Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Book Review: The Children by David Halberstam

I grew up knowing that sit-ins in Nashville were just as important, if not more so, than the ones in Greensboro, but my friends who were from elsewhere did not think so. In fact, most of them were unaware that anything significant involving civil rights happened in Nashville (sadly, a lot of Nashvillians are unaware of this.) Luckily, when David Halberstam was a young pup reporter of 25, he was working for The Tennessean in Nashville, and was assigned to this beat. Of course his bosses had no way of knowing he'd one day win a Pulitzer Prize and write multiple bestselling history books, but serendipitously, this is who was assigned, so now we have a brilliant book about the students in Nashville from American Bible College, Tennessee A&I (now Tennessee State), Fisk University, and Meharry Medical College, who changed the world.

Nashville was known as The Athens of the South, due to its enormous number of colleges and universities (at least 35 and there were more that have since consolidated). It never occurred to me until I moved away, that this was unusual. I thought every big city had these options and had this culture of education. It also didn't occur to me that Nashville had four HBCs (Historically Black Colleges, although to be honest, American Bible College was so small that it never registered.) And again, that didn't feel unusual. But those schools had an enormous impact on the community, due to their efforts, starting with the sit-ins in downtown department store lunch counters, and continuing on to join the Freedom Riders and SNCC and the overall movement.

Mr. Halberstam does a masterful job following more than a dozen main characters, from when we first meet most of them as college students, going back to their background and upbringing to show why these particular students felt strongly about this cause, and then going on to tell us how they participated in the movement, and how their lives turned out. Many were successful, some weren't, one was Marion Barry (not the only famous name in the book but the one I was least expecting.) I'd sometimes have to pause for a moment to remember who a person was, but it was momentary and infrequent. He did a good job of keeping them distinctive and interesting.

I learned so much I never knew about the civil rights movement. For example, this book explains everything leading up to the march on Selma, why it was important, who the major players were, why they chose Selma and not somewhere else (here's a hint: the cities and towns with reasonable mayors and sheriffs weren't chosen because they didn't make for good news stories. But also because a show of support wasn't as needed there.) I found most fascinating the scene at one stop on the Freedom Rides when John Siegenthaler, who Robert Kennedy sent from the Justice department to observe what was going on, tried to save two young women who were being beaten, and was beaten himself. That was a pivotal moment as that finally got the attention of Robert Kennedy, who finally got the attention of John Kennedy, and got the president involved in the Civil Rights movement. Yes, Martin Luther King Jr. gets plenty of facetime here, but what's unique is how he's not even the central figure. The Civil Rights movement was so much more than just King, and this book brings to life the many important figures involved, some in the background and some just as important if not as well known, giving a much fuller, more rounded perspective of this moment in history than anything I've ever otherwise encountered on the topic. Thorough, engrossing, and enlightening.

I bought this book at the Friends of the Library sale in Nashville during the Southern Festival of Books. I believe it was a textbook sold at the Vanderbilt University bookstore originally, based on the price sticker.

1 comment:

Kay said...

Thanks so much for sharing about this book! I'm thinking it would pair well with reading around the time I read The Bone Tree by Greg Iles. Fiction and non-fiction. I don't feel like I know enough about that time period and the events, even though I was alive - just in elementary school though.