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Making History

THE CHILDREN. By David Halberstam . Random House: 784 pp., $29.95

March 22, 1998|TOM HAYDEN | Tom Hayden is a California state senator and the author of numerous books, including "Reunion," "Lost Gospel of the Earth" and "Irish Hunger."

David Halberstam is America's Alexis de Toqueville. For almost 40 years, he has chronicled our national life, from the tragedy of Vietnam to the triumphs in the National Football League. Now, in "The Children," he returns to his roots as a young reporter for the Nashville Tennessean, where he covered the start of the civil rights movement, the sit-ins that galvanized a generation. In following a dozen student idealists through the arc of their lives in the early 1960s to the present ambiguous moment at the end of the century, he shows how people make history and how the making of that history affects their lives.

"The Children" is an important book, especially for today's youth, who will read in its moving and revealing pages the remarkable stories of flesh-and-blood people who were the fiber of a social movement that is at best dimly remembered and mostly associated with leaders too lofty to be emulated.

"The children" was the term used by some clergy, parents and an older establishment to characterize the daring spirit--Halberstam calls it "relentless innocence"--of the sit-in leaders whose average age was no more than 20. It was an affectionate, if sometimes patronizing term. I remember it well, for I was one of those children, living in Atlanta in 1961. I celebrated my 21st birthday in jail with Bernard Lafayette, a figure in this book, who, back then, had been a student in Nashville. We had joined with others for a Freedom Ride to Albany, Ga., where we hoped to desegregate public facilities. That year I also experienced mob violence in Mississippi, where the Nashville students led the bloodiest Freedom Ride.

Looking back on his youthful reporting, Halberstam faults himself and his colleagues for writing stories that were "quite clinical. . . . [W]e did little to try and humanize the demonstrators." More than 30 years later, he seeks in this book to make up for past journalistic sterility by bringing to life some of the fascinating figures in the movement for racial justice. He does so with a sense of dramatic narrative and appreciation for nuance and complexity that moves the reader to empathy and reflection.

Halberstam's book is as much about character as it is about the vast political and cultural struggle that was waged. To taste the flavor of the courageous and compelling men and women who make up Halberstam's story, here are five typical examples:

* James Bevel was one of 17 children, served in the Navy, was a singer in clubs, heard the voice of God, became a Baptist preacher and wore a yarmulke to identify with the prophets and mystify the police. It was Bevel who, in addition to the Freedom Rides, mobilized the children of Birmingham, Ala. in 1963, thought up the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965, urged Martin Luther King to oppose the Vietnam War and, 30 years later, suggested the concept of the Million Man March to Louis Farrakhan. Today Bevel lives in Chicago and, repeating his own family cycle, is father of 17 children.

* Bernard Lafayette was a student at American Baptist College with Bevel and with future Congressman John Lewis. He was a Nashville freedom rider who took the assignment of organizing Selma, Ala., when no one else would. The night he and his new wife, Colia, moved into Selma's Torch Motel, they were met by FBI agents, who urged them to leave and even offered them scholarships to Columbia University. Lafayette was targeted for death and miraculously survived a vicious beating in Selma on the same night that Medgar Evers was killed in Mississippi. He eventually received a doctorate from Harvard School of Education, was a high school principal in Tuskegee, Ala., and became finally president of American Baptist College, where his activism began 38 years ago. In 1991, Lafayette was presented the official keys to the city of Selma by Mayor Joe Smitherman, who unbelievably still held office 32 years after the violent confrontations.

* Gloria Johnson was a medical student at Meharry Medical College in Nashville and was forced to hide her sit-in activities from her role-model mother, whose health was failing. She married and had three kids with Rodney Powell, another medical student activist. Together, they journeyed from the sit-in movement to the Peace Corps in Africa and back to Los Angeles, where she became the first minority student in psychiatry at UCLA Medical School and he directed the Watts Neighborhood Health Center. In 1970, Rodney told her that he was gay. She struggled with the news, lived with him a few more years in Minnesota and Uganda (during Idi Amin's terror) but ultimately fell into depression and attempted suicide. Rodney formed a solid relationship with a white professor from Hawaii, and he and Gloria built their bond anew. She went on to become the first tenured black female professor at Harvard Medical School.

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