Monday, April 23, 2007

David Halberstam: The Children

David Halberstam died today in a car crash in Menlo Park, California.

He'll be eulogized for many things. For me, though, he's the person who made the Civil Rights movement REAL. In his inspired work, THE CHILDREN, Halberstam brings depth and emotional resonance to the story of the young, non-violent protesters who formed the nucleus of SNCC, CORE and the Freedom Riders. It's a bottom-up view of all the familiar scenes -- Birmingham, the march to Selma, etc. While most books about the Civil Rights movement concentrate on Dr. King, this book focuses on the kids he inspired. The dramatic shift in focus is disarming, recasting the entire story in a fresh way.

Here's the secret -- Halberstam captures the FEAR. By focusing on King, knowing he is a martyr for the cause, many books portray King (and other leaders) as righteously resigned.

THE CHILDREN begins with college students, just being introduced to the concept of non-violence in little workshops. Some don't take to it very well. Some don't take to it at all. The book goes into deep detail about what a person feels like, who, on the basis of convictions and a few hours of training is going to sit there and allow themselves to be beaten and abused. It's terrifying!

Halberstam rips away the inevitability of history, which also affects books on this topic. In THE CHILDREN, none of the participants can "see the mountain". They have NO IDEA if their struggle will mean anything. Since slave rebellions on, very few African-American uprisings amounted to more than violent retribution and worsening oppression. Again, this unique points of view lends urgency, suspense and horror to these familiar places and times. For me, the book allowed me, for the first time, to really feel TRANSPORTED to that MOMENT when the firehoses were being turned on.

The perspective also shows was a modest movement it was at the beginning -- everyone knew each other, and everyone had opinions as to how it should be run. In some ways, it felt like a contentious student government meeting, or a weird frat or a strange extracurricular activity. At that moment, the movement seemed fragile and fractious - ready to dissolve into nothingness, from causes within and without.

Amazingly enough, the backlash and the headlines galvanized the movement, crystallizing the concept of non-violence: if the cause is just and the oppression is unjust, the barbarism of the oppressor will be self-evident, even to the most jaundiced eye.

It's also amazing to see how more conventional interpersonal dynamics played out: We see the SNCC kids view King as sort of going Hollywood, as it were, and he becomes less approachable. We see that, even in the fight for racial justice, homophobia, sexism and colorism were not left behind -- one of the original group is a closeted gay man, and a shining light of the book, DIANE NASH, benefits from colorism, but suffers from sexism, as her boyfriend in the movement comes to overshadow her.

The most gripping passages are the Freedom Rides, executed like military campaigns, with all the edge-of-your-seat moments as any spy thriller. They are deep behind "enemy" lines, and there is no room for error. One secret revealed is that the riders almost turned back!

Halberstam was there as a cub reporter at 25, then, later conducted extensive interviews with his principals, giving the entire work a real, commanding feeling of verisimilitude. You feel the voices of his subjects, not his authorial voice. In this instance, it's just what the doctor ordered.

If you only read one book about the Civil Rights movmement, consider this one. It's amazing.

Rest in Peace, David Halberstam, and thanks for all the great books!