May 22, 1998
David Gergen, editor-at-large of U.S. News & World Report, talks with David Halberstam about his new book, The Children.
DAVID GERGEN: David, in the brief time we have we cannot do justice to the drama and moral force of this story, but sketch out, if you can, the outlines.
DAVID HALBERSTAM, Author, "The Children:" Well, it’s a compelling story. In February 1960, a fast backwarding, it’s six years after Brown Vs. Board of Education, the landmark case on ending segregation. A group of young black students in Nashville, a border state, a liberal—seemingly liberal—city, and nothing has happened in their lives to change it. And so they take courses in Christian non-violence and Gandhi and non-violence from a brilliant young minister, Jim Lawson, and with that, they make an assault upon downtown restaurants, which will take their money but not serve them at their counters.
DAVID GERGEN: Jim Lawson—black—had been persuaded to join this effort by Martin Luther King.
DAVID HALBERSTAM: Very similar background to Dr. King. Both sons of black ministers, born in the same year, a great sense of civic non-violence in a Gandhian way was the answer. Jim Lawson had gone to India for three years, spent a year in a federal penitentiary, because he didn’t believe in the Korean War, in that violent a scenario. And so when King met him, and they met at Oberlin in 1958, and they started exchanging bios, and Jim said, well, one day I would like to come down, get my doctorate, and I’ll come down, he said, come now, we need you now; you’re way ahead of the curve. You know, it’s exploding around us. So he comes down, and one of the first things he does is teach these young people the power of an idea.
DAVID GERGEN: The Lawson teaching I found to be absolutely fascinating.
DAVID HALBERSTAM: Well, there are two aspects. One, that you had to love those who would oppress you. You had to—you know, you had to find the love of Jesus Christ, that you would love your neighbor, love everyone around you. But you couldn’t do that until you loved yourself. You had to find self-esteem, and these were black kids, and called pejorative names all their lives and been suppressed, and taught them self-esteem first, that if they esteem themselves, then they could find the goodness to love the segregationists. That was part one. Part two was the power of the idea, that, you know, you had no money, there’s the segs, and they have a mayor and the police and the restaurant owners, they’ve got all the power levers. But if your idea is powerful, you do the right thing in the right way, then the restaurant owners either have to accede to you, or they arrest you, in which case you begin the process—and this is quite Gandhian—of martyrdom. And if you’re a martyr, then you’re no longer anonymous; you have power from your action. And it was a prophetic vision.
DAVID GERGEN: When these young kids came out of these—out of these workshops and started this—you were a young reporter at that time, just graduated from college.
DAVID HALBERSTAM: It was amazing! You could see it. I mean, I was a kid. I was innocent, but I knew I was watching history.
DAVID GERGEN: Did you think they were going to win?
DAVID HALBERSTAM: Yes, yes, because I saw their purpose. I saw their dignity. I knew I was watching the cream of Southern young black manhood and womanhood who were doing this thing, that there was—the word I would use now that I didn’t have the grasp of then was nobility, that—I mean, people were raining down rocks and epithets, pouring ketchup on them, pouring coffee on them, putting out cigarettes on the back of their hand, and they were oblivious. Their vision of what they were doing was so powerful, I thought they’d win. And I also didn’t think that it would end with a cup of Woolworth’s coffee and a Woolworth’s hamburger, and I was right. A year later, the go into the valley of the shadow of death—as they call it—they take over the freedom rides into Alabama and Mississippi.
DAVID GERGEN: Right. And that really turned the civil rights—
DAVID HALBERSTAM: That really ratcheted up, and it makes it—becomes part of a great national moral teleplay, with Martin Luther King sort of casting it; the young people I write about, who were the infantrymen, the foot soldiers, you know, John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, James Bevel, Diane Nash, they’re out putting their bodies on the railroad tracks, and the idea is we will go into the most dangerous venues, Bull Connor in Birmingham, Jim Clark, the sheriff in Selma, and we will risk our lives and television cameras will be there, and reporters will be there, and America will witness it. And what they were doing was they were taking a white hat and putting it on black heads and black heads and putting it on Jim Clark and Bull Connor, and it was brilliant, and in four years they won.
DAVID GERGEN: And they were beaten.
DAVID HALBERSTAM: Beaten. They were almost killed. Bernard Lafayette, who’s one of the young heroes in this book, I mean, was almost murdered in Selma. He was the first guy to do voter registration in Selma. On the night that Medgar Edwards was murdered, they almost murdered Bernard as well. I mean, by chance he escaped. There’s a picture of him in there that looks like he’s beaten half to death. The level of heroism—but David, it’s not just heroism. It’s a special kind of heroism, because it’s driven by faith. This is a religious movement. This is black Protestant Christianity, with a Gandhian overtone of how to do it. And it’s faith. I mean, faith drives them. I once asked John Lewis, who is, I guess, my favorite public citizen. I said, John, where did the courage from?
DAVID GERGEN: A congressman.
DAVID HALBERSTAM: Congressman. He said, faith, faith in our God, faith in Jim Lawson, White House o had taught us so well, faith in each other that we would not, you know, desert each other in this moment of need, a little smile--he said, and faith in this country, which had never done anything for us or for our parents and families. So it really is a great moment of faith.
DAVID GERGEN: The other part of this, these were ordinary people.
DAVID HALBERSTAM: Yes.
DAVID GERGEN: These were kids who were not—
DAVID HALBERSTAM: Not even ordinary. They were in a way—I mean, that’s the great thing. I love the book, because it’s about democracy in action. This is the best moment in American democracy since World War II and not because Lyndon Johnson signs an act or Burt B. Hickamooper switches sides, but because young Americans least advantaged, from the poorest part of the country, the poorest parents, born late in the Depression, in the South, black parents, barely in the cash economy, most of them about to be the first members of their family to go to college, take it unto themselves, risking their lives, making out wills when they go into Birmingham and Selma, making out—19 year old kids—to make this country better, and they do it. And it’s an incandescent moment.
DAVID GERGEN: Do you think the civil rights movement would have succeeded without them?
DAVID HALBERSTAM: No. It wouldn’t have succeeded without them. It wouldn’t have succeeded without Dr. King and the group around him, and it wouldn’t have succeeded without the coming of television at that particular moment. I think the fact that they could amplify this as a moral story into the homes of so many millions of Americans on this brand new instrument, national network television, in its infancy, when it was just going through fifteen to thirty minutes, Huntley, Brinkley, and Cronkite, the innocence of the instrument and the innocence of the country watching all came together. It’s an amazing moment.
DAVID GERGEN: What does this all tell you about white America?
DAVID HALBERSTAM: I think it teaches you—I mean, the system can be changed, that there is a reservoir of goodness and a desire for a just society, but it has to be done in the right way, at the right time, you have to sort of create a condition, and you have to appeal to an American sense of fairness. So I think there’s a powerful desire in America for two things: to have your own kids live a better life than you lived, or at least as good a life, and secondly, a sense of fairness that other people’s kids should have this good a life and as fair a shot as yours. I think that’s elemental in our society.
DAVID GERGEN: What lessons for today?
DAVID HALBERSTAM: Well, I think that the society can be changed; that there’s elasticity; that the country can under certain conditions listen; that people want a better country; they want a fair country; that if you make people understand what doesn’t work and what should work. It can be done. It’s more complicated now, because this was an assault upon legal and state sanctions segregation, and now to the degree that racism exists, it’s much more pernicious. It’s the historic relic of 200 years of a troubled history from slavery, but it still can be done. I think people want a good country.
DAVID GERGEN: It takes some people with moral passion.
DAVID HALBERSTAM: Passion—commitment--and willingness to pay a price.
DAVID GERGEN: David Halberstam, thank you very much.