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The Children. – book reviews

I approached the reading of David Halberstam’s The Children with a
great deal of trepidation. Here was yet another book written by a White
journalist, that focused attention on some of the most significant
events in the early Civil Rights Movement. As a lifelong student of the
Black struggle, and as a scholar firmly grounded in an African-centered
perspective, I doubted that I could gain any new insights from this
volume’s nearly 800-page retelling of the Movement. I was wrong.

Halberstam, a Harvard-trained, Pulitzer-Prize winning author,
offers an emotionally gripping story of the life and death experiences
of eight ordinary young Black students who were “propelled into the
leadership of the Civil Rights Movement, as the movement — and America
— entered a period of dramatic change.” Their achievements proved
nothing less than extraordinary as they successfully challenged a
system of racial apartheid. Halberstam uses his exceptional writing
ability and analytical talents to convey the meaning and implications
of what happened during the critical first years (1960-65) of the
Movement’s development. He carefully separates fact from fiction and
the truth is delivered with remarkable clarity of vision.

While the book is meticulously researched, Halberstam also speaks
from first-hand experience. Part of his credibility stems from the fact
that as a young, 25-year-old journalist for the Nashville Tennessean,
he was the leading reporter to cover The Movement as it unfolded in
Nashville. However, the strength of this volume lies in the fact that
while Halberstam is the author, it is the voices of the courageous
Black students and their mentor that provides the fertile ground from
which the story springs forth.

We learn a great deal about the lives of the student leaders —
Diane Nash, John Lewis, Marion Barry, James Bevel, Curtis Murphy,
Gloria Johnson, Bernard Lafayette, and Rodney Powell — during their
formative years as social activists. We also be come familiar with
those who nurtured and supported their cause, as well as those who were
adamantly opposed to it.

Rev. James Lawson serves as their mentor, and he is the catalyst
for the movement that is about to take place. In the late 1950s, he
arrives in Nashville. A former student of Mahatma Gandhi and an admirer
of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Lawson is on a mission to
introduce the philosophy of Christian love and nonviolent social change
to the citizens of Nashville.

Lawson’s seminars on civil disobedience and draft resistance
attract the eight area college students whose lives — and that of the
nation — would be forever transformed by his teachings. With
unshakeable moral convictions and a profound sense of spirituality, it
is “The Children” that embrace Lawson’s philosophy. Undaunted by
threats to their physical and spiritual being, they begin to risk their
lives in pursuit of social justice.

Halberstam’s use of the term “The Children” is a metaphor to remind
us of the innocence, youthful exuberance, idealism, courage, and
vulnerability of those who were willing to lead the most dangerous
movement in American history. But the book is not limited to a
descriptive account of infamous events. As the various incidents are
recounted, the personal fears, struggles, anxieties, and developmental
issues that confront all young people are also brought into focus.

It is the retelling of these personal stories in such rich detail
that provides the reader with a deep appreciation for these young
people who were so steadfastly committed to their cause.

The Children bears witness to some of the Black community’s social
insecurities as well. There are times when the telling of the truth
made me squirm. Super-egos, petty jealousies, and superficial Black
student values stalled efforts to develop a cohesive movement. I felt a
sense of shame and embarrassment as the students conveyed their
experiences with class and color discrimination among their peers.
Gloria Johnson’s description of questionable teaching practices at
Meharry Medical School was chilling. And Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion
Barry’s roller coaster rise and fall from power read like a dirty
little smut novel, providing a vivid, unsettling reminder of the Black
community’s latent potential to engage in its own self-destruction.

Halberstam takes great pains to carefully document every aspect of
this story. Some of the factual information is presented repeatedly,
for added emphasis, as he continues to follow the students through The
Movement and into adulthood. However, this minor infraction does not
detract significantly from the overall exceptional quality of the book.
As the story concluded, I still wanted more.

A colleague of mine suggested that we should develop a course
around this book. That, perhaps, we should use this book to teach a
generation of young people about the power of student activism, social
idealism, and a collective commitment to social justice and equality.
What a magnificent idea.

Dr. Patricia Reid-Merritt is the author of Sister Power: How Phenomenal Black Women Are Rising to the Top.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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