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Article of Interest - Inspiration

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Bridges4Kids LogoWe Were Led By The Children
by David Halberstam, March 22, 1998
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I think I knew in some instinctive way from the first time I watched these young people walk from Kelly Miller Smith’s church in Nashville to Woolworth’s lunch counter that I was watching the beginning of something historic, that they were not going to be turned around. It was a heady time for me, my first big story, and one with self-evident larger social significance. But if I understood some of what these young people were doing in those months and why they did it, perhaps the one thing I did not understand was the effect they would have on me, then at the beginning of my journalistic career.

It was February 1960, and I still see the scene with remarkable clarity: the black college students walking proudly, heads held high, paying no attention to the relentless volley of racial epithets aimed at them. In just a few minutes they would become targets of white hoods— ketchup and coffee poured on them as they sat there at the counter, cigarettes extinguished on their heads. I was 25 at the time, only two or three years older than some of the students. What they were seeking struck me as nothing less than the most elemental of American rights.

What they accomplished in that brief time span still strikes me as a shining example of democracy at work: ordinary young people, hardly favored by circumstances at their birth, changing first the conscience of the nation and then its laws.

They did not look like heroes. Most of them came from the simplest and least privileged of homes; their parents had more often than not struggled with jobs at the most marginal end of the economy. In many of their homes, the grandparents did much of the actual child-rearing, because the parents might be off somewhere, trying to help make enough cash to keep from losing the home or the land.

Thus their very presence in college represented not merely an enormous investment for each family. It also represented the embodiment of the American Dream itself, for much sacrifice had already gone into saving the money and getting them to these schools—Fisk, Meharry, Tennessee State and American Baptist. To their parents, who had often held two or three menial jobs in order to put aside the money, the idea of the sit-ins and the Freedom Rides that were to follow were terrifying. So, by sitting in, they were defying their parents by putting at risk not only their lives—for death was a very real possibility—but also their parents’ one chance for their children to better themselves through a college education.

That they would be so stunningly successful surprised everyone. On the eve of beginning these protests, they themselves had their doubts. Diane Nash of Chicago, beautiful and fiery, told me years later of how terrified she was before the first sit-in. She had sat in her dorm the night before, thinking of how formidable the forces aligned against them in Nashville were: the rich store-owners in the business community, the all-powerful white politicians, the white police and the white judges who served them. “We are just children,” she had thought. “How naïve and foolish of us to take on so powerful an apparatus.” Everyone else in the group thought she was the bravest of them all, but she was sure she knew better. On the mornings of the sit-ins, she was always scared.

In a way I watched them grow up in front of my eyes. One moment they were young and uncertain, some of them still teenagers, and the next they were battle-hardened young veterans of our new domestic war. I, as principal reporter on that story for the local paper, knew them as well as any white person in Nashville. I had a clear sense of the totality of the commitment and the religious faith that drove them. They were utterly immune to the normal temptations of ego and vanity—only the cause moved them.

They did not look like heroes…That they would be so stunningly successful surprised everyone. On the eve of beginning the protests, they themselves had their doubts…One moment they were young and uncertain, and the next they were battle-hardened veterans.

As the protests continued, I was somehow sure they were going to win their battle of the lunch counters. What I did not expect, and what stunned me, was what happened the next year, when many of these same Nashville leaders took the struggle into the dramatically more dangerous Deep South, where they challenged legal and political restrictions on black freedom, particularly the right to vote. Then I truly feared for them.

I knew the power of the white resistance and the violence in the hearts of the Klansmen who awaited them in Alabama and Mississippi. But in 1961, it was these young people from Nashville who took over the Freedom Rides after most of the first Freedom Riders—sponsored by CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality —pulled back because of the violence inflicted on them by the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama. When a Justice Department official warned Diane Nash that she and her friends would be killed if they went into Alabama, she answered that, yes, they were all very aware of that, but if they were killed, others would follow them. I was not surprised when, a few days later, John Lewis was savagely beaten by Klansmen at the Montgomery, Ala., bus station. Nor was I surprised that he and the others continued the Freedom Rides into Mississippi and then eventually began to do voter registration work in both states.

A mere three years later, thanks to their efforts and those of hundreds and perhaps thousands of others who followed them, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. And a year after that, an even more important bill, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, was enacted. This meant that they, as company commanders and foot soldiers under Martin Luther King Jr., had helped lead a domestic revolution in the brief period of five years.

Consider what they did. When they had started out, they were virtually alone. Only the Supreme Court, of all governmental organs, seemed sympathetic. Even to the young liberal President, John Kennedy, they were in the beginning, in his own words, a pain in the ass. Yet only five years later both parties in the Congress were competing to pass legislation trying to outlaw voting injustices; the Justice Department had become their activist partner; the FBI, however reluctantly, had come aboard; and the President of the United States, Lyndon Johnson, was their principal convert.

They did this with the help of television, which made the struggle a national morality play. What they accomplished in that brief time span still strikes me as a shining example of democracy at work: ordinary young people, hardly favored by circumstances at their birth, changing first the conscience of the nation and then its laws, because their cause was right and because they were willing to risk their lives. That was their simple strategy. By offering up their lives in one dangerous venue after another, they believed, first the media and then the feds would be forced to come with them and witness what happened to them.

Follow them we did, and because of that, almost unconsciously, we were changed by them. Here, I speak not just for myself but also for many of my colleagues who covered the civil rights years. If these young people could risk their lives for what they believed in, then we had to risk ours too. In my own instance, in the most immediate way, it made me a better reporter two years later in Vietnam: If they could stand apart from officialdom at home, then I could stand apart from officialdom in Saigon.

But looking back now, 38 years later, my gratitude is broader: They made me, I have decided, a better citizen and thus a better reporter in ways I did not understand then. Very simply, they helped me to believe that the system could work and the government might listen. I have, I think, never been cavalier about the idealism of others since. After 40 years in this profession, I have decided that the most corrosive thing to good journalism is cynicism, and no cynic could have covered and witnessed those events.

As my friend Karl Fleming, who covered the movement for Newsweek, once said: “Those young people changed me, and they changed everyone who covered them—their idealism and courage affected us in the best way. None of us was ever the same afterward.” That certainly was true of me. What they did allowed me, for all of the contradictions and pain we have regarding race in the United States, to believe much more in my own country and to believe that, under certain conditions, the system can work.


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