The Children, by David Halberstam (Random House, 1998) is organized in chapters focused on the important participants in the sit-ins that began in Nashville in 1960. The important participants in these events, such as Diane Nash and John Lewis, went on to become leading figures in the civil rights actions of the early 1960s. Halberstam tends to devote one chapter at a time to these individuals, moving back and forth among them, so that we come to understand and appreciate them as participants in as well as leaders of the movement.
The account of young college students who came from various backgrounds, some of them privileged, some not, is a tremendous story. In ways that few people their age today can imagine, they put their lives at risk, opposing a deeply engrained way of life that others were willing to fiercely, even violently, protect. Their persistence and courage, their deep belief in nonviolence, changed America.
For many of these students, the high point of their lives was their involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. Afterwards many of them discovered they had suffered trauma, the equivalent of traumatic stress syndrome, from which it took years to recover. Some went on to productive lives in politics, medicine, education, while others drifted. Halberstam traces the arc of their lives and careers in detail.
Diane Nash, whom previously I knew little about, was a beautiful, intelligent young women who dropped out of college to work in the movement. She held important leadership and administrative positions, playing as important a role as many of the males. Unfortunately, as was typical of the times, she did not always receive full credit for her contributions.
James Bevel, who for a short time was married to Nash, was a fiercely independent and iconoclastic figure. Unlike many members in the Movement, who were willing to discuss their plans and negotiate and compromise before reaching consensus, Bevel believed his way was always the right one. He was difficult to work with as a result. Martin Luther King was particularly wary of him. However, his fierce courage in the face of the worst forms of adversity made a major contribution. He became an anti-war activist later in the 60s and drifted away from many other members of the Movement. Late in life he allied himself with the Unification Church and Reverend Sun Myung-Moon.
Above all others, the figure who stands out is John Lewis. Although I knew of his participation in the Selma march, I was unaware of the important role he played in the Nashville sit-ins, and in the formulation of the nonviolent tactics of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. He comes across as the most devoted and deeply invested member of the group. He is a genuinely heroic American figure.
Marion Barry, like Lewis, came out of difficult surroundings in Alabama to participate in the Nashville civil rights actions. He held leadership positions during college on the NAACP and later for SNCC. When he enters politics in Washington, DC, gradually rising to the position of mayor, he suffers gradual personal deterioration and becomes the center of political corruption. Drug abuse, alcohol, sex, and money all brought him down. His second term as mayor ended in a jail sentence. He was soon after elected again to the city council and then again to the mayor’s position.
The book is too long and should have been compressed. There are too many instances of repetitious information, of accounts being repeated. This is by no means a fatal flaw, but it does make for slow going at points. Especially in the final chapters, Halberstam spends too much time spinning out the lives of the various participants after the Civil Rights years are over.