The Common Good
May-June 1998

The Children Shall Lead

by Will Campbell | May-June 1998

David Halberstam credits the youth in the civil rights movement.

David Halberstam’s latest book The Children recounts the sit-ins, kneel-ins, freedom rides, and voter registration drives of the 1960s. It is about America: America at its best; America at its worst. The title of this admirable book is apt, for the bravest, most venturesome, and at times seemingly foolhardy acts of the civil rights movement were carried out by the young.

I do not discount the heroics of the adult leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; the legal battles and victories of the NAACP; CORE-sponsored activities; or the Southern judges who rendered decisions that brought them threats, scorn, and ostracism from their peers. In actual combat, though, it was a children’s war.

Ruby Bridges, a 6-year-old in New Orleans, suffers daily the taunts of an angry mob, leaving scars that even now haunt her. Nine first-graders in Nashville and nine Little Rock high-schoolers cross lines that forever change their lives and the life of the South, as did little ones in Mansfield, Texas, and Sturgis and Clay, Kentucky.

Black children pave the way in Clinton, Tennessee. Grade-schoolers are whipped with trace chains in Grenada, Mississippi. College students in 1960 form the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), accepting the challenge and throwing down the gauntlet that would ultimately prevail in bringing at least partial end to the long, dark night of America’s racial rottenness.

Run down by armed horsemen, clubbed and left for dead on numerous occasions, jailed like violent criminals, the children often lead the way. Certainly adults suffered physical abuse as well—James Farmer of CORE and C.T. Vivian come to mind. But the greatest price was paid by those chronicled on the pages of Halberstam’s book: The Children.

HALBERSTAM WRITES history as biography. In The Children, he highlights eight students enrolled in 1960 in Nashville’s black colleges and universities—Fisk, American Baptist, Meharry Medical College, and Tennessee State University. By using Nashville as canvas, and their several stories as brush and oil, he paints a scene not soon to be forgotten.

Here they are. Diane Nash of metropolitan Chicago. John Lewis from rural Alabama. Bernard Lafayette of Tampa Bay, Florida. Jim Bevel of small-town Mississippi. Gloria Johnson from Boston. Rodney Powell from Philadelphia. Curtis Murphy from rural West Tennessee. Marion Barry out of the Mississippi Delta by way of Memphis. Eight of them. They are the dramatis personae of Halberstam’s script. Heroes all. Some sustain themselves with an immutable faith in God; some with no more than an intrepid resolve to stay the forces of injustice as buttress for the battle.

Most of the eight will quickly list David Halberstam as the ninth player in the cast, for he was very much with them. From the beginning in Rev. James Lawson’s Gandhian workshops, where "the children" were drilled in the draconian art of nonviolent resistance, to the mob-fested lunch counters where they were beaten, packed into police wagons, and hauled off to overcrowded jail cells, to burning Greyhound buses in Alabama, cattle pens, the state penitentiary in Mississippi, bloody streets in Georgia; through it all he was their scribe, confidant, and patron. Now he tells what he saw and what "the children" endured.

Because David Halberstam has given me a walk-on part in the drama, I should be judicious with my superlatives. Even so, I here declare that The Children is his most important work, as well as his finest writing. This book will undoubtedly become known as the definitive work on the role of college students in the civil rights movement of the ’60s.

It is no surprise that Halberstam, who has been called this generation’s equivalent of Theodore White or John Gunther, would do a masterful job of telling this story. Not only was he a journalistic participant, always more than a mere reporter, he has continued to chase the story for more than 40 years. His hefty following, which has continued to grow since he gave us The Best and the Brightest in 1972, will agree that it was time to quit chasing and write the tale. It is a noble bequest.

THAT HE WROTE this book is not surprising. What will surprise some is that the book is a moral and theological treatise. How are we to account for that? Halberstam is not religious in the formal sense of memberships, ritual, and declaration. From a Jewish family with 11 centuries of rabbis in his lineage, he was never bar mitzvahed, was married to a Lutheran in a Christian setting, and, if compelled to state his religious preference, would probably claim Humanism. And, although nothing inconsistent with Humanistic claims appears in his book, those of us who are Jews or Christians see our own tracks throughout.

When called the ninth of the players in his drama by one of the eight and asked what propelled him, Halberstam declined to answer. The next morning his wife heard him mumbling to himself as he shaved. When she asked what he was saying, he replied, "A simple sense of justice." He was answering Rodney Powell’s question of the night before.

All stories, Halberstam believes, should have a moral center, should have to do with justice. In that sense Halberstam leaves the purely objective reporter and becomes a moralist. Even though he is not a practicing religionist, he knows that the long history of Judaism, going back to its earliest beginning, left its mark on him. Eleven centuries of rabbinical ethical archives are somehow in his genes, more a part of him than perhaps he knows, driving him to identify with the oppressed "children" because his own people were oppressed. Whether he experienced overt anti-Semitism on the streets of the New York of his youth, or in the halls of Ivy, it was there and doubtless helped shape him into that which he would become.

His colleagues with whom I spoke all said of David the same thing. "He has this moral force," Russell Baker stated. "In another age, he would have been one of the Old Testament prophets." He isn’t sure which one. I would guess Amos, for it was Amos who roared like thunder at an earlier southern kingdom because of its piety, hypocrisy, and injustices. "This book is his testament," Baker continues. "It goes back to an age when his character was being formed."

"This story, which happened when Dave was but a child himself, shaped him as a journalist," Bill Kovich, curator of the Nieman Foundation, said. "The injustices he saw in the civil rights movement followed him to the Congo, Vietnam, and Poland," Kovich adds.

Whatever drove him, more than any writer I know—Christian, Jewish, or whatever—Halberstam saw the work the children were about in the ’60s as more than an attack on Southern ways, more than a secular movement. And he was driven by more than "a simple sense of justice," as significant as that is.

Instead, Halberstam seems to be saying that "the children" were messengers of God, not one more social movement. That is why Halberstam’s book is a theological message that should be of interest to every Christian.

The children were radiating what has already been done in the act of God in Christ. They were demonstrating incarnation over deification. God become human. Not human become God through good works. A God who continues to work in strange and mysterious ways.

HALBERSTAM intuited where the big story of mid-century was going to be while still in college. Upon graduation, bypassing the cream jobs of Boston, New York, and Washington, he packed his few meager possessions and went in search of it.

I met him on his first stop: The western part of Holmes County, Mississippi, where the Loess Bluffs drop sharply to form the Mississippi Delta, is one of the most rural and remote spots in America. On Thanksgiving Day, 1955, I first viewed this tall, raw-boned, chary sort of fellow who might be thought, upon first glance, to be not quite right...or to be up to something sinister. That disguise quickly faded when he began to speak.

We were both guests of people under siege for having views sympathetic to the recent Supreme Court decision (Brown vs. Board of Education) declaring segregated education unconstitutional. Trouble had been brewing throughout the Southland in the wake of that decision and nowhere was the contention more forbidding than where we were visiting—I as a bootleg preacher to bring encouragement and a small purse; Halberstam as a reporter for a small-town newspaper on the far side of the state.

He, I learned, had come to Mississippi a few months earlier immediately after having graduated from Harvard. I also learned that he had been editor of the Harvard Crimson. Although I was not generally a suspicious person, that a Harvard Crimson editor would go to work for a Mississippi newspaper with a circulation of 4,000 and a salary of $45 a week rather than Time or Newsweek, the usual starting place for Harvard editors, gave me pause. Might he be instead, I reasoned, an investigator for the State Sovereignty Commission, a state agency established to investigate and intimidate anyone suspected of subversive (interracial) views or activities?

Young Halberstam, I further learned, was a New Yorker. I was a native of the piney woods region of Mississippi. Piney woods men have a manner of circling one another when first they meet. I reckon it goes back to more untamed days of our Scotch ancestry when, upon first meeting, males had to decide if a physical encounter was indicated prior to any possible friendship or business dealing. That Halberstam was a reporter did not mean he was friendly. So my piney woods circling was to determine if he was there on a hostile mission. I learned early that he wasn’t.

Those we were visiting were part of a Christian missionary enterprise called Providence Farm. As a cooperative, it was suspect with the neighbors. Because it was interracial, it was anathema.

Providence Farms operated a medical clinic and cooperative store, organized federal credit unions, and carried on various community activities, summer camps, and auxiliary schooling for poor black children—anything to minister to the needs of the poor black people of Holmes County. The members had lived and worked in the country for almost 20 years. Providence Farm residents posited that implementation of the Court’s decision was just, right, and necessary.

The key word of the white establishment was "Never!" The local ethos, under the spell of Sen. McCarthy’s fantasy of an ever-threatening Red menace, saw them as possible communists. Feelings against the residents had been mounting steadily since the Court’s decision. A posse comitatus, more accurately a mob, had ordered members of the little interracial band to leave the state or suffer the most severe consequences.

"What can I do to help?" the young reporter asked when the story of the threats, blockades, and various forms of intimidation unfolded. In the months to come, this New York-reared, Ivy League-educated young outsider would, with pen and voice box, do much to aid the hapless little Christian band in their efforts to continue their services to the black families they loved. In the end he, and they, failed. The ensuing diaspora would find them scattered from nearby Tennessee to distant Arizona

Halberstam would not long remain in Mississippi either. While at Providence Farm, he had seen black crows strung on low-hanging limbs, part of the program of intimidation against the integrationists. In his report he wrote, "The Peckerwoods kill the crows and hang them in trees. The good people will not take them down." The inference was that the bourbons, who would not engage in crass behavior themselves, would support the Ku Klux Klan in its mischief. His editor told him that such poetic copy might preach up North but not in Mississippi. The sensitivities of his readers, he said, would not abide the zeal of the budding young journalist from up North, so he let him go.

David’s next stop was the Nashville Tennessean, where his story, The Children, begins. I had been on the staff of the University of Mississippi, but was also moving on to other fields of service. Halberstam and I arrived in Nashville about the same time.

What had impressed me the most about the tall young stranger that earlier Thanksgiving Day was that he saw what had happened to the little band of Christians in rural Mississippi as a theological crisis. As sad as it is to say, in 1955 the white Christian community in rural Mississippi was close to unanimous in believing that racial segregation was ordained of God. Into this setting arrived a young Jewish journalist approaching the nation’s most pressing social problem from the vantage point of Old Testament prophets and New Testament doctrine.

Halberstam was impressively conversant with the racial pattern in the South and how it had been formed. He often referred to Gunnar Myrdal’s book, An American Dilemma, saying it was the most important book he had ever read. As he talked one got the feeling that he had come south with the U.S. Constitution in one hand and the Holy Bible and Myrdal’s book in the other.

He became noticeably angry as he heard more of what was happening in the deep woods we were visiting. "This is wrong, wrong, wrong," I remember him saying. Also, as we stood under the huge beech trees of Providence Farm, waiting for the call to share the meager Thanksgiving fare of the two families soon to be exiled from the land they loved, he concentrated on the six kids in the house and what might happen to them.

I was struck by the irony of those hate-filled men—deacons, elders, and Sunday school teachers in their Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches—who were expelling the families, while this callow young Jew, a stranger untried in the ways of the white Southland of the mid-1950s, was reaching out in compassion. I should not have been surprised. It was from Halberstam’s spiritual ancestors that we Christians got our notion of justice. And Pope Pius XI said we are all spiritual Semites.

As we joined hands around the big table while one of the fathers gave thanks, I tried to remember the wording of the admonition to the Israelites in the wilderness about accepting the ger, the sojourner, the stranger as one of them. I knew the two of us were in the wilderness all right. But I wasn’t sure which was the ger. I knew I felt a oneness with the tall Yankee, and was grateful for his concern.

"The children" are scattered now. From Massachusetts where Gloria Johnson Powell is a full professor at Harvard Medical School, to Washington, D.C., where Marion Barry is mayor and John Lewis is a moral presence in Congress, to Nashville where Bernard Lafayette is a college president. And they are moving past middle years.

David Halberstam is back in New York, growing old with the rest of us and writing fine books. He and I have remained friends all these years, as he has with all "the children." They, and I, are beholden to him now for this passionate account of a bit of human history in which they had starring roles and in which I had, at best, a cameo walk-on part.

WILL CAMPBELL is a longtime preacher and activist and the author of several books, including

Race and the Renewal of the Church (1962) and Brother to a Dragonfly (1977).
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