February 20, 2006 12:00 PM

By Taylor Branch



The concluding volume of Branch’s trilogy about the Martin Luther King Jr. era, following the Pulitzer-winning Parting the Waters and then Pillar of Fire, is a magnificent chronicle of three years that include many of the period’s highest and lowest points: passage of the Voting Rights Act, the crusade against poverty, and King’s assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968. Beginning with an account of the 1965 Selma marches that allows readers to pick up the story in mid-action, the book paints vivid, nuanced portraits of King and his cohorts as the nonviolent wing of the civil rights movement faced challenges by radicalized Black Panther sentiment and the escalating war in Vietnam. King remained a fighter, denouncing the Vietnam effort (against his advisers’ counsel) and broadening his civil rights campaign into northern ghettoes. Without omitting King’s weaknesses, Branch makes a convincing case that he came as close as anyone on the world stage to embodying his ideals. As enjoyable as it is erudite, At Canaan’s Edge is by far the best account yet of a time when one man helped bring about a sea change in America’s racial consciousness.

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