The Children by David Halberstam
reviewed by Dr. Sherry E. Adrian
Department of Education
I am old enough to remember a sign on a laundromat door that said “Whites only.” This is a somewhat cloudy, dreamlike recollection, and I sometimes question whether my mental image is accurate. However, I am quite clear in my memory of the weekend bus rides I took with my grandmother from the suburb of Oak Cliff to downtown Dallas. The Black women always sat at the back of the bus. These memories depict my early awareness of the societal differences between my world and that of African-American people during the late 1950s.
I was raised in a family that expressed its bigotry openly through our attitudes, language, and skewed perceptions of what it meant to be Black. Two important events happened in the 1960s that created a desire in me to abandon my family’s teachings. One day at school when I was ten years old, I stood on the playground talking with my friends. I was telling the true story about a boy who had broken into our home to spend several afternoons running away from his family. The important detail I felt compelled to emphasize in my story was that he was Black. I cannot bring myself to write the specific manner in which I told this story to my friends, but at a critical point in my storytelling, a Black classmate walked up behind me. I didn’t know he was there. As I finished my story, I turned to look directly into Ronald’s eyes. I saw the hurt I caused. I felt his shame…and mine. This moment in time is burned into my memory. If there is a Hellfire, it is in the burning sensation of shame on my face when I knew that Ronald had heard what I said.
The second event came approximately one year later when my family moved to a new neighborhood, and I changed schools. On the day that I received my first report card in seventh grade, I broke my back in a fall from a rope swing. The result was a spinal cord injury that led to two years of rehabilitation. Thirty-three years ago this meant living approximately 250 miles away from home for long stretches of time. While significant in many ways, perhaps the most significant was that my family was no longer the only major influence in my development of values. At the age of twelve, I lived with and learned form the nurses, aides, therapists, and other patients who were either African-American or Hispanic. For the first time in my life, I was typically the only white person in my community with the exception of a few doctors whom I rarely saw. I learned to appreciate and love people I had been taught to devalue and hate.
It is these life experiences which draw me to books about historical and contemporary issues of African-American life in the United States. I believe I am trying to resolve in myself my history of disregard for people of color, and to develop a better understanding of myself and others. In doing so, I hope that I am better able to help my students examine the power of their histories.
Halberstam’s The Children is an historical chronology of “the events which took place in Nashville and then throughout the Deep South…” beginning in 1957. Of course, many earlier actions had taken place but this decade brought forth two young men who ultimately became known world-wide as leaders in the Movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. and James Lawson, both of whom were ministers. Halberstam was a journalist who began covering the Movement when the first sit-ins began at the Walgreen’s lunch counter. He enhances his account with detail and emotion based on hundreds of hours of personal interviews with many of the people involved, both at the time and in more recent interviews. I like the style that Halberstam uses to introduce each person by describing their family background, education, personality, and values, and how these details played a role in the individual’s commitment to nonviolent actions. I am impressed that Halberstam explored the influence that the young Black women had on the Movement, as well as the various roles that some white students had in supporting the civil rights struggle.
The title of the book is an interesting detail of the story. Some Black churches were concerned about becoming associated with the Movement. Understandably, congregations feared that the students would be hurt or that their actions would result in retaliation toward the Black communities. One minister swayed his congregation with a sermon by calling the students “the Children,” to reduce the perception of “radical students,” and made the church members think of the students as children doing God’s work.
To say that his book, among others, helped to affirm that I don’t know history in the more inclusive sense is an understatement. The Childrenprovides an in-depth look at the power of nonviolent action in moving mountains such as segregation. It is also a look at the power of young people to shape their own destiny rather than accepting what others may have determined for them.
Another interesting aspect of the book was reading about the influence that Black churches and universities had in supporting or impeding these young people in their fight for equality. A particular revelation for me was reading about the dissension that sometimes arose between the young students and their parents. Many of “the Children” made tremendous sacrifices in their family relationships because their parents were fearful or disagreed with the college students’ commitment to being a part of organizations such as SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which provided a place of sanctuary and leadership in the fight for equal rights.
I do have a concern about the author’s perspective. I wonder if Halberstam’s account portrays the personal experience of the individuals about whom he writes. Can his personal experiences as an observer—as a white journalist—adequately represent the life experiences of Diane Nash, Jim Lawson, Gloria Johnson, Curtis Murphy, Jim Bevel, Lillian Lewis, and the many other young college students who dared to change the lives of African-American people in the United States? I’ll just keep reading more books on historical and contemporary issues in the lives of African-American people to discover others’ perspectives.