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In 1958, Robert Coles, a physician serving in the United States Air Force and beginning a career as a child psychiatrist, first encountered the racially segregated Deep South. Over several years he held weekly conferences with the black children who were integrating the public schools, and he met also with their parents and advisers and with whites who were caught up in the crisis. Soon he became a civil rights activist. This almost casual beginning led to the lasting commitment that underlies his career as a social critic.

Children of Crisis, the centerpiece of his literary work, is a five-volume study of American youth in the years of social crisis, from about 1958 to 1970, when the Civil Rights movement was most active and when vast numbers of Southern rural poor, uprooted from their homes, migrated to Northern and Midwestern cities. Four volumes concentrate on racial minorities and on poor, chiefly Appalachian whites; the fifth treats wealthy children.

The first and most famous volume describes the Southern children caught up in the earliest efforts to integrate the public schools, especially those in New Orleans and in Atlanta with whom he worked closely for several years, and moves out from the base of his observations of these children to describe their families, the civil rights workers, and the local white figures who opposed the movement, supported it, or were involved in it without taking a personal stand. Later volumes focus on migrants, sharecroppers, mountaineer families of the Appalachians, Chicanos, Indians, Eskimos, and Southern working-class families, black and white, who have moved to Northern cities.

In all volumes, Coles reports at length on his conversations with children, their elders, and certain figures significant in their communities (teachers, clergy, law officers, social workers, and office holders), but he is principally concerned with the children themselves. Disguising their identities, he reports their states of mind, often in their own words, as they describe, evaluate, and speculate on their lives and problems. He presents the social and psychological context for their remarks, describing the terrain, economic and social dynamics, culture, and political patterns of their lives. Thus, he provides extended descriptions of camps and of migrant travel, and his book on the affluent analyzes their choices of vacation residences and second homes. In each volume he discusses his working methods, explaining his long-term involvement with the people whom he is studying and the fairly limited extent to which he brings psychoanalytic techniques to bear on his material.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 89

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