The Children by David Halberstam by David Halberstam - Read Online
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From the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Fifties: An “intimate and monumental” account of the people at the core of the civil rights movement (Publishers Weekly).
 The young men and women at the heart of David Halberstam’s brilliant and poignant The Children came together through Reverend James Lawson’s workshops on nonviolence. Idealistic and determined, they showed unwavering bravery during the sit-ins at the Nashville lunch counters and on the Freedom Rides across the South—all chronicled here with Halberstam’s characteristic clarity and insight. The Children exhibits the incredible strength of generations of black Americans, who sacrificed greatly to improve the world for their children. Following Diane Nash, John Lewis, Gloria Johnson, Bernard Lafayette, Marion Barry, Curtis Murphy, James Bevel, and Rodney Powell, among others, The Children is rooted in Halberstam’s coverage of the civil rights movement for Nashville’s Tennessean.

A New York Times Notable Book, this volume garnered extraordinary acclaim for David Halberstam, the #1 New York Times–bestselling author of The Best and the Brightest. Upon its publication, the Philadelphia Inquirer called it “utterly absorbing . . . The civil rights movement already has produced superb works of history, books such as David J. Garrow’s Bearing the Cross and Taylor Branch’s recently published Pillar of Fire. . . . Halberstam adds another with The Children.”
 This ebook features an extended biography of David Halberstam.
Published: Open Road Media an imprint of Open Road Integrated Media on
ISBN: 9781453286135
List price: $17.99
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The Children

David Halberstam

This book is dedicated to the memory of three uncommon men who played influential roles in my life when I lived and worked in Nashville:







Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26


Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55


Chapter 56

Chapter 57

Chapter 58

Chapter 59

Chapter 60

Chapter 61

Chapter 62

Chapter 63

Chapter 64

Chapter 65

Chapter 66

Chapter 67

Chapter 68

Chapter 69

Chapter 70

Chapter 71

Chapter 72

Chapter 73

Chapter 74

Chapter 75

Chapter 76

Chapter 77

Chapter 78

Chapter 79

Chapter 80

Chapter 81

Chapter 82

Chapter 83

Chapter 84

Chapter 85

Chapter 86

Chapter 87

Chapter 88

Image Gallery

Author’s Note





A Biography of David Halberstam




YEARS LATER THOUGH SHE could recall almost every physical detail of what it had been like to sit there in that course on English literature, Diane Nash could remember nothing of what Professor Robert Hayden had said. What she remembered instead was her fear. A large clock on the wall had clicked slowly and loudly; each minute which was subtracted put her nearer to harm’s way. What she remembered about the class in the end was her inability to concentrate, and the fact that both her hands were soaked with sweat by the end of the class and left the clear handprint of her fear on the wooden desk. It was always the last class that she attended on the days that she and her colleagues assembled before they went downtown and challenged the age-old segregation laws at the lunch counters in Nashville’s downtown shopping center. No matter how much she steeled herself, no matter how much she believed in what they were doing, the anticipatory fear never left her.

It had been at its height the night before the first sit-in, on February 13, 1960. On that evening, she had sat alone in her room at Fisk University. Suddenly she was hit with an overpowering attack of nerves. What had she gotten herself into? she wondered. She was supposed to march that next day into downtown Nashville and challenge the existing white power structure. She, Diane Nash, a coward of the first order in her own mind, a person absolutely afraid not just of violence but of going to jail, was going to join a small group of black children and ministers and take on the most important and resourceful people in a big, very white, very Southern city. She and her friends, who had nothing and were nothing, were going to go up against white businessmen, who were rich and powerful and connected to the white politicians, who were their pals and who agreed with them on everything. What had all of them been thinking in Jim Lawson’s workshops on nonviolence? These men would have nothing but scorn for a bunch of black children venturing into their territory.

These were white men in their forties and fifties and sixties. They owned the police force of the city and they owned the judges who sat in the city’s courts. And she, Diane Nash of Chicago, could not make a phone call to a single powerful person in all of America if her life depended on it, which indeed it might. She was now all of twenty-one and she was in way over her head. Somehow she had been caught in the camaraderie, and had begun to surface as someone outspoken and confident. The others, she knew, had already started to look up to her as a leader, but they had no idea how scared she was. It was a joke, she thought, it will never happen. We are a bunch of children. We’re nice children, bright and idealistic, but we are children and we are weak. We have no police force, no judges, no cops, no money. Jim Lawson is a fine man and a good leader, she thought, but this is nothing but a dream. She could almost see those powerful white men, like the white men she had seen in movies, who sat around and knew how to make decisions, hearing the news that a small group of black students were insisting on being served at the lunch counters at downtown stores, and laughing at them. She felt pure terror in her heart at that moment, and if there had been any way she could disappear from the movement without causing great shame to herself and letting down these others, she would have done it. If there was anything besides the cause itself which kept her from bailing out, it was the growing loyalty she now felt to the others in this small and, she hoped, hardy group of young students who had become not merely her colleagues, but now, her friends. They had started out quite tentative with one another; they came from different parts of the country, went to different schools, and there were obviously significant differences in class among some of them. What they shared, however, was a powerful common purpose, one which was becoming a more dominant part of their lives every day: The more committed they were, the more their past differences seemed less important, and their new political kinship became the critical part of their daily lives. It was as if the longer they stayed in, the more they left their old world with their old friendships behind, and the more this new political incarnation became the single dominating part of lives which had suddenly been completely redrawn. Besides, she liked them: Rodney Powell was a medical student, serious and cerebral and well spoken. John Lewis was rural and shy, but he was already known by the others for the steadfast quality of his character—there wasn’t anything he would not do for the cause. Curtis Murphy was full of laughter and charm. Gloria Johnson was obviously bright, but shy and a little stiff. Jim Bevel was provocative, a little older than the others, difficult, brilliant, but unpredictable, a young man whom the others both admired but found prickly. The more she knew them, the more she was impressed by them. Now, above all, she did not want them to think badly about her.

Besides, she shared their passion for the cause. She knew exactly why, despite her fear, she had joined up with them. Soon after arriving at Fisk the previous fall she had been taken to the Tennessee State Fair by one of the many young men vying for her attention. Since there did not seem a lot to do in Nashville socially, at least not compared with Chicago, or Washington, where for a time she had been a student, she gladly went along. There for the first time in her life she encountered signs for segregated rest rooms. WHITE ONLY, the sign had said, the first of those most odious signs she had ever beheld. And then COLORED. The humiliation she had felt was immediate—it was as if someone had slapped her face. What shocked her even more was that her date, who was from the South, did not seem surprised or offended; he quite willingly seemed to accept it. But for her the experience was so transcending, her anger so immediate and so complete that she was effectively politicized from that moment on. It was her first encounter with overt legal discrimination—she had known covert discrimination in Chicago, but she had always managed to look away. Worse, that terrible day at the fair had been followed up very quickly by other comparable humiliations. As a girl growing up in Chicago she had been accustomed to going downtown and shopping with her friends. There had been a certain aimlessness to those shopping trips. They would wander through the great department stores of the city, enjoying the role of shopper and viewer, and then they would have lunch at a restaurant in one of the stores. But when she tried to do this in Nashville she found that the store owners welcomed her money on most floors of the store but that she and her friends were not welcome in their lunchrooms. That had angered her every bit as much as the moment of humiliation at the state fair. After that she had begun to take notice of what was around her in downtown Nashville: In the center of the downtown there were black people eating their lunches while sitting on the sidewalk. That was yet another shock to her. She had come to the South almost casually, choosing Fisk because she was restless with her life at home. She had not thought very hard about the racial consequences of what she was doing—a black woman raised in the North moving to a region where the laws of segregation were just coming under legal and social challenge.

That was why when a fellow student had quite casually mentioned that a black minister was holding workshops designed to challenge the local segregation laws in downtown lunch counters, she had been an eager recruit. It was, she had thought at first, out of character to do this. It soon became obvious, however, that she was one of the most forceful members of this small band of students. By mid-February 1960 the others—the men—had come to her and asked her to be one of the two leaders of the group. The men were impressed by her in no small part because she was so brave and she exuded confidence. There she was, the others thought, the slightest of them, a girl at that, and she was fearless. Nothing stopped her. When they had been pummeled, she never considered turning back. Not for an instant. If anything, the harsher the attacks on them, the more determined she had seemed at their next meeting to go right back to the exact same place and show that they could not be intimidated by hate and violence. That violence would not deter them. The men in the group felt if she could stand up to the fear, then they could keep going back too. The truth was that she was always scared. Always. Her memories of sitting in Professor Hayden’s class were among the clearest of her undergraduate days. She remembered watching the clock, and she remembered in great detail the mark her soaked palms left on the desk. She had had to will herself to leave the class, to become once again the fearless leader that they had turned her into and that they believed she was. If the others thought she was Diane the fearless, she knew better; she knew she was Diane the coward. As the clock had ticked in Professor Hayden’s class she became more aware of the rising quality of anxiety she felt, and as she had left that class to venture forth once again as a leader of the movement, she could look down on her desk and see the wet handprint of fearless Diane Nash of Chicago.

It was not a lark for her. She had joined for serious reasons, and it—the commitment to a radical, nonviolent way to change America—became in different ways with different manifestations a lifetime devotion. From the start she had found a spiritual home in the Lawson group. If there was one source of strength she and the other young people in this embryonic movement had, it was, more than anything else, a belief in each other. A few, particularly those who attended the little black Baptist seminary nearby, had a special, immutable faith in their God to sustain them. Others did not. But all had gradually come to have faith in each other, even though in most cases their friendships were still quite tenuous. Some of the friendships born of those days would last a lifetime, and more than one marriage would come from this small group.

Most of them came from different towns and cities and states in the South. A handful of them were from the North. Most of them were black but a few were white exchange students attending black colleges. Because there were four black schools in the Nashville area, the students’ links were to each other rather than to their schools, and years later they would not identify themselves as graduates of Fisk or A&I, or Meharry or American Baptist, but first and foremost as sit-in kids. Scorned and mocked and teased by many of their classmates in those early days for being do-gooders as they undertook this challenge, they formed what was in effect their own university.

They did not think of themselves in those days as being gifted or talented or marked for success, or for that matter particularly heroic, and yet from that little group would come a senior U.S. congressman; the mayor of a major city; the first black woman psychiatrist to be tenured at Harvard medical school; one of the most distinguished public health doctors in America; and a young man who would eventually come back to be the head of the very college in Nashville he now attended. Another of their group would become one of Martin Luther King’s principal and most favored assistants, a young man who was so hypnotic a speaker that King often used him at major rallies as his warm-up speaker. Others would go on to lives which were relatively more mundane, and their days in this cause would remain the most exciting and stirring of their lives. A few became, if not casualties of those days, then men and women whose most exciting and most valuable moments had come when they were very young and whose lives never quite measured up to what some had believed was their early promise; they were not unlike brilliant combat leaders in America’s wars who never handled in peacetime an existence which was routine as well as they had handled one fraught with danger.

The journey they were beginning had started with a limited enough objective: an assault on the segregated lunch counters in Nashville, a seemingly pleasant city in a border state. But there was an inevitable progression to their cause, and gradually it became something of a children’s crusade as they and hundreds and thousands of black students like them throughout the country, knowing that the right moment had finally arrived, became part of a growing challenge to segregation in the South. As that assault grew it created among these young people its own new equation: They could not begin and end this quest with nothing grander than the right to eat lunch counter hamburgers. Each victory they gained demanded a further step; the totality of segregation as it existed in the American South in February 1960, when they began, meant that most of them would not be able to turn back, not at least for several years, and they would be caught in an escalating spiral in which they kept pursuing ever more dangerous challenges to the forces of segregation in ever more dangerous venues—in small towns and cities in the Deep South. They had begun by believing that by coming aboard and joining the sit-in struggle, they would be risking their bodies in some marginal and not very terrifying way in this semiprotected environment; within two years some of them would be risking their lives every day as the shock troops in the final challenge upon legal and political segregation in Alabama and Mississippi.

No one reflected that remarkable transformation from scared young black student to black student samurai more obviously than this shy, often timid young woman, Diane Nash. In Nashville in the beginning days of February 1960 she was frightened each day, scared that her fear would give her away to their enemies, to her friends, and to herself. Yet somehow she was able to overcome it and impress her peers. And this was just the beginning of what was to become her dramatic interior conversion: In a little more than two years, in the spring of 1962, she would have so overcome her normal psychic barriers of fear that she would stand in a Jackson, Mississippi, courtroom. There, already six months pregnant, surrounded by sworn enemies, accused on a trumped-up charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, because she and her friends had tried to integrate local facilities using high school students, she would stand her ground. In that Jackson courtroom she would boldly tell the white judge (a man duly stunned to find that the young integrationist he intended to slap into jail was in fact very pregnant) that it did not matter whether she went to jail or not, because her child was going to be born in Mississippi and any black child born in Mississippi was already born in prison. It would be the judge, who, sensing the fire in her and wanting no part of the potential public relations disaster of sending this pregnant woman to jail, would back down and suspend her sentence.

Almost from the start her peers had sensed her special capacity to rise to the occasion, and they made her their chairman. It was an honor she desperately wanted to decline. The fact that her friends believed in her and wanted her as a leader had, however, made her fear, if anything, greater than ever, because her recognition was greater: Since she was a leader of the Nashville sit-ins, she became more a marked person than ever before. There were more photographs of her in the local papers, and the television cameramen seemed to look for her when they covered the story, inevitably drawn to her because she was the most glamorous person in the group, slim and striking. Defiance of the white authorities was written all over her face. The fear was concealed within.

Yet every time she and the others left the First Baptist Church, where the workshops had been held and which they also used as a staging area before heading for the lunch counters, and walked the handful of blocks to the heart of the downtown shopping area, Diane Nash could feel the white violence begin to surge around them, the white toughs heckling them and throwing things and screaming cruel racial epithets. Then as they entered the restaurants and tried to take their seats, there would almost always be the violence, the hoodlums pouring coffee on the protesters and trying to extinguish cigarettes on their heads. There were, she was aware, no immunities for her. On February 20, at the time of the second major sit-in, she was in the downtown area, working as a control person—this was before the days of portable phones, and so the control people were important; they were like the communications men in war, the eyes and ears of the headquarters.

The downtown had been crowded on this day, and unusually dangerous too. There were groups of young white marauders looking for blacks on the streets. There had been a picture of Diane in The Nashville Tennessean a few days earlier, and one of the roving white marauders had shouted, There she is! That’s Diane Nash! She’s the one to get! She’s the one to get! She had quickly slipped away through the crowd, but she was terrified. They knew her face now and they were after her. She was a marked person.

She found a spot where she could get away from everyone and she sat down on the corner. The whites had looked tough, and there were reports that some of them were now carrying knives. She sat on a curbstone and took a fifteen-minute break. She found that she was gasping for air, though she had not run. It was as if the fear had sucked all the oxygen out of her system. She had to decide whether she had the strength to continue her job. Her dilemma was clear: If she could not conquer her own fear, how could she send the others out? And if she could not conquer her fear, would she have to resign not just from the leadership position but from all aspects of the sit-ins? The most important thing she had learned from reading Gandhi during the workshops she had been attending for almost three months was that leaders did not expect others to do things they were not willing to do themselves. That was true for cleaning latrines, and it was true as well for risking their lives.

She knew she had to make a decision and make it quickly. If she failed here, she would have to leave the Movement. She sat for a time, and gradually her ability to breathe came back. She thought about how important the sit-ins had become to her; she realized that this was the most important thing she had ever done, and perhaps more valuable than anything she might ever do again. Overnight, because of the sit-ins, she had felt of value to herself. Therefore she had to go forward—she owed it not just to the others but, in a way she had never felt before, to herself. She would be extremely careful in every decision she made—there would be no recklessness. But she would not turn back. If something terrible was going to happen to her, she decided, let it happen when she was doing something she believed in. She got up and walked back to her job.


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.¹) 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 non-white 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 protégé.

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.


THE FIRST ISSUE FOR Jim Lawson once he decided to go south was, of course, where he would be based. He had casually mentioned Atlanta to Glenn Smiley as the most likely site. Clearly he would have to spend a great deal of time on the road, but the right base was important. Atlanta was the obvious choice, the biggest, richest city in the South, the capital of what was often referred to as the New South, a place where the power of new business opportunities was said to eclipse the power of old hatreds and racial tensions. Atlanta was thought to be new and modern, not only the biggest but seemingly the most forward-looking of the South’s cities. Skyscrapers were on the rise, and that almost of itself seemed to prove that the future had arrived, for it would seem obvious that something as new and grand and modern as a skyscraper could not harbor something as old as racial hatred.

Atlanta certainly had some attractions. In terms of the journalistic protection that an enlightened newspaper could offer black activists, The Atlanta Constitution boasted the legendary Ralph McGill, a Southern editor known for his courage and decency, a towering figure to a generation of younger Southern journalists coming of age in the years after World War II, who revered him and wanted to be like him. But the truth was that the Constitution was viewed by most of the able Southern journalists of that era as something of a joke, quite possibly the most overrated paper in the region, a paper, aside from McGill, which was both timid and penurious, afraid to cover this most important of stories opening up right in front of it. At a meeting of NAACP executives held in Atlanta in 1954, Wallace Westfeldt, the civil rights reporter for The Nashville Tennessean, had been surprised to find that once the meeting was over, he was approached by a reporter from the Constitution who had missed the entire daylong session and wanted to be filled in on what had happened. Westfeldt discovered the next day that the Atlanta paper gave scant notice of the meeting, a couple of paragraphs, far less than the coverage in his own paper back in Nashville. Throughout the South, where in most cities a small group of white liberals was just beginning to come of age, men and women determined to wrestle with the issue of race, the timidity of the Constitution on the issue of race mirrored nothing less than the attitude of all too many of Atlanta’s leading businessmen on this issue.

So Glenn Smiley was not so sure about Atlanta. He knew the South well. He had stayed somewhat in the background during the Montgomery bus strike, but he had nonetheless been one of the most important influences in helping to instruct King on the pragmatic, daily use of Gandhi’s teachings. Smiley thought Jim Lawson needed a safe haven for his base, a place where his own daily existence would not be at issue and where he would not be buffeted by local racial tensions. Atlanta might be new and progressive commercially, but it was also the capital of a distinctly unreconstructed Deep South state, and the prejudices of Georgia weighed heavily on the social and political climate of the city. The two Georgia senators, Dick Russell and Walter George, had both signed the Southern Manifesto, a declaration of opposition to the Supreme Court decision on Brown v. Board of Education. Marvin Griffin, the Georgia governor, had been one of the hard-line figures who had visited Little Rock in the summer of 1957 in order to help crowd the then ambivalent governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, into resisting the Court-ordered integration of the Little Rock schools, pressuring Faubus to make his ill-fated decision to employ the Arkansas National Guard to block the integration of Little Rock Central High.

Georgia was a state where white supremacist groups, pledged to resist racial change, were extremely powerful and dominated the state’s politics. So Glenn Smiley thought Atlanta was a city with a relatively modern physical exterior, a modern mayor, an upbeat commercial booster spirit, and one great journalist (if not a good newspaper). But he also thought it a city where the essential establishment leadership had not yet come to any decision about the city’s racial and therefore moral future.

By contrast, Smiley thought, for a variety of reasons Nashville, the capital of Tennessee, was a far better choice. The defeat of the poll tax some ten years earlier had dramatically changed the state’s political climate. Blacks voted in large numbers throughout Tennessee as they did not in Georgia. The mayor of Nashville, Ben West, was at the very least moderate, if not actually liberal, a quiet prototype of a new breed of enlightened post-World War II politician just coming to power; as a young state senator he had helped increase black political representation in Nashville. Because of West’s leadership in changing the way people voted for city council representation, there were now two blacks on the city council and the local and regional black vote was growing larger and more influential each year. Nashville was a smaller city than Atlanta, true, but because Tennessee was a border state, the enmity of the rest of the state did not poison the atmosphere of Nashville in the way the racial anger of rural Georgia affected the climate of Atlanta.

Tennessee was a border state which sprawled, sliverlike, some five hundred miles from Johnson City in the east to Memphis in the west. Politically, socially, economically, and racially it was considered three separate states, the Grand Divisions as they were called. East Tennessee, the mountainous section east of the Cumberland Plateau, had harbored powerful Unionist sympathies during the Civil War, and at one point Abraham Lincoln had tried to get it to secede from the rest of the state. Back in the fifties it still elected two Republican congressmen, and it had few black residents. Its politics were conservative but slavery, because of the nature of the terrain, was alien and attitudes on race had never hardened. West Tennessee, which lay between the Mississippi and Tennessee rivers, could not have been more different. Much of the land was alluvial soil, and its politics and demographics were not unlike those of the Deep South. And Middle Tennessee, which lay between the Tennessee River and the Cumberland Plateau, was a gentle area of small farms which produced a tempered, albeit modest liberalism. It both helped shape the generally liberal outlook of The Nashville Tennessean, the dominant newspaper in the region, and at the same time was affected by it. The sum of these parts was not without its own unique political contradictions, but there was an essential resistance in statewide campaigns to overt racial demagoguery.

Frank Clement, the ambitious young governor of Tennessee, had run as a segregationist in 1954, and when the question of school integration had come up, he had pledged that he would never integrate Tennessee’s schools. His opponent, former governor Gordon Browning, a much older man and a moderate who had been a critical part of the coalition which had smashed the old conservative and racist Crump machine only a few years earlier, had responded somewhat dryly that he had been around a bit longer than Clement and that Never was a very long time in politics. That was one of the wisest things that Gordon Browning ever said. Shortly thereafter, Frank Clement, as the good ambitious son of a border state, angling for a place as vice president on the Democratic national ticket, had called out the National Guard on the occasion of the first school integration riots in the state. This was in Clinton, a small town in East Tennessee. But unlike Orval Faubus in Arkansas, Clement had used force to protect the right of black children to attend an integrated school. From that time on Clement was considered in some quarters a traitor to the Southern cause, the man who had sent tanks in against his own people. It was not mere political expediency which moved the governor; Frank Clement in his private moments would talk with a handful of reporters he trusted, saying that this—the Supreme Court decision—had been coming for a long time and that it was the right thing to do and that it was time to end the historic injustice of segregation. I’m not going to say that publicly, of course. All I’m going to say is that we are going to obey the law in this state. And that’s enough. But it’s overdue and it’s the right thing. It’s time for all of us to get on with our lives.¹

Clement was not alone among the state’s leading politicians in his stance and his core beliefs. Neither Estes Kefauver nor Albert Gore, the state’s two senators, had deigned to sign the Southern Manifesto. At the Democratic convention in 1956, all three of the state’s top political figures—Kefauver, Clement, and Gore—had been in some way or another candidates for either the presidency or vice presidency. It was clear to anyone studying the political balance in Tennessee that the pull of national ambition was far more powerful on many of its politicians than was the competing pull of its local segregationists. Harsh demagogic campaigns based primarily on race had consistently failed in Tennessee in the fifties.

That was a plus for Nashville. The racial texture of its daily life seemed less edgy than that of comparable cities in the Deep South, where there was a sense of growing rage on the part of many white elements after the Supreme Court’s decision on Brown. A white liberal minister named Will Campbell who had come to Nashville in 1956 after being driven out of his job as chaplain of the University of Mississippi was struck by the quantum difference between this city and the mean, ugly quality which he had found everywhere in Mississippi, a state which in its desire to resist integration had effectively restricted freedom of speech and turned the full force of its police and judicial powers against anyone who might surface as a potential integrationist. Mississippi had in every real sense become a totalitarian state. In Nashville, where the varying segregationist organizations were significantly weaker, people who came out publicly for integration enjoyed freedom of speech and were not ostracized from their social groups.

One of the first things Will Campbell did when he came to Nashville was to go to the local NAACP office and join up; as he crossed the street to enter the building which housed the office, he still felt enough of the fear generated by his experience in Mississippi that he instinctively stopped and looked around for possible police informers or cameramen outside, men stationed there to record the doings of the state’s enemies. Later, as he left the office, he found himself again looking back over his shoulder to see if anyone was watching him or whether he was being followed or filmed. The Mississippi twitch, he called it. In Mississippi, his superiors had always kept a close watch on him. Because he was rumored to be a secret integrationist, there had been informers everywhere. An Ole Miss student had come by at the end of each day to collect the used carbons from his office so that authorities—Campbell was never sure which ones—would know to whom he had written that day and what he had said.

Nashville was a great center for colleges and for religious education. The Protestant Vatican, some people called it, because it was the headquarters for so many Southern religious groups, their publishing arms, and their sectarian colleges. It was home to Vanderbilt University; Peabody, a large teachers college; and Scarritt, a Methodist college for whites. For blacks it had Fisk, then a great black private college with a distinguished history; Meharry Medical College; Tennessee Agriculture and Industrial College, or A&I as it was then known, which was the largest black school in the state (since blacks could not yet, of course, go to the all-white University of Tennessee at Knoxville); and American Baptist College, a small, deeply impoverished black seminary. This meant that even if the top figures in the white Baptist and Methodist worlds were not necessarily integrationists, and were often quite conservative, there were a large number of younger, more liberal members of those churches who would be teaching or studying in Nashville or working in their religious publishing houses and who might become sympathetic colleagues of Jim Lawson. Besides, Vanderbilt Divinity School, which was a jewel in the crown of an esteemed but extremely conservative Southern university, had just begun to integrate, and it might be an excellent place for Jim Lawson to take his graduate degrees.

Finally, Tennessee, though it did not have any journalist of the awesome stature of the legendary McGill, had a far better and far more aggressive paper, The Nashville Tennessean, which might at that moment, along with The Charlotte (North Carolina) Observer, be one of the two best papers operating in what was the traditional Confederacy. That was not unimportant. Unlike the Atlanta papers, the Tennessean had pursued the story of racial change aggressively. It had made a commitment from the start to make its readers aware of the historic confrontation taking place under Court order, and that some form of social change was inevitable.

That decision, and the flinty editorial integrity which drove it, made the Tennessean an unusual paper: At a time when most Southern newspapers were surprisingly passive and soft in their news coverage, often content to use wire service stories to report on events which had taken place locally, the Tennessean not only supported editorially the right of black children to go to white schools, but it covered the ongoing story with a fearlessness that made it nothing less than a beacon to young journalists in the South. A liberal paper could make a great deal of difference in a city trying to move from an older, segregated order to a new, more liberal, integrated one.

For all of these reasons, the organized segregationist movement in Tennessee was exceptionally weak, and indeed it was part of the enduring embarrassment of Vanderbilt University in those years that one of the centers of organized segregation was its English department, containing men who were part of the old Southern Agrarian movement, most notably a professor named Donald Davidson. The fact that the Vanderbilt English department harbored some of the segregationist leadership seemed to reflect both the weakness and the eccentricity of that leadership.


THE BUS TRIP WHICH James Lawson took in early 1958 from Massillon, Ohio, to Nashville, Tennessee, was some five hundred miles and it seemed to last for the better part of a day. To James Morris Lawson, Jr., it was a journey filled with both excitement and anxiety. He was thrilled by his decision to put aside the academic part of his career and follow his real calling. After all these years of planning, he was finally going forth to do battle. But he wondered if he was worthy of the call. He was a man who believed deeply in the power of Christian love and nonviolent protest, and he wondered what would happen once he actually began the long, hard process of challenging age-old laws and customs. Would he have the inner strength to accept that part of the South which he could not change, and live at least part of his daily existence within the South’s segregated confines? Or was he too proud to succeed? He had wanted a job that would take him to the epicenter of the action, and he had been granted his wish. It was always a dangerous thing, he mused, to have your wishes granted.

Above all, Jim Lawson, a very proud, outspoken, and independent young man, a black child of the urban North, was worried about how he would deal with his own personal encounters with a segregated world. Just in the last year, after he had returned to the United States from India, he had been greeted by an ugly incident in Detroit. A white friend who was just beginning to test racial policies in the North had, during a trip they had both made to Detroit, suggested that Lawson try to get a haircut in a barbershop in downtown Detroit. The friend said he had checked it out himself and the proprietor seemed amenable to the idea; so Jim Lawson had gone in and taken a seat in one of the barber chairs only to be forcibly evicted from both the chair and the shop by a very angry white barber. It had been relatively easy for him to control his anger, but it was also a reminder of how little things had changed even in the Midwest, and how many tests there would be for him still ahead.

The trip to Nashville was not that difficult. Because he went by bus he did not have to worry, as blacks traditionally did, about where to stop and eat and stay overnight on their trips to the South. The bus itself was not segregated. The early part of the trip went easily but as the bus crossed over into Kentucky, as the culture and the local ethos changed more quickly than the landscape, he began to feel his own anxiety rise. The Nashville bus station was segregated, but he was met by Glenn Smiley, who quickly whisked him away, so that he never got caught up in any local racial debate about whether a black man could hire a white taxi or whether he had to wait at a different cabstand until a black cab showed up.

Glenn Smiley seemed to know the city well. Smiley had arranged for him to spend the first few nights at the home of a black dentist in the city, and then it turned out that the dentist had an apartment in town, which he was willing to rent to Jim Lawson for a relatively small sum. That spared him the potentially humiliating task of looking for an apartment and finding out that the ones he wanted were not available to blacks.

At the moment when he arrived in Nashville the pace of integration seemed ominously slow. The high hopes which many blacks had felt just a few years earlier when the Supreme Court had ruled on Brown were dissipating in the face of the relentless resistance posed in many Deep South states, and a strategy which seemed to demand that if blacks were going to challenge the existing status quo, then they were going to have to do it school by school, child by child, lawsuit by lawsuit. Black political life in most of the South, particularly the Deep South, was virtually nonexistent. The segregationists completely controlled the machinery of the ruling Democratic party within the Deep South, and they had used that control to exclude blacks from voting; they seemed determined to exhaust emotionally, physically, and financially the forces of integration. If the Supreme Court had spoken, its voice at that moment was essentially a lonely one. The President of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower, had yet to speak out morally on the issue and seemed, if anything, sympathetic to the white power structure in the South; the Congress remained quite conservative, particularly in its Southern-dominated committee leadership; and the American people were still very much on the sidelines.

So far victories for the forces of integration had seemed few, and surprisingly marginal. The largest victory post-Brown had been that achieved by Martin Luther King’s Montgomery bus boycott. There blacks had, using Gandhian tactics, stayed off the buses and walked to work or carpooled (or forced the middle-class white women for whom they worked as maids to drive over and pick them up each morning). The boycott had been stunningly successful and had brought the local bus line, whose primary customers were black, to its knees. Their protest, the dignified manner in which they had gained their victory, plus the eloquence of their young leader’s words had captured the imagination of much of the country. It was their first successful assault upon the national conscience. The question which had been left largely unanswered after Montgomery was whether these same tactics would be applicable elsewhere.

And now here was another black leader, one even more steeped in Gandhian techniques than King, coming to what would prove to be a vulnerable Southern city at precisely the right moment. Lawson saw himself as a teacher, and he was sure that he would not