Unification News for November 1998

Book Review: The Children

Reviewed by Kathryn L. Coman

The Children, by David Halberstam (New York: Random House, 1998), 783 p.

"On the first day of the sit-ins, in Nashville, Tennessee, eight young black college students found themselves propelled into the leadership of the civil rights movement, as the movement-and America-entered a period of dramatic change. The courage and vision of these young people changed history."

With these words, Halberstam begins his documentary on these eight students, the events brought about by their actions and those around them. The events of the book begin in 1960. When I think about what I was doing in 1960, I realize that I was just 8 years old. Growing up in Michigan and not much interested in current events, I was completely unaware of these activities. Yet I found as I read, that much of what they did changed society in such a way that I and my family would be able to reap the benefits.

Since I married a black man in 1982 and have gone on to have three children, the issues these children faced and what is left to be done to eradicate racial prejudice between all races are now very personal issues. Though I have always been concerned about others, particularly those treated unjustly, what affects my children concerns me even more. Therefore, I decided to read this book and learn more about these events.

I found that as I read I learned more than just the events themselves. I was fascinated by reading about people I have met in my work with the activities of the Unification Church and organizations affiliated with the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. I also began to see great similarities between these young people and my fellow Unificationists-both in our early days in our movement and now as we are attempting to live a more middle class life. I believe there are some great lessons to be learned here.

I find that I also owe them a great deal. I have recently brought my family to live in my hometown. If not for the progress of the past thirty years, I would not have been able to do this. Last year on the other side of town, skinheads firebombed a white couple's home because they had just adopted a black child. The perpetrators were caught and prosecuted. To date, I have not seen any overt acts of racism toward my children or myself. Therefore, I'm grateful that these young people had the vision and the courage to do what they did. When I search my own soul, I don't know if I could have done it.This book centers around the following individuals-Diane Nash, John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, Curtis Murphy, Rodney Powell, Gloria Johnson, James Bevel, Marion Barry, Hank Thomas-and the adults who advised, were challenged by them, and worked with them-Martin Luther King, Jr., Kelly Miller Smith, Jim Lawson, C.T. Vivian, among others. I'll be honest with you, this is a long book. Yet I found the stories fascinating. Halberstam was very thorough. He covers the background and what brought each of these individuals into this situation, even family histories, and what happened to them afterward-i.e., how it changed their lives. The book is so well written that I find my points best made with direct quotations.

This is the story of the lunch counter sit-ins to de-segregate lunch counters, continuing on to the Freedom Rides and the campaigns for the black vote, including the influence of national television. The Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954 had laid the foundation for desegregation of schools. It was clearly only a matter of time before more than just the schools were desegregated. These students took it upon themselves, against the advice of their elders in Christ, their families, and their peers, to confront segregation head-on.

"An intuitive philosophy of the students in the Movement was ... born: The safer everything was, the less likely that anything important would take place. Changes would come only with risk; the greater the risk, the greater the change. The children were the first to understand that ... for they had not yet made the compromises which had been forced on their elders, and they were willing to resist those compromises, if need be, with their lives. They still lived in a world where the truth was absolute." (p. 276)

Lunch Counter Sit-ins

Jim Lawson was recruited by Martin Luther King and sent to Tennessee, after having spent some years in India and studying Gandhi and his teachings, where he taught workshops on non-violence which the students had attended. In these workshops, Jim Lawson taught two lessons. One, "that their numbers were not small because their idea was powerful." Two,

shedding the most powerful of all feelings-the shame of being black in a white nation which had chosen, as it suppressed its black citizens, to create a philosophy of shame and vulnerability among the very people whom it had suppressed and exploited, saying in effect that it was the victim's fault for turning out to be the victim. It was bad enough that white people seemed to accept this philosophy, but it was even worse that all too many blacks seemed to accept it as well.... In the process he had to destroy the cruel power of the magic word-nigger.... That was critical to the concept of Christian nonviolence. You are all someone, he taught, you are all children of God, you have within you the greatest of qualities, human nobility. (p. 77)

[T]he whole purpose of the Lawson ethic [was] to make people who were nominally your opponents get outside of their normal vision and see the human dimension wrought by segregation. (p. 237)

John Lewis' thoughts before the first sit-in were,

Jim Lawson had never tried to minimize the consequences-that some of them might even be killed. All they had was their faith, and they were bound together by that, he thought: faith in Jim Lawson as a teacher; faith in each other, that they would not let one another down at the moment of crisis; faith in what they believed was right; faith, curiously enough, in Nashville, a city they did not know and which had never been particularly generous or kind to them; faith in the country which would, they believed, somehow understand what they were doing and respond generously and support them; and finally, most of all, faith in their God, who would not allow His children to be punished for doing what was so obviously the right thing.... [H]e knew that it was also time to move ahead, and he liked the idea that as he entered this dangerous new world, he was not alone; that he was accompanied not only by his closest friends but, equally important, that he was acting on behalf of his God. He did not think of himself as being strong or brave, but he did believe that he had the requisite faith, and now he found in his faith the strength to go forward and do things which in another setting and under different conditions would have terrified him. (p. 106)

During one of the sit-ins, Jim Lawson began a conversation with the leader of the local toughs who were beating up two of the students.

In that brief frightening moment, Jim had managed to find a subject which they [Jim and the local gang leader] both shared and had used it in a way that made each of them more human in the eyes of the other.... It had been a marvelous example of Christian love for Bernard [Lafayette]. The lesson for Bernard Lafayette was obvious: It did not matter what the other person thought of you; it mattered only to do the right thing, to follow your conscience. In that split second of confrontation Jim Lawson had not only conquered his ego, he had forced his enemy I some basic way to try and see him as a man.... Too must time, he decided, was wasted in this country by people who worried how they looked to others, and too little time spent on simply trying to figure out what was the right thing to do. Christ had not worried about how he looked to others. If you did the right thing, he learned that day, it was all right to be misunderstood. (p. 138)

Kelly Miller Smith was the pastor for the local black Baptist Church.

Kelly Miller Smith had deflected the natural wariness of an older, more wearied generation with great skill; he had brought the young people into his church, had introduced them to his congregation, and he had lavishly praised what they were doing, outlining the terrible risks they were taking each time they set forth. And he had shrewdly chosen to refer to them not as the students. The children, he called them again and again, reminding the congregation that they were very young to be taking such chances, and suggesting as well that they were not alien blacks plunked down carelessly in this place, but the children of ordinary black people just like themselves, and could easily be the children of the congregation. They were the ones taking all the risks, he said, and they were doing it for all the people of Nashville, all the people of the South. (p. 177)

As for the American people, those ordinary people who lived outside the South, they were at that moment sitting on the fence. Americans liked to think of themselves as being above prejudice, and believing in both simple justice and elemental fair play.... Shown specific instances of injustice and brutality, the American people tended to sympathize with the victim. [C]ould those who were leading the Movement affect the national conscience in a way that would move the American political process forward on so broad a scale as to create a committed majority vision? That was the great question.... [T]hey had to lure the beast of segregation to the surface and show to ordinary Americans just exactly how it was that the leadership of the South maintained segregation ... by the exercise of raw and brutal police powers. (p. 254-255)

These students were very aware that there was a great possibility of dying during the Freedom Rides. They were riding into areas of the South in which segregation had a strong, brutal hold on the community. They only hoped that the federal government would intercede for their protection, but had no idea how or when that would take place.

Selma, Voters Rights and the Media

Early on, almost four years earlier when the Freedom Rides had first taken them into the Deep South, there had been no single, detailed strategy, but nonetheless they had all been building toward a showpiece battle in a showplace city on a defining issue for some time.... In some ways the Movement had been born with the Brown decision, and certainly there were all kinds of critical increments along the way-the violence of the Emmett Till murder, the real beginnings of nonviolent protest with the Montgomery bus boycott, and then ... the increasing pace of the assault on the Deep South.... Sometimes the price of what they were doing staggered even those who were the architects of the struggle, as in September 1963 on a Sunday morning when white segregationists ... had exploded a bomb in Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four young black girls.... Its leadership's greatest achievement was in portraying to ordinary Americans the divided soul of the country. But now, as they began to hone in on Selma, the very forces that made it attractive as a showpiece battle also guaranteed that the struggle would be a bitter one. (p. 482-483)

On February 16th, C.T. Vivian lead about 25 demonstrators to the courthouse to attempt to register to vote. Jim Clark, the local sheriff, blocked their entrance. Soon they were engaged in a heated argument,

almost all of it captured dramatically by national television. The subject was Jim Clark's role in history. Vivian turned to Clark's deputies and said, "There were those who followed Hitler like you blindly follow this Sheriff Clark, who didn't think their day would come, but they were pulled into a courtroom one day and were given death sentences. You're not that bad a racist but you're a racist in the same way that Hitler was a racist and you're blindly following a man down a road that's going to bring you into a federal court...." "What kind of people do you think we are that we can be bowed and broken by your violence? What kind of people are you? What do you tell your children at night? What do you tell your wives at night?" But Jim Clark had had enough of a history lesson. "Arrest this man," he shouted to his deputies.... It was high-class drama, and much of the nation was able to see it that night on television. (p. 501-502)

Insights into the Individuals Involved

There is a great deal of information about all those involved. I choose to quote several examples here that demonstrate the faith these individuals and their sense of destiny. Over and over, the point was made that they continued because someone had to do it. They knew they did not want to see their children have to go through it, because they themselves were afraid. It had to be done, and they believed there was no other way to do it. It had been more than 100 years since slavery had been ended, yet in so many other ways it had not.

John Lewis: John Lewis was a country boy. He

simply did not posture. He made his decision, he chose his course, he accepted the consequences of his decision because he had decided on a greater purpose for his life. That was his great strength. It was impossible to separate religion from politics in his philosophy. If they did not accept the idea of death, then they could not move ahead. Hank Thomas had no doubts about John's commitment, but he had plenty of doubts about his own. For a moment he envied this stolid young man,... the envy of an inner spirituality which turned an ordinary man into a person of unwavering faith. (p. 261)

After the Voting Rights Act was passed, black nationalism began to surface. John Lewis thought

that there was a certain sadness in all this; they had started just a few years ago when the wall had seemed almost insurmountable, and in five years of continual struggle they had made gains which were beyond everyone's imagination and expectation. But now that they were at the pinnacle of success, after they had achieved these remarkable victories, they were not only divided, but it was as if they had lost sight of their own objectives.... He had always believed in an integrated community, both black and white, politically and economically just, where the barriers between his children and those of white people might be ever smaller. It was the beloved community which Jim Lawson had spoken of, and he refused to turn away from it; it was a place where everyone was equal, and where love was more powerful than fear. It was a vision which fewer and fewer of his colleagues believed in. (p. 521-522)

He believed that "in the end it would lead only to greater political isolation at a time when all too many blacks were isolated from the good things in American life."

James Bevel:

There was no doubt that [James] Bevel was a man with a special vision all his own. Even his trademark yarmulke seemed to signify it. By 1961, he had taken to wearing a yarmulke at all times. He did it in part because he wanted to honor the Old Testament prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, whose strengths and truths he so greatly admired, and he did it as well because he thought of himself as being part Jewish. That is, he did not see how you could separate Judaism from Christianity; he did not see how anyone could be a Christian without being a Jew, or a Jew without being a Christian.... The effect of both the yarmulke and the shaved head was in some ways to sharpen the image of Bevel as the prophet, a biblical man who bore the teachings of the Old Testament with him at all times. Cross him, and you crossed all the other prophets. (Early on he had also started wearing old-fashioned country overalls as part of his own permanent protest of segregation-he did it in honor of all those black people who had been forced into poverty by racism.) (p. 437)

Jim Lawson: By 1968, Jim Lawson was a pastor in Memphis, having been transferred from Nashville. His reputation had preceded him.

They feared Lawson for the most interesting of all reasons-and I am indulging in psychiatry-they feared him because he was a totally moral man, and totally moral men you can't manipulate and you can't buy and you can't hustle ... and that's why they hung the label of super-radical on him. (p. 555)

Life after Protests

This is also the story of their lives after participating in such society-changing events. Halberstam chronicles what each of these individuals did with their lives after these events. The first to leave and resume mainstream life was Curtis Murphy.

Years later, after he had put his life back together, slowly and carefully, accommodating some of his expectations to his realities, he realized that he had been in a profound depression from the moment he had obeyed his father by walking away from the sit-in movement. It had been not only the most compelling experience of his life, but it had been the most fun.... Replacing a life so full with an ordinary life, one replete with the mundane and boring minutiae of daily existence, was much harder than he could have imagined; worse, it was done without any counseling. There was no school for former activists or revolutionaries where they told you how to get on with the rest of your life, and taught you how to become middle class again. (p. 460)

They did not think of themselves in those days as being gifted or talented or marked for success, or for that matter particularly heroic, and yet from that little group would come a senior U.S. congressman; the mayor of a major city; the first black woman psychiatrist to be tenured at Harvard Medical School; one of the most distinguished public health doctors in America; and a young man who would eventually come back to be the head of the very college in Nashville he now attended. Another of their group would become one of Martin Luther King's principal and most favored assistants, a young man who was so hypnotic a speaker that King often used him at major rallies as his warm-up speaker. Others would go on to lives which were relatively more mundane, and their days in this cause would remain the most exciting and stirring of their lives. (p. 7)


With the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., [t]he most obvious thing was that a singular era was over. It had begun in December 1955 in Montgomery, and it had lasted for twelve and a half years; the amount of change had been dramatic. Theirs had been a definable historic force unleashed in what was now, regrettably, a definable period.... The Movement had been predominantly black, although its aims were integrationist. Led as it was by black Southern ministers, it was religious, nonviolent, and marvelously and often clumsily democratic. It was ecumenical and above all, for people had often lost sight of this, it was optimistic. It was broad based, and it had constantly had one aim, to appear to the conscience of America. (p. 560-561)

I recommend this book to all who are concerned about racial issues, regardless of which races are involved. It is an excellent study of the attitudes necessary to change society at large. I hope we can all continue to make this world a better place.

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