In the nearly 38 years since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the issue of race relations has remained a complex one in our country. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch has just completed his three-volume history of Dr. King and the civil rights movement in a book titled, "At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years 1965-68." In this latest volume, Branch chronicles Dr. King's efforts to hold the movement together while also trying to expand it in the North. Branch was invited to discuss the book on “Today.” Here’s an excerpt:
February 28, 1965
Terror approached Lowndes County through the school system. J. T. Haynes, a high school teacher of practical agriculture, spread word from his white superiors that local Klansmen vowed to kill the traveling preacher if he set foot again in his local church. This to Haynes was basic education in a county of unspoiled beauty and feudal cruelty, where a nerve of violence ran beneath tranquil scenes of egret flocks resting among pastured Angus cattle. Across its vast seven hundred square miles, Lowndes County retained a filmy past of lynchings nearly unmatched, and Haynes tried to harmonize his scientific college methods with the survival lore of students three or four generations removed from Africa — that hens would not lay eggs properly if their feet were cold, that corn grew only in the silence of night, when trained country ears could hear it crackling up from the magic soil of Black Belt Alabama.
Lessons about the Klan arrived appropriately through the plainspoken Hulda Coleman, who had run the county schools since 1939 from a courthouse office she inherited from her father, the school superintendent and former sheriff. After World War II, when Haynes had confided to Coleman that the U.S. Army mustered him out from Morocco with final instructions to go home and vote as a deserving veteran, she explained that such notions did not apply to any colored man who valued his safety or needed his job in her classrooms. Haynes stayed on to teach in distinguished penury with his wife, Uralee, daughter of an engineer from the Southern land-grant colleges, loyally fulfilling joint assignment to what their Tuskegee professors euphemistically called a "problem county." Not for twenty years, until Martin Luther King stirred up the Selma voting rights movement one county to the west, did Negroes even discuss the franchise. There had been furtive talk since January about whether Haynes's 1945 inquiry or a similarly deflected effort by an aged blind preacher qualified as the last attempt to register, but no one remembered a ballot actually cast by any of the local Negroes who comprised 80 percent of the 15,000 residents in Lowndes County.
Despite ominous notices from Deacon Haynes, Rev. Lorenzo Harrison was keeping his fourth-Sunday commitment when the sound of truck engines roared to a stop outside Mt. Carmel Baptist on February 28, 1965. Panic swept through the congregation even before investigating deacons announced that familiar Klansmen were deployed outside with shotguns and rifles. Harrison gripped the pulpit and stayed there. He lived thirty miles away in Selma, where he knew people in the ongoing nonviolent campaign but was not yet involved himself, and now he switched his message from "How can we let this hope bypass us here?" to a plea for calm now that "they have brought the cup to the Lord's doorstep." He said he figured word would get back to white people that he had mentioned the vote in a sermon. Haynes reported that some of the Klansmen were shouting they'd get the out-of-county nigger preacher before sundown, whether the congregation surrendered him or not.
Harrison kept urging the choir to sing for comfort above the chaos of tears and moans, with worshippers cringing in the pews or hunched near windows to listen for noises outside, some praying for deliverance and some for strength not to forsake their pastor even if the Klan burned the whole congregation alive. There were cries about whether the raiding party would lay siege or actually invade the sanctuary, and Harrison, preaching in skitters to fathom what might happen, said he had been braced for phone threats, night riders — almost any persecution short of assault on a Sunday service — but now he understood the saying that bad surprises in Lowndes could outstrip your fears. Deacons said they recognized among the Klansmen a grocer who sometimes beat debtors in his store, a horseman who owned ten thousand acres and once shot a young sharecropper on the road because he seemed too happy to be drafted out of the fields into the Army, then with impunity had dumped the body of Bud Rudolph on his mother's porch. There was Tom Coleman, a highway employee and self-styled deputy who in 1959 killed Richard Lee Jones in the recreation area of a prison work camp. Such names rattled old bones. Sheriff Jesse Coleman, father of Klansman Tom and school superintendent Hulda, successfully defied the rare Alabama governor who called for state investigation in a notorious World War I lynching — of one Will Jones from a telegraph pole by an unmasked daytime crowd — by pronouncing the whole episode a matter of strictly local concern.
Noises outside the church unexpectedly died down. Uncertain why or how far the Klan had withdrawn, deacons puzzled over escape plans for two hundred worshippers with a handful of cars and no way to call for help — barely a fifth of the county's households had telephone service, nearly all among the white minority. A test caravan that ferried home sick or infirm walkers ran upon no ambush nearby, and a scout reported that the only armed pickup sighted on nearby roads belonged to a known non-Klansman. The task of evacuating Harrison fell to deacon John Hulett, whose namesake slave ancestor was said to have founded Mt. Carmel Baptist in the year Alabama gained statehood, 1819. Hulett, a former agriculture student under deacon Haynes, was considered a man of substance because he farmed his own land instead of sharecropping and once had voted as a city dweller in Birmingham. He recruited a deacon to drive Harrison's car, put the targeted reverend down low in the back seat of his own, and by late afternoon led a close convoy of all ten Mt. Carmel automobiles some fifteen miles north on Route 17 to deliver him to an emergency way station at Mt. Gillard Missionary Baptist Church on U.S. Highway 80, where Harrison's father was pastor.
Celebrations at the transfer were clandestine, urgent, and poignant, being still in Lowndes County. Until Hulett pulled away to attend the stranded congregation back at Mt. Carmel, Harrison kept muttering in terrified regret that one of them had to follow through on this voting idea no matter what. "If I have to leave, you take it," he told Hulett with a tinge of regret, as though cheating his own funeral.
Just ahead lay fateful March, with a crucible of choice for Martin Luther King and President Lyndon Johnson. The Ku Klux Klan would kill soon in Lowndes County, but its victims would be white people from Michigan and New Hampshire. Lowndes would inspire national symbols. It would change Negroes into black people, and deacon John Hulett would found a local political party renowned by its Black Panther emblem. Beyond wonders scarcely dreamed, Reverend Harrison would vote, campaign, and even hold elected office for years in Selma, but never again in the twentieth century would he venture within ten miles of Mt. Carmel Church.
Excerpted from "At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years 1965-68." Copyright ©2006 by Taylor Branch. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.