The children acted history was made

March 22, 1998|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

"The Children," by David Halberstam. Random House. 745 pages.$29.95.

On Feb. 1, 1960, the children struck. Four black men, all of them freshmen at North Carolina A & T in Greensboro, N.C., walked up the local Woolworth's, bought a couple of items, then sat down at the lunch counter and ordered coffee.

Of course, they were refused. But their simple, defiant act ignited a new era in the civil rights movement. Other sit-ins

began after Greensboro. With each one, black and white college students entered the fight against segregation. Soon they were singing "We Shall Overcome."

David Halberstam's book is their story.

It is a great story of inspired bravery against incredible hatred and violence. Halberstam never loses the story. He just buries it under too much material, too many names, too many digressions that bring the narrative to a dead stop.

Yet within "The Children" lies a fascinating look at how young blacks helped shape the civil rights movement. The role of black ministers, epitomized by Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, has been well documented. Those men are in the background in this book.

Halberstam's focus is on the students who, perhaps by fate, attended Fisk, Meharry and other black colleges in Nashville in 1960. These people became friends, drawn together by the Rev. Jim Lawson's workshops on non-violence.

The students were primed to act. The Supreme Court's Brown decision had not changed their world. Sure, Central High School had been integrated in Little Rock, Ark., but Jim Crow still ruled with an iron fist and a shotgun. Those who had come from the north were shocked by Nashville's brand of segregation.

Halberstam begins with Lawson, whose teachings in the principles of Gandhi and King became the foundation for the Nashville students. Diane Nash, John Lewis, Jim Zwerg, Bernard Lafayette, Hank Thomas and others learned their tactics from Lawson. Halberstam was there, covering the early stories for the Nashville Tennessean.

He takes the reader to the sit-ins and onto the Freedom Ride buses. The complicity between the Ku Klux Klan, the White Citizen's Councils and local police in those days is frightening. Knowing they would not be protected, Freedom Riders often wrote their wills before boarding the buses.

Their actions, captured on film, brought memorable images into America's living rooms: a burned-out Greyhound bus, wrecked and smoking outside Anniston, Ala., while black and white Freedom Riders sit nearby, dazed; John Lewis and Jim Zwerg, splattered with blood after being beaten on a Freedom Ride in Montgomery, Ala.

James Bevel came up with the idea of using children during the campaign in Birmingham, Ala. From that came the film footage of firemen turning their powerful hoses on school children.

"The Children" exposes the generational fault line that opened up between the students and their elders. Initially, many older blacks resisted the movement, as did the more accommodating middle-class blacks. The black dishwasher at the Woolworth's in Greensboro called the four young men "a disgrace to the race." King and his inner circle sometimes found themselves at odds with the students.

Because "The Children" keeps such a tight focus, key events are glossed over. The murder of Medgar Evers in Jackson, Miss., is secondary to the beating of Bernard Lafayette, which happened the same night in Selma, Ala. King's assassination and its immediate aftermath receive barely a page.

The story of "The Children" is not ancient history. These men and women are still around. They are heroes, as much as any soldier. "The Children" is not a great book. But it adds greatly to our understanding of that extraordinary time and the ordinary young people whose courage helped change America.

M. Dion Thompson is a features writer at The Sun. He has worked as assistant bureau chief in the Anne Arundel bureau. He has been writing for newspapers for 12 years. In addition to The Sun, he has worked at the Miami Herald and the Hartford (Conn.) Courant.

Pub Date: 3/22/98

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