The Children Shall Lead

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.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 1998
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