The Children

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In the late 1950’s, Jim Lawson, an African American minister and civil rights activist, came to Nashville, Tennessee, where he held seminars instructing a number of young men and women in civil disobedience and nonviolent protest. These young African Americans, the children of the book’s title, held the first lunch counter sit- ins in Nashville, then went on to lead sit-ins and marches in other parts of the country and to organize and participate in the Freedom Rides, bus rides across the South designed to test recent United States Supreme Court desegregation rulings.

David Halberstam, then a twenty-five-year-old reporter for THE NASHVILLE TENNESSEAN, was assigned to cover the first sit-ins in February, 1960, and he uses his experience to trace the Civil Rights movement through its most forceful and fruitful years, 1960- 1965. He looks at events through the perspective of the student activists who participated in these sit-ins, including John Lewis, Marion Barry, Jim Bevel, Diane Nash, Gloria Johnson-Powell, and Bernard Lafayette. Halberstam provides an overall perspective on the events that shaped the Civil Rights movement, but he is at his best when he covers the day-by-day proceedings and the details of the participants’ lives. His you-are-there journalistic style creates an enthralling, vivid account of the Freedom Rides from the courage and the fear that went into their planning to the beatings of whites and blacks and the bus burning at Anniston, Alabama. THE CHILDREN’s only flaw is its excessive length.

Sources for Further Study

Black Issues in Higher Education. XV, September 17, 1998, p. 39.

Choice. XXXV, July, 1998, p. 1912.

The Christian Century. CXV, July 15, 1998, p. 689.

The Economist. CCCXLVIII, July 11, 1998, p. S8.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 22, 1998, p. 6.

The Nation. CCLXVI, May 11, 1998, p. 30.

The New York Review of Books. XLV, June 25, 1998, p. 27.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, March 15, 1998, p. 9.

Time. CLI, March 23, 1998, p. 86.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, March 22, 1998, p. 1.

The Children

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

When one thinks back to the great heroes and heroines of the Civil Rights movement, figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks immediately come to mind. Less well remembered are the thousands of young people—white and African American, from the South as well as the North—who served as the foot soldiers of the movement. Author David Halberstam dramatically recounts the courage and sacrifices of several participants in the sit-ins, Freedom Rides, and demonstrations that turned the tide against racial injustice in America.

After graduating from college in 1955, Halberstam began his career in journalism at a small-town Mississippi newspaper. He was fired after less than a year for publishing some freelance articles sympathetic to the emerging civil rights movement. His subsequent job at the Nashville Tennesseean, one of the state’s most influential newspapers, placed him at the birthplace of the nonviolent student movement. Halberstam was one of the few journalists at the time who truly knew what was happening. Most national reporters were outsiders who did not really understand the South. For a time he was the only one to cover the activities of the students. But Halberstam dreamed of becoming a foreign correspondent, and had he not been sent by The New York Times to cover the Congo in 1961 and Vietnam in 1962 (for which he won a Pulitzer Prize), he most certainly would have gained fame as a civil rights reporter. Soon the Nashville students would come to understand just how important national media coverage would be to their cause.

The central focus of the early part of the story is the work of James Lawson. As a young Methodist missionary, Lawson had traveled to India and was strongly influenced by the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi. He returned to America convinced of the power of nonviolent protest as an instrument of social change. When Lawson was thirty- one years old, King recruited him to train college students in the Gandhian techniques of passive resistance. Lawson went to Nashville, Tennessee, in 1959 to offer a series of workshops to students from nearby colleges. Their first victory was the desegregation of Nashville’s lunch counters, which helped to spread the civil rights struggle and to place the student leaders at the forefront. However, this also resulted in Lawson’s expulsion from the Vanderbilt Divinity School for his “radical” beliefs.

The idea of direct social action against segregation was seen by many older members of the Civil Rights movement as a dangerous course to take. They preferred a more gradual approach, challenging discriminatory laws through the courts. The 1954 Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education officially outlawed racial segregation, but most people believed that the actual implementation of desegregation orders would take some time, and many states had done little or nothing to comply. The older generation of African Americans had survived by grudgingly accepting the status quo and hoping that somehow the future would be better for their children. They believed that openly challenging segregation, especially in the Deep South, would bring violence and even death to those who dared to participate. Students coming into a southern city would be seen as “outside agitators,” and those who lived there and were sympathetic to the movement risked the loss of their jobs, their homes, or even their lives. All of these threats were very real, as the primary weapons of the Ku Klux Klan were fear and violence. Perhaps the students were somewhat blinded by their youthful idealism, but all were well aware of the risks. They went on to prove their commitment to the cause time and again, displaying remarkable courage in spite of being repeatedly beaten and jailed.

The ultimate challenge to the totality of segregation in the South was the Freedom Rides. Segregation of interstate public transportation facilities was prohibited by federal law, but this was rarely, if ever, enforced. The Kennedy administration was anxious to avoid any sort of confrontation in the South for fear of alienating the South’s strong Democratic base of support. The idea was to travel by bus through several southern states and attempt to use the segregated facilities at each stop. Arrests by the local police or threats of violence by local Klan groups would force the federal government to protect the students. The first Freedom Ride started in Virginia on May 4, 1961. When John Lewis stepped off the bus in Rock Hill, South Carolina, he was savagely beaten. During the next leg of the journey, from Atlanta, Georgia, to...

(The entire section is 1890 words.)