This hefty work (719 pages, 88 chapters) is intimidating and it took me awhile to decide to commit to reading it. However, once I began reading, I found the book to be gripping, intense, and well-written. This is important American history and I encourage you to read it.
The author follows some of the college-age students who were involved in the sit-ins in the early 60s that were efforts to integrate various establishments in the South. Halberstam was a reporter then and was involved in covering the story but he does more than reiterate old news reports. He picks out a handful of activists and talks about them in depth throughout the book including their families and background, their educations, their decisions to become activists, their personal experiences during the sit-ins & marches, their reactio to being jailed, some aspects of their personal lives and lastly, he brings us up to date on what happened to those individuals after their involvement in the Movement ended. Some of the individuals he follows closely in the book are John Lewis, Marion Berry, Jim Lawson, Diane Nash, James Bevel, and Rodney Powell. These activists interacted with some of the older civil rights leaders – Martin Luther King Jr, Medgar Evers, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, Roy Wilkins, Julian Bond, and A. Phillip Randolph and others. The book is excellent at making you feel connected to the activists and leads the reader to an understanding of their political philosophy, strategy, and activism.
In addition, Halberstam writes at length about the role of the church in the early civil rights movement – why that involvement was so strong initially and why it was later diluted. He talks about the development of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the tensions between that organization and the older pastor-run organization of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). An exploration of the history of dissension within the ranks of SNCC is discussed; many passionately disagreed with the organization’s eventual decision to exclude white activists from their organization. He explains why Nashville was so instrumental in the history of sit-ins and includes discussion of the lengthy training the Nashville activists underwent on non-violence. Non-violence was a strategy for the sit-ins but also a way of life for many of the activists who were deeply inspired by Mohandas Gandhi. The author also discusses the power of the media, especially television, to bring the message of protesting racism to Congress, the president & his administration, and the rest of America.
My one criticism is the title. The activists that Halberstam describes so comprehensively were college-aged, not children. Although high school and middle school students and even younger children later became involved in marches & school desegreation, the leaders he writes about in this book were generally in their 20s. So calling them “The Children” seemed patronizing and demeaning (especially given the history in the South of calling adult African Americans by their first name only or even “uncle” or “auntie”). Perhaps the author was copying Kelly Miller Smith, one of the pastors who repeatedly referred to the activists as children to his older, more conservative congregation. The pastor was reminding the assemblage that the activists were very young to be taking the risks they were taking, and that they were children not unlike the children of the congregation members so they should support them and honor them. We should all honor these brave activists who risked their lives for equal rights. They were incredibly brave, determined, and powerful.
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