The Sit-In Kids -- `The Children' Follows The Story Of These Courageous Nashville Students And Their Nonviolent Civil-Rights Efforts
Special To The Seattle Times
------------------------------- "The Children" by David Halberstam Random House, $29.95 -------------------------------
Publishing a book on the civil-rights movement a month after the release of "Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65," the second volume of Taylor Branch's epic, is a little like releasing a movie about a doomed romance aboard the Lusitania a month after "Titanic" opened.
There's the distinct possibility your work will be overlooked.
This probably won't happen in the case of David Halberstam's "The Children." For one, Halberstam is among our most popular and respected journalist-historians, and whatever he publishes, from "The Best and the Brightest" to "The Fifties," gets noticed.
More important, his focus in "The Children" is not so much on Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as it is on the Nashville sit-in kids and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) - often described as the "shock troops" of the movement - whom he covered as a young reporter for the Nashville Tennessean back in 1960.
Thus, unlike more traditional civil-rights books, this one does not end with the assassination of King but continues into the 1990s, as we follow the disparate paths these civil-rights pioneers took after the heady days of the Freedom Rides, Birmingham and Selma.
Students come together
As students from the four black colleges in the Nashville area,
they came together in November 1959 to study in nonviolence workshops conducted by the Rev. James Lawson Jr. A black Methodist minister and onetime missionary in India, Jim Lawson also was a student of the teachings of Mohandas Ghandi and a Korean War conscientious objector who had served nearly a year in federal penitentiary as a draft resister.
Lawson's workshop students included a future U.S. congressman (John Lewis) and a future Washington, D.C., mayor (Marion Berry), as well as future doctors, professors, teachers and principals. All were chafing under the molasses-like way that the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education ruling was being instituted in Southern states.
These young people had been inspired by the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56, and they were ready to take matters a step further. Rather than simply ignore those facilities that segregated blacks from whites, they would forcefully - but peacefully - integrate "whites-only" areas, specifically the lunch counters in Nashville's downtown shopping district.
Training went on for three months, and weekly lunch-counter sit-ins began on Feb. 13, 1960. Two weeks later, on "Big Saturday," they were attacked by a mob of angry whites. Eighty-one students - and none of their tormentors - were arrested. The eyes of the nation, as they say, turned to Nashville.
Halberstam is extremely effective at describing the machinations with which white businessmen - particularly James Stahlman, publisher of the conservative Nashville Banner - attempted to thwart these protests. Unfortunately, he is less effective portraying the preparation and actions of these pioneers: Though the Nashville events take up one-third of "The Children," Halberstam's plodding, repetitive style never gives us the feel of participating in one of Lawson's workshops or of sitting on a lunch stool during a protest. Halberstam always seems to be building toward some climactic event - then describing it in by-the-way fashion.
A greater problem is his apparent methodology. Halberstam relies extensively on interviews, which he then paraphrases into a third-person account. As a result, rather than the historian's attempt to gather and offer all points of view, we get all-too-human myopia translated into authoritative language.
One of the students, James Bevel, was considered something of a loose cannon, and "quite predictably, (was) not regarded as very much of a team player," writes Halberstam. "Not many prophets are."
Is Halberstam telling us that Bevel is a prophet? Bevel rightly takes credit for including children in the subsequent Birmingham protests (it was the tactic that, in the end, won the day). But he and Halberstam also seem intent on wresting the idea for the March on Washington away from A. Philip Randolph, head of the first major black trade union, who suggested the march as early as 1942.
By the 1990s, when Bevel shows up in the offices of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and suggests another March on Washington - "albeit for black men" - Bevel seems less prophet and more Forrest Gump, forever being grafted onto another Great Moment in Black History. Corroboration, beyond Bevel's say-so, would have been appreciated.
For some of the students (Curtis Murphy, Rodney Powell), the Nashville sit-ins marked the high point of their involvement in the Movement. For others (Bernard Lafayette, Diane Nash, Bevel and Lewis), it was only the beginning, and Halberstam follows the lives of a dozen of them.
In this way, "The Children" is part history, part "Whatever happened to . . .?" The fact that it focuses on courageous though largely unknown people who have been given short shrift by history makes it, despite Halberstam's repetitions and tendency toward overexplanation, an essential volume in any library of the civil-rights movement.
Above all, "The Children" is an unapologetic paean to the belief in integration - an attitude we need more of in these violent, separatist times.
Erik Lundegaard is a Seattle writer and frequent contributor to Washington Law & Politics. ------------------------------- Book report
David Halberstam will discuss and autograph "The Children" in two Seattle appearances on April 9. At 5 p.m., Halberstam will be at Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St. (206-624-6600), and, at 7:30 p.m., he will be at University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E. (206-634-3400).
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