The Children

The Children

by David Halberstam


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The Children by David Halberstam

A remarkable true story of heroism, courage, and faith

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780449004395
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/28/1999
Pages: 800
Sales rank: 246,948
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.80(d)

About the Author

DAVID HALBERSTAM graduated from Harvard, where he had served as managing editor of the daily Harvard Crimson.  It was 1955, a year after the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public schools.  Halberstam went south and began his career as the one reporter on the West Point, Mississippi, Daily Times Leader.  He was fired after ten months there and went to work for The Nashville Tennessean.  When the sit-ins broke out in Nashville in February 1960, he was assigned to the story as principal reporter.  He joined The New York Times later that year, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his early reports from Vietnam.  He has received every other major journalistic award, and is a member of the Society of American  Historians.  His previous nine books have all been bestsellers.

David Halberstam has been called "this generation's equivalent of Theodore White and John Gunther" by The Boston Globe.  Of David Halberstam's books, the critics have said about  The Best and the Brightest, "a rich, entertaining and profound reading experience" (The New York Times); about The Powers That Be, "moves with all the speed and grace of a fine novel" (Chicago Tribune); about The Reckoning, "Halberstam manages to write business history with an investigator's skill and a novelist's flair" (The Washington Post); about The Fifties, "sinfully entertaining" (Newsweek); about The Breaks of the Game, "the best book [he] has written" (The Washington Post); about The Amateurs, "one of the best books ever written about a sport" (Newsweek); about Summer of '49, "dazzling...a celebration of a heroic age" (The New York Times); about October 1964, "masterful...memorable" (The Washington Post).

Date of Birth:

April 10, 1934

Date of Death:

April 23, 2007

Place of Birth:

New York, New York

Place of Death:

San Francisco, California


B.A., Harvard, 1955

Read an Excerpt


The events which were just about to take place first in Nashville and then throughout the Deep South had been set in motion some three years earlier in February 1957, when two talented young black ministers, both of them strongly affected by the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi, had met in Oberlin, Ohio. One of them, Martin Luther King, Jr., was already world famous, having led the successful Montgomery bus boycott which had begun in December 1955, thereby emerging as the best-known leader of a new generation of black ministers; a year earlier he had been named the head of a new organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a group of young activist black ministers who intended to use the techniques of Christian nonviolence to challenge segregation throughout the South. The other minister, Jim Lawson, was unknown not only to the country at large but to the other leaders of what was already becoming known as the Movement, Jim Lawson had entered Oberlin College a few months earlier in order to get his master's degree in religious studies. His more traditional academic and ministerial career had been interrupted for the past four years, first by nearly a year spent in a federal prison as a conscientious objector, a young black ministerial student who had rejected his government's rationale for the Korean War and had refused to register for the draft; and then, after he had been released from the federal penitentiary, by three years studying and teaching as a Methodist missionary in India.

India had been a rich experience for Jim Lawson and had strengthened his belief in nonviolence as an instrument for social change, to be used eventually in the emerging civil rights struggle in the United States. Jim Lawson, son of a distinguished minister, was determined to be not just a minister but an activist minister, a man who used the church not merely to comfort the members of his congregation but to spread a social and political gospel as well.

In his last two years overseas Jim Lawson had felt a growing pull to return to the United States, a pull which began the moment he read in the Indian papers of developments in Montgomery, Alabama, where ordinary black citizens, led by a sophisticated, well-educated young minister named Martin Luther King, Jr., were putting nonviolent resistance to the most practical application imaginable. The more Jim Lawson read about the Montgomery bus strike, the more excited he became. The specific issue was the desegregation of the city's bus lines, but Jim Lawson understood immediately that it was not just the bus lines which were being challenged but the entire structure of segregation--in Montgomery and in every other city and town in the South. What was happening in Montgomery, he believed, was merely the first stage of what was going to be a long and difficult struggle. Reading about it in Nagpur, he knew it was time to go home.

What Martin King and his people had done in Montgomery represented a new and critical increment of change in what he viewed as a long historical process of the black struggle for equal rights in America. It was something Jim Lawson had long expected. Back when he had been in college and studying about Gandhi for the first time, he had read about the great Indian leader's meeting with Howard Thurman, probably the most distinguished black minister of his time. Thurman had always been fascinated by what was happening in India. He had written a short book called Jesus and the Disinherited, which was a reflection on Christ and racism in America. As their talks were ending Thurman had asked Gandhi what message he should take back to America, and the Indian had said that one of his great regrets was that he had not made nonviolence more visible throughout the world. But perhaps, he had suggested, some American black man would succeed where he had failed, because America offered such a formidable platform for the world. There it sat, Gandhi had said, a powerful modern nation, and yet it had its own domestic colonial oppression within. For the first time, reading about Martin Luther King in Nagpur, Lawson had sensed that this young minister in Montgomery was the black American whose coming Gandhi had first prophesied. (In that sense his views paralleled those of Glenn Smiley, who was to become one of Lawson's foremost mentors in a group called the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and who on meeting King in Montgomery had written of his chance of becoming a "Negro Gandhi.") Gandhi, Lawson came to believe, had shown in those talks with Thurman that he understood America better than America understood itself.

Martin Luther King and the men around him, Lawson believed, symbolized the rise of a new generation of black religious leaders. They were better educated than their predecessors, and more confident than them as well, because they were backed now by the moral authority of the Supreme Court of the United States, which in 1954 had ruled in Brown v. Board of Education. Theirs was nothing less than an appeal to the nation's white Christian conscience to redress age-old grievances. More, they were using the tactics employed by Gandhi himself in attaining independence for India, the very tactics which Lawson himself believed in.

As Jim Lawson readied himself to leave Nagpur and return to the United States he believed he saw his own future quite clearly. The three years in India had been everything he had wanted, and he had often felt that he was walking in Gandhi's footsteps. But there was also no doubt that because of his time there and his time in prison, he was in danger of falling behind his own schedule for getting both his advanced degrees as well as his pastorate. He would start by getting his master's at Oberlin in Ohio, a famous school with an unusually liberal faculty and a strong department of religion that was not far from his home in Massillon, Ohio. After Oberlin he intended to go on to Yale Divinity School for his doctoral studies. Then, properly credentialed, he would go to the South, where he could become an important part of the movement which had sprung up in Montgomery.

By chance, a few months after Jim Lawson had arrived at Oberlin in the fall of 1956, Martin Luther King was invited to speak there. The man behind the invitation was a young professor named Harvey Cox, himself at the beginning of a distinguished theological career and at the time the director of religious activities at Oberlin. Cox had heard King speak in Nashville a year earlier and had immediately decided that he ought to bring this remarkable man to the Oberlin campus. He had scheduled him for three appearances in one day: a noon assembly on "The Montgomery Story"; a second speech on Gandhian techniques, "Justice Without Violence," in the midafternoon; and finally a panel that night on "The New Negro in the New South." Despite (or because of) the fact that Oberlin was an extremely liberal place, there had been some debate over where King should speak; some faculty members were supportive of King's presence, but only as long as he spoke in a specifically religious setting; if too secular a setting were chosen it might imply that the school was inflicting religion on its students. In time a decision was made: King would make two of his three appearances at First Church, a local Congregational church. That seemed to be a worthy compromise and the liberal opposition soon died down. Still, Cox was utterly unprepared for what happened next. All morning chartered buses arrived from Cleveland and other surrounding cities and towns in Ohio, and large numbers of black people had filed into both the chapel and the local church. Clearly the word had gotten out all over Ohio, Cox realized, and he was amused by the irrelevance, indeed the foolishness of the faculty debate to which he had so recently been a party.

For Jim Lawson it was a particularly moving day. He was stunned by the size of the crowd and the emotion that these ordinary people brought to the church. Martin Luther King was everything he had hoped for, a brilliant speaker who was able to reach a vast variety of people. After King's first speech, Cox, who was the campus minister, had given a small informal luncheon for King in a private dining room at the school's cafeteria. Jim Lawson had become something of a favorite of Cox's, and he had been invited to the meal, a not inconsiderable honor for a new graduate student, but Cox was already impressed by the unusual inner force and drive of Jim Lawson and his commitment to nonviolence. He thought these two young men, who were almost exactly the same age--both of them twenty-eight, with Lawson four months older--should meet.

Lawson was impressed on that day by King's simplicity. He was already one of the most famous young men in America, for his face had graced the cover of almost every national magazine, and he could regularly be seen on the nightly fifteen-minute black-and-white network newscasts. Indeed if anything, his international fame was even greater in comparative terms than his fame in America, for the nonwhite world was not only more aware of the universality of his message than many of his fellow Americans but often more receptive to it. The rest of the world regarded King as a critically important new moral voice, a man with the requisite heroism and inner spiritual strength to go against the grain of racism in his native land.

King was clearly a remarkable speaker, Lawson thought: alternately cool and rational, and then impassioned and emotional. He had been, as he often was, extremely skillful that day in reaching both the university community and the black Baptists who had driven over to hear him. It was not that there was a little for everyone in his speech, Lawson thought; there was a lot for everyone in it. When the speech was over, Jim Lawson had gone to the luncheon and had found to his good fortune that most of the other guests were late, and he had about ten minutes alone with King. Martin King wore his fame and his burden lightly, Jim Lawson thought. He seemed simple and modest and open, far more obsessed by the issues he was confronting than by any idea of personal glory. He traveled without an entourage, a young black man taking on what seemed a Herculean task, armed with nothing but his beliefs and his faith, and his increasing awareness that he had been selected by forces outside his reach for a task far larger than any he had either sought or wanted; that he had been chosen by fate for a position of leadership in a movement that was far more powerful than any one man; and that his voice was something of a gift, a voice that belonged to others but had been granted to him. If this was not something he had sought, then somehow he was resigned to accepting it.

They had talked quickly to each other in a kind of shorthand, two cerebral young black ministers with much in common, both the sons of successful pastors, though of different denominations. They shared comparable backgrounds, mutual ambitions, and strikingly similar beliefs. They had swapped the tiny tidbits of identity as all Americans do as they sought to place each other. Martin King had been to the Boston University School of Theology, which was a Methodist school. Jim Lawson had a good many friends there and spoke of professors at B.U. whom he knew who were close to Martin. They both had been strongly influenced by Howard Thurman. There was, of course, a certain gap between them, one that was both theological and cultural, King being a Baptist and Lawson a Methodist, that being no small difference in black ministerial and political circles.

Lawson spoke of his particular interest in what King and the others had done in Montgomery because of his own personal experiences, first as a prisoner in a federal penitentiary and then as a student of nonviolence in India. As Jim Lawson began to discuss his background, Martin Luther King became very interested, for King had a quick sense that this man, who did not, as so many others did, claim to be a brother, was someone with a very similar vision of the struggle ahead, and a man who had acted upon conscience early in his life, when that kind of action was hardly fashionable. There were not many black ministers, after all, who had gone to prison because of their rejection of the Korean War.

When Lawson mentioned his time in India, King had gotten excited and had spoken about his own vague plans to go there and study. "I'd love to do that someday," he said, but he said it wistfully, in a way which showed that the moment was somehow already past. Then Jim Lawson had spoken of his own plans. "I've always wanted to work in the South and I hope to do it as soon as I've finished all my studies," he said. He said this almost casually, thinking that his time frame was about five years: First he would finish Oberlin, then go on to Yale, and then as a newly minted Yale doctor of divinity, he would venture down to some endangered place in the South. His was the most orderly of timetables. Years later he was quite amused by the casual way in which he had said this. But Martin Luther King was fascinated by the discovery of this kindred soul, who seemed to see politics and religion blended together into an activist gospel that had not merely a larger strategic purpose but tactical goals.

As such King had quickly interrupted him. "Don't wait! Come now!" he had said. "We don't have anyone like you down there. We need you right now. Please don't delay. Come as quickly as you can. We really need you."

There had been no doubting the urgency in King's words, and Jim Lawson had understood immediately what he was saying: Events are exploding, they are ahead of us, we are trying to catch up with them, and we need all the good people we can get to combine politics and theology each day in our activism and somehow not lose our way. We are becoming teachers when we are still so young that we ought to be nothing but students. It was as if he was telling the inner truth of the Movement: Things are happening so fast that we find ourselves in danger of leading by responding. It was not just a request he was making. Lawson thought, it was nothing less than a call. Without thinking, knowing that this conversation had turned from idle chitchat to the most serious dialogue imaginable, Jim Lawson had heard himself saying, "Yes, I understand. I'll arrange my affairs, and I'll come as quickly as I can."

An emergency appendectomy slowed him down slightly and kept him in Ohio longer than anticipated. He had by that time been a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation for ten years, the Fellowship being a group of activists, primarily with Protestant religious affiliations, who wanted to use the force of Christian love--the love as seen in the life of Jesus Christ, the ability to love one's enemies--in all relationships, be they issues of state, issues of the workplace (labor against management), or issues of the most basic kind in terms of two people trying to get on with each other in a marriage. As a college freshman at Baldwin-Wallace, Jim Lawson had run into A. J. Muste, who was the grand old man of the FOR, a man of great conscience, consuming kindness, and high intellect. Muste had immediately reached out to this hungry, intellectually curious young black student and turned Lawson into something of a protege.

Lawson called Muste to tell him of his plans to go south. Perhaps, Lawson said, he would relocate in Atlanta and go to Gammon, a black theological seminary there. Muste told Lawson not to rush ahead, that perhaps the FOR could find something for him in the South. In time a call came back to Lawson from Glenn Smiley, then the national field director of the FOR, saying that the Fellowship needed a field secretary in the South--a roving troubleshooter to watch events in this part of the country where events seemed to be speeding up at so surprising a rate. Would Jim Lawson want the job? Yes, he thought to himself, it was exactly what he wanted and it would take him where he wanted to go.


On Tuesday, April 7th, welcomed David Halberstam to discuss THE CHILDREN.

Moderator: Welcome to the author Auditorium. We are pleased to welcome David Halberstam, here to discuss his new book, THE CHILDREN. Welcome, Mr. Halberstam.

David Halberstam: I am glad to be here and glad to be speaking to an audience that I know is there but I can't see.

Cynthia from Newton, MA: What would you say is the single most life-threatening situation that you faced in your experiences of covering the Freedom Riders?

David Halberstam: I was only marginally involved for the Freedom Riders. I felt terrified when I covered Mississippi in 1964 in the famous Mississippi Freedom Summer. That was the summer that the three young people -- Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner -- were murdered in Mississippi. And I had just come back from two years in Vietnam, but I felt more scared in Mississippi than I felt in Vietnam.

Joy Rothke from San Francisco: It's a pleasure to connect with you, Mr. Halberstam. We met -- almost 25 years ago -- when I was your guide during a visit to Arizona State University. I was an awestruck, hero-worshipping journalism student, and that day was one of the highlights of my college life. When I asked you for career advice, you told me, very simply, "Don't give up. Most people do." Thank you for your work, your books, and being an inspiration to other journalists.

David Halberstam: What a nice thing to hear from you. I remember that day in Arizona State, and you were very generous in taking me around on a very, very heavy schedule. I can't think of anything nicer than that you influence the people that you talk to.

Nelson Cunningham from What compelled you to publish this book in 1998? What is it about our current day and age that prompted you to write THE CHILDREN?

David Halberstam: I have been wanting to write this book for a very long time. One of the ironies of my life is that I am primarily known for Vietnam, but this particular story was my first big story. So I have been carrying it inside of me for some 40 years. I waited in part because I wanted as much historical distance as possible from the events to give me perspective, in part because I wanted the young people themselves to have full defining careers before I wrote about them. And finally because I wanted to do it at a point when I felt that my personal skills, my craft was at its absolute maximum, and I think that is true of me today. I really do believe that this is the best book that I have ever written.

Paul from Morris Plains, NJ: How did you initially react to the ignorant and obvious racism of the South when you first saw it? Didn't you come from a northern background?

David Halberstam: Yes, I did come from a northern background, and nobody is really ever prepared for his or her first glimpse of what we had in the '50s -- a segregated society, one segregated by law. I think, like everybody else who went south, I was shocked by the signs that said "white only" or "colored" over the restrooms and water fountains. And then you get over the shock, and your job as a journalist is to figure out why these last vestiges of a feudal society still existed and hope that some day, someone would come along and challenge them. Which these remarkable young people that I am writing about so courageously did.

John from Dear Mr. Halberstam, I was in attendance when you spoke at my Dartmouth graduation a couple of years back, and I think you are fantastic! My older brother graduated a year before me, and they had Bill Clinton speak at their graduation. But I would prefer to listen to you any day of the week before President Clinton. I bought THE CHILDREN recently and have already read it and loved it. I know this is probably too far into the future, but what do you have planned next as far as books go?

David Halberstam: Thank you for your kind words, and unlike Bill Clinton, I wrote my Dartmouth speech myself, and mercifully Ken Starr has never taken any interest in my personal life. As far as the second part: I am about two thirds of the way through a book on what may or may not be Michael Jordan's last season, because he is the most remarkable athlete I have ever seen in any sport.

Kendall from Emerald Isle, NC: We live in such a changing society that has stemmed from a profound racism. Do you see America heading in the right direction? What would you change about the direction our country is heading?

David Halberstam: I think that we have made great progress in terms of evening the playing field racially since I was a young man. We are no longer self-evidently a white nation, and that is reflected in every aspect of our life: Michael Jordan is our most revered athlete and commercial salesman, which would have not been possible when I was young. Oprah Winfrey is our most popular TV hostess; Denzel Washington may be as popular a box-office movie star as we have. But as far as we have come in the last 40 years, it is still only a beginning. There is still so far to go. And self-evidently the burden is heaviest in those who are part of what is becoming a permanent underclass in our largest cities.

Richard from NYC: Do you read your reviews? Do you ever agree with criticisms of your work? For instance, I have read that THE CHILDREN is too long. I personally don't agree with that comment. I happened to love it. Do you think you could have edited THE CHILDREN, or, better question: Do you think you needed to edit your final version of THE CHILDREN?

David Halberstam: That is a very good question. I think you can learn from your book reviews, and they are sometimes too critical, but they are trying to say something for you. When I did THE CHILDREN, I was aware that the book was longer than I wanted it to be, and at a certain point we could have made a faster, easier read by cutting out a lot of the stuff in book two that is the assault upon the Deep South. That gets to a lot of the basic history in the story, and I knew even as I wrote it that some readers would think that this slowed the book down. But I also thought that the level of courage shown time and again by these young people in Alabama and Mississippi was important to reflect, even if it might seem slightly repetitious. For example, John Lewis is beaten up and almost murdered twice, first in 1961 in Montgomery, then four years later in Selma. It is a faster book if I only had him beaten up once, but it is closer to the truth if I do it twice.

Martin from Denver, CO: What was your 1985 25th-year reunion like? Did you have any idea that you were among so many future leaders in Nashville 1955?

David Halberstam: By 1985 it was clear that they were already quite distinguished leaders. A number had gone on to many accomplished lives. I did know that they were going to do well. When I first met them -- no. I knew what they were doing was historic, and I knew that I was watching history being made. And I had a sixth sense that they were going to win, and more importantly that it was not just going to end with a Woolworth's hamburger. But I didn't make the jump to seeing them as historic figures, even though I saw the event as a historic event. But now, almost 40 years later, I get great emotional and psychic pleasure from the fact that John Lewis, who I first knew as a shy, awkward, rural, country boy from Pike County, Alabama, is a distinguished U.S. congressman.

Byron Evans from Montgomery, AL: I just want to let you know how much I respect what you did back in the '50s. Looking back on the situation, it is a lot easier to say, "I would have done the same thing" (protest or write about it). But it is easier said than done, especially during those turbulent times. I have nothing but respect for you and your actions, and you will always remain up there in my book!

David Halberstam: What a nice thing to say. I was thrilled to be in Montgomery this week and to be able to speak on the floor of the Alabama House of Representatives. I spoke to the Alabama Historical Society. It was a symbol that we have all come a long way.

Zeik from Cobb County, GA: Who are some journalists out there today that you have respect and admiration for? Why?

David Halberstam: I think it is hard to single out people, because I will offend many people. There are all kinds of wonderful reporters doing great work for The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and in books. Who I don't respect are most of these reporters for the TV magazine shows who are making millions of dollars and becoming huge celebs and doing stories about celebrities and violence and titillating subjects because that is what their executive producers tell them to do in order to jack up the ratings. I am sure you will have no trouble knowing who I am talking about. Most of their legwork, such as it is, is not even done by them. It is done by semianonymous people working for them.

Mark Gannon from Pittsburgh, PA: I'm curious to get your opinion of the whole Martin Luther King assassination controversy as of late. Do you think there is more to the story, as is being claimed? Possible government conspiracy?

David Halberstam: I don't think it is a government conspiracy. I always thought that the King murder, unlike the two Kennedy murders, involved a conspiracy. I always thought that James Earl Ray was too much of low-class drifter to have done this all on his own and to have gotten a passport to Canada, then London, then Portugal. But he also, in asking for a new trial, has not been particularly helpful in shedding light on what happened in the past. I don't think the government is part of the conspiracy. But I can understand the anguish in the King family on this subject, since the organization which should have been protecting King and which was assigned to solve the killing is the FBI -- in those days run by J. Edgar Hoover, who made himself, in his appalling ignorance and meanness of spirit, King's sworn enemy.

Dave Anderson from East Village, NY: I read your piece in the most recent issue of Playboy magazine. Can we expect to see any of your writing in any upcoming periodical publication?

David Halberstam: I don't have anything right now, but thank you.

Michael Palek from Sudbury, MA: What do you think about the current race relations of the current-day South?

David Halberstam: I think there has been vast improvement, and there seems to be a human texture to personal relationships that is all too often missing in the North.

Olli from Marlboro, MA: Who would you consider your journalistic influences? Also, what advice do you have for an aspiring journalist like myself?

David Halberstam: Start small. Go out to a place where you can learn the most. The great thing about a journalism career is that you are paid to learn, so think of it as an education. If you are lucky, you will get to learn a lot and you will make some wonderful friends, but you have to keep not only asking questions but, unlike altogether too many TV stars, listening to the answers.

Moderator: Thanks so much for joining us this evening, Mr. Halberstam. Best of luck with the rest of your tour. Any parting thoughts?

David Halberstam: Well, it is my first time on the Web, and I would like to thank all of these people who have allowed me to be a visitor, albeit an electronic one, in their homes. I hope it has been as satisfying an encounter for you as it has been for me.

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The Children 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this book several years ago and it stays with me. Halberstam's writing is incredible and it pulls you in. It isn't hard to understand how the young and brave college kids changed our world. Thank goodness for the energy and idealism of people in their 20s. Martin Luther King was important to the movement but he was driven into action by these kids. It makes you wonder what the real story is behind other significant changes in our perception and the laws that govern us. My friends and family were quite tired of hearing about the details of the book while I was reading it but I couldn't shut up!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Moving account of the Civil Rights Movement. Extraordinarily well-written. Gripping...right from the opening sentence of the prologue.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a fantastic review of the Civil Rights movement. The writing is extraordinary, much like Halberstam's writing in The Fifties. The book demonstrates how children can change the world and reminds us of all the good that was done in the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. It is a must read for anybody who wants to understand the timeline from Nashville to Selma and the role played by Dr. King and a cast of thousands.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A unique masterpiece of the civil rights movement and how the children pushed, probed, cajoled, protested, sang, demanded, and in some cases died for what they believed in.....civil rights for all mankind. Mr. Halberstam deftly introduces us to the civil rights movement as it came of age in young college students of the south. We meet up with such personalities as John Lewis, Jim Lawson, Diane Nash, James Bevel, Marion Barry, Bob Moses, and many others. We see through their eyes the battles waged in an effort to bring the civil rights movement to the forefront of American society. We witness first hand the struggle for freedom while also seeing a dark sinister part of America, which includes the government of the United States. Without question, Martin Luther King Jr. would not receive all the praise he receives still today without the groundwork done by 'the children'. The Children is a must read for anyone interested in the civil rights movement. A true classic, spoken elegantly by someone who was there first hand to witness all the trials and tribulations during one of the most important era's in American history.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago