The Mission: Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s final chapter

David Levering Lewis reviews the final installment of Taylor Branch’s three-volume chronicle of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil-rights movement, in The New Yorker:

In one of his more bizarre Oval Office confidences, Lyndon Johnson said that he didn’t want to “follow Hitler” but that Hitler had the right idea: “Just take a simple thing and repeat it often enough, even if it wasn’t true, why, people accept it.” Johnson was speaking by telephone to Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma, Alabama, about how to convince Southern whites that Southern blacks deserved the franchise. The curious political-science tutorial came on the afternoon of January 15, 1965, King’s thirty-sixth birthday. Whatever he may have thought of Johnson’s inaccurate analogy, King had already begun repeating, on television, in the press, and from church pulpits, the moral necessity of a guaranteed vote for every American, regardless of color. Two weeks earlier, King had publicly announced that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the alliance of Baptist preachers he led, would launch voter-registration protests in Selma, where fourteen thousand four hundred whites had, by legal ruse and naked force, limited fifteen thousand blacks to one per cent of the registration rolls.

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