down by whites in Alabama the same year).

Ingrained hate mixed with open law-lessness accounted for the killings. But secrecy marked many of the government operations Branch describes: from Johnson's secret bombing of North Vietnam in March 1965 to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover's secret wiretapping of King throughout these years. But there's government greatness here too: from federal aid to public schools, to the inauguration of Medicare, to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 -- an act demanded by Johnson in a landmark, televised speech that ranks in importance and eloquence as any ever given before Congress.

As Branch makes clear, Johnson rose to create his "Great Society," but he resorted to political hardball too. He agonized over what to do in Vietnam, but in his dealings with King (illustrated in phone conversations Branch pulls verbatim from the archives, eloquence be damned), he met his match. King was a man of comparable strength and with one goal in mind: a fair and open society governed by law, the issues at stake, should you see them as such, in headlines today.

At serious issue in Memphis on the first day of February 1968, however: not Elvis and Priscilla Presley en route at top speed to Baptist Hospital for the birth of their daughter, but the city's sewers and drains filled to overflowing due to heavy rains. The city's sanitation workers had been calling for better pay and unionization, and on February 1st, the gruesome deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker in the compressor of a garbage truck galvanized those efforts. It also brought King to Memphis for talks and demonstrations.

On March 18th, he spoke before 15,000 supporters of the city's striking garbage workers. On the 28th, he led a march downtown that erupted into looting and shouts of "black power." And on April 3rd, he delivered his "Promised Land" speech inside Memphis' Mason Temple in the company of tornado warnings and a crowd numbering fewer than 2,000. He used that speech to call once again for peaceful support of the city's sanitation workers, then he turned to fears for his own future.

But in the late afternoon of April 4th and before another mass meeting scheduled that evening, King looked forward to supper at the home of Minister Billy Kyles and his wife, Gwen. In the end, the food at that supper went untouched; Gwen Kyles, in the immediate aftermath of King's assassination, went on record: "Negroes were 'born to truth,'" she said. And Branch writes, paraphrasing her comments: "Compelled to face hard realities in a white world, she supported a remarkable civic commitment across racial lines to gather every scrap of memory or fact that might shed light on the world-shaking local tragedy."

In At Canaan's Edge, a monument to hard research and skilled narrative, Taylor Branch uses every scrap of memory and fact to do just that.

Shelf Life

During the Great Depression, Edward K. Lovett migrated with his family to Memphis from rural Mississippi, and Frances M. Lovett migrated with her family to Memphis from rural West Tennessee. They met, then married, he to serve as a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army from World War II until his death in 1961; she to work in a furniture factory, then as a domestic in Memphis homes until her death in 1960.

"They barely lived 40 years," writes their son, Bobby L. Lovett, "just long enough to see the rising sun of desegregation and the beginning sunset of Jim Crow. ... And now we [the Lovetts' surviving children] endure Jim Crow's persistent offspring -- a continuing racially divided American society ruled by de facto racial discrimination and the designation of racial categories."

This is Bobby Lovett, professor of history at Tennessee State University, in the preface to his The Civil Rights Movement in Tennessee: A Narrative History (The University of Tennessee Press), as comprehensive a guide as readers are likely to find or researchers to write. It begins in 1779, in Nashville, where slaves and "free Negroes" who'd helped to build Fort Nashborough stood up to oppression. It ends in 2004, in Nashville, at a program for speakers called to comment on the civil rights legacy.

For a statewide story of the complex fight for rights by Tennessee's African-Americans, you could not do better than this book. For a future, possible autobiography by Bobby L. Lovett, I'm just asking. 

STAFF PICK

Prep

By Curtis Sittenfeld

(Random House)

Meet 15-year-old Lee Fiora, a Midwest girl of modest means attending the fictitious Ault School -- a Massachusetts boarding school inhabited by the rich and fabulous ilk of rich and fabulous families from across the globe. Having attended one of Memphis' top private girls' schools as the child of schoolteacher parents, it's not a subject with which I'm altogether unfamiliar. In fact, reading Prep reminded me of the heartache I both suffered and inflicted in those days, and at times, I put the book down for a while to get some distance from the memories it brought flooding back. I'm not sure what would have been more painful to read, Lee posturing to fit in with her sleek, worldly counterparts, or the achingly introspective path she chooses, never trying to fit in with, much less understand or befriend, her classmates. She watches them with a detached fascination, and the one time she connects with another student -- a sexual relationship with a boy who shuns her in public -- proves more harmful to her self-confidence than her self-imposed exile ever was.

Hers is a world of unspoken checks and balances, hierarchies, and impenetrable stereotypes, and a reader might find Lee's constant questioning utterly exhausting if Sittenfeld were not such a master of pace and style.

Sadly, Lee's is not the story of the swan, but her experience at Ault serves her well as an adult. In her words: "Ault had taught me everything I needed to know about attracting and alienating people...it had also been the toughest audience I'd ever encounter...sometimes afterward, I found winning people over disappointingly easy."

Sittenfeld's artfully written take on what might possibly be the most gut-wrenching four years of life shines a light on the realities of class and privilege, with Ault serving as a microcosm for society as a whole. Those on both sides of the class divide will recognize -- and possibly flinch at -- the truths found within Prep's pages.

-- M.H.T.

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