01/20/2013 10:13 am ET Updated Mar 19, 2013

Taylor Branch Wrote 2,300 Pages On Martin Luther King Jr. Now He's Boiled Them Down to 190 Pages.

In 200 words, complete this thought: "If Martin Luther King Jr. came back to life and saw the United States today, he'd ....."

My response would be along these lines: "... be assassinated within a year."

But we have a black President! Yes, we do. We also have a gun lobby determined to make gun manufacturers richer than Goldman bankers. (King's killer used a 30.06 Remington Gamemaster that delivered 2,370 pounds of force on impact, more than enough to kill a rhino. Today, we'd call that a toy.) And we have a self-appointed militia of nutbags who actually believe we're on the verge of a race war and are determined to be on the winning side. Dr. King would only have to make one appearance before the "Martin Luther Coon" signs came out. Security? King could travel in the Popemobile and it wouldn't matter --- there is no limit to the kind of hate that's been ginned up in this country.

But, you may say, King's philosophy lives on. Seriously, is there anyone of stature with a microphone who's talking about non-violence? Political leaders as moral examples? We have politicians who see it as a badge of honor to amp up their language --- they grin as they talk about pushing our economy over a cliff. TV pundits? Don't start.

And then there's Taylor Branch. In 1988, he published "Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63." I sat down one weekend and didn't get up until I'd read all 900 pages.

Branch went on to complete a trilogy about King. When he was done, the project had taken 24 years and he'd written 2,306 pages.

I revere King, but I stopped after the first volume.

Now? Nobody's going to read 2,306 pages about King. Even if you believe, as Branch does, that "King's life is the best and most important metaphor for American history in the watershed postwar years," you're not about to read 2,306 pages about him.

So Branch has smartly produced a new book. Just 190 pages. In essence, it's the Greatest Hits of his trilogy --- he took 18 of the pivotal events in King's years as a civil rights leader and cut-and-pasted a few pages from his previous writing on each. And so you'd have context, he provides short prefaces. It's not the same as the books, only shorter, but for students and general readers, it's a good start. It's even, probably, enough.

He's gone further. This semester, Branch is teaching an honors seminar on the history of the civil rights movement at the University of Baltimore. A limited number of online auditors can join it --- free. The topics: personal stories of characters, from sharecroppers to presidents, who built historical landmarks such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Sit-ins, Mississippi Freedom Summer, the Voting Rights Act, Black Power, Vietnam Protest, contrasting forms of leadership for social and political change, basic issues of race, governmental capacity and violent vs. nonviolent methods.

Branch does not write straight history. He's telling an epic story, and he goes high in his language. Here's the conclusion of the assassination chapter:

King walked ahead of [Reverend Billy] Kyles to look over the handrail outside, down on a bustling scene in the parking lot [of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee]. Police undercover agent Marrell McCullough (a mole in the entourage) parked almost directly below, returning with SCLC staff members James Orange and James Bevel from a shopping trip to buy overalls. Orange unfolded his massive frame from McCullough's little blue Volkswagen, tussling with Bevel, and Andrew Young stepped up to rescue Bevel by shadow-boxing at a distance. King called down benignly from the floor above for Orange to be careful with preachers half his size.

McCullough and Orange walked back to talk with two female college students who pulled in just behind them. Jesse Jackson emerged from the rehearsal room, which reminded King to extend his rapprochement.

"Jesse, I want you to come to dinner with me," he said. Kyles, overhearing on his way down the balcony stairs, told King not to worry because Jackson already had secured his own invitation.

Abernathy shouted from Room 306 for King to make sure Jackson did not try to bring his whole Breadbasket band, while Chauncey Eskridge was telling Jackson he should upgrade from turtleneck to necktie for dinner.

Jackson called up to King: "Doc, you remember Ben Branch?" He said Breadbasket's lead saxophonist and song leader was a native of Memphis.

"Oh, yes, he's my man," said King. "How are you, Ben?"

Branch waved. King recalled his signature number from Chicago. "Ben, make sure you play Precious Lord, Take My Hand in the meeting tonight," he called down. "Play it real pretty."

"O.K., Doc, I will."

Solomon Jones, the volunteer chauffeur, called up to bring coats for a chilly night.

There was no reply. Time on the balcony had turned lethal, which left hanging the last words fixed on a gospel song of refuge. King stood still for once, and his sojourn on earth went blank.

Sadness. Infinite sadness.

[Reposted from]