David Halberstam Affirmative actions from the "Children of God"
Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David Halberstam, author of The Powers That Be and The Fifties, remains convinced that, in today’s world, ideas matter. His latest book, The Children, (Random House, $ 29.95), chronicles the lives of eight black college students in the early days of the civil rights movement, from the winter day in 1960, when they seated themselves at a segregated Nashville lunch counter, to Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama.
Halberstam sought to bring their actions to life through his own perspective as a 25-year-old reporter for the Nashville Tennessean. As he studied the meaning and the legacy of their historic demonstrations, his own idealism was affirmed. “They were taught that they would win because their idea was just—and the power of an idea whose time had come is not to be underestimated,” he said.
The children’s heroism, he contends, lies in their courage to think and act on principles. He heralds those he calls “a group of young people—utterly unfavored by the circumstances of their birth—[who] risk their lives, even make out wills, go into the darkest part of America—Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia—the “valley of the shadow of death,” as they call it—in order to make this a better country.”
Today, their legacy permeates American culture. Without any support from the federal government, he said, the children won the sit-ins, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and they changed two presidents, the Justice Department and Congress. The years that followed only reinforce Halberstam’s view that the culture is improving.
“I’ve written a lot of stories,” he said, “and I'm not cynical. I’ve seen a lot of stuff go wrong and a lot of stuff go right and I remain relatively optimistic about the resilience of this society—the capacity of this society to somehow make itself better,” he said, though he acknowledges that cynicism is rampant. “A cynic,” he said, “covers Monica Lewinsky, William Ginsburg and Ken Starr and thinks they’re really important.” Halberstam, awarded with the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for his reporting during the Vietnam War, measures the success of the civil rights movement by the achievements of individuals.
“Who’s the most popular athlete in America? Michael Jordan. Who’s the most popular hostess in America? Oprah Winfrey. Who could have run for president and won? Colin Powell. We’ve come a long way—we haven’t come far enough—but there is dramatic change.”
“Recently, I was in Montgomery, Alabama,” he said, “and I walked past the portraits of George Wallace and Lurleen Wallace. I spoke to a mixed audience—black and white—at the Alabama Historical Society in the House of Representatives, where [president of the Confederacy] Jefferson Davis and [former segregationist] George Wallace had spoken. I’m not cynical.”
While he credits the accomplishments of those he mentions solely to each individual, even amidst the stellar success of today’s black superstars, Halberstam finds the mark of the movement’s youthful crusaders.
“There’s an acceptance in the country that we’re not a white country anymore—that Michael Jordan’s charm and talent supersedes his race, that what we see are his stunning ability and his glistening charms and that we see him as an individual,” he said. “Twenty, fifteen, ten years ago, he might have been that good a basketball player but Madison Avenue would have not believed that he could sell a product. Now, who do you want to sell your product? Michael Jordan. We’ve come a long way.”
Halberstam credits Rev. Jim Lawson with teaching the young activists tactical strategy and spiritual peace as they confronted racists in the deep south and proclaimed their individual rights. They practiced yelling “nigger” at one another in Lawson’s workshops and they sang “We Shall Overcome” for the first time. “He taught them things like: ‘if you’re being beaten and kicked [at a demonstration], I will put my body over you, so you’re less exposed. If you’re sitting [at a lunch counter] and they pour ketchup on your head, don’t turn around.’”
As they nurtured a quiet, noble idealism within their own souls, Lawson, Halberstam says, lighted the fire within.
“The most important value he taught the young activists was to love those who would oppress them,” he said. “Lawson taught them that they were as close to Jesus Christ as the richest white person in Nashville. He taught them that the society which had made them feel diminished because of slavery and segregation—with the worst schools, books, the back of the bus, the worst jobs and these awful racial epithets of “nigger, nigger, nigger”—that was not their fault. That did not define them. It only defined those who would oppress them. He taught them that they had nobility because they were the children of God.”
“I don’t think race or heritage is the only defining part of you. Michael Jordan is black, but he was taught by the best coaches in America, who saw only his skills,” he said. “The danger of multiculturalism is tribalism.” While the theme of personal liberation appears throughout the book—activist Diane Nash observed that she finally “felt a value to herself” when she participated in the sit-ins—Halberstam pegs the embryonic movement as an unmistakable example of Christian faith.
“I once asked [activist] John [Lewis],‚„how did you do it?‚ And he answered, ‘we had faith in our Lord. It was faith. Faith in Jim Lawson who had taught us so well. Faith in each other—that we would not divert each other at this time of need.’ Then, he paused and said, ‘and faith in this country which had never done anything for us or for our families.’ It’s a great answer. Later, when they’re about to go on the Freedom Ride, Lewis asked: ‘If not us, who? If not now, when?’
Halberstam is already at work on his next book, which would seem like a heroic epilogue to The Children. “I’ve been working very hard on a book about Michael Jordan,” he said. “Usually, I have a little breather when I finish a book, and, then, Random House and I couldn’t agree what the fourth book of my contract was and there was kind of a communal idea about Michael Jordan—if it is his last season—which it may or may not be.” He finished his thought: “But he’s playing better than ever.”
This 1998 article was published in the Los Angeles Daily News.