As a veteran reader of 20th century history books, I've long considered David Halberstam to be one of the best and brightest of the contemporary historians publishing today. He is also, not so coincidentally, one of the most prolific, as well, having produced a steady stream of works covering such myriad historical and cultural subjects as a study of how the Kennedy and Johnson administrations stumbled and blundered their way into the quagmire of Vietnam to more whimsical studies of pop-cultural aspects of American life such as major league baseball and the effects of the seasons on residents of the island of Nantucket off the Massachusetts coast. In this book, "The Children", Halberstam focuses on the fascinating subject of the American civil rights movement from its genesis in thee black colleges and churches of the American south to its development as a pan-American movement during the early 1960s.
One of the most admirable qualities of this superb book stems from the fact that Halberstam was in fact an eye-witness to many of the events described here, being a recent Harvard graduate who soon finds himself getting a heaping helping of ordinary racist reality in the 1950s-early 1960s American south. His interest in becoming a journalist draws him to a local city desk at an iconoclastically liberal southern paper that tolerates his naivety and cashes in on his energy and natural ability to write. Yet this is not a story in any manner about Halberstam. Rather, it is the fact that he waited so long to write about this era of his own career that makes it so mind-boggling, for he brings all of his mature powers of observation and description to bear on this story in a way that breathes fire and life into the oft-told tale, and makes each of the protagonists both more ordinary and more real.
This is an important aspect of the story itself, for now, some forty years later, it is easy to forget how young and unworldly many of these youngsters were. In facing the challenges of the times as well as their own well-founded fears, each of them gradually becomes an extraordinary person. Here we have a master of prose describing these extraordinary events with a breathtaking narrative, focusing on each of the several individuals in turn in showing how the welter of events, circumstances, and individual personalities combine to create a social revolution by daring to oppose the most hoary of racial taboos through the practice of public non-violent opposition. This is a story that describes the epic beginnings and dramatic evolution of a veritable social revolution in America, one that changed the face of our society forever.
This is a riveting book, one that well deserves the wide reading it has enjoyed to date. While the ground covered here has been canvassed before, most notably by Taylor Branch in his terrific two-volume history if the black struggle for equal rights in the United States during the 1950s-1970s, Halberstam's treatment is so personal, so well documented, and so meticulously narrated that one finds himself swept along with the tide of events and changes as the flood crests into a social revolution, drowning the vestiges and roots of the old culture in its path. There's a chorus of amazing and erstwhile protagonists here, from a young and naïve John L. Lewis to a crafty and devious Marion Berry, from an impressionable and impassioned Diane Nash to a determined and dedicated Rev. James Lawson, from an inspirational young Martin Luther King to a daring James Berel. This is truly a story that needs to be told and retold, for it comprises the quintessential American epic, something that could have happened nowhere but here.
This book carries the signature trademark qualities of all of Halberstam's work; it is a meticulously researched, powerfully narrated and beautifully described work of history, one that focuses on one of the most remarkable events of the 20th century, the rise and growth of the indigenous black civil rights movement in the American South. It a testimony to the power of non-violent protest, and a paean to the wisdom and understanding a generation of unworldly black youngsters brought to bear on their times. I highly recommend this book! Enjoy!
on November 15, 2004
David Halberstam's publication "The Children" is an exciting overview of the Civil Rights Movement from an enamored journalist through the eyes of Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. (SNCC) The author focuses on the major players such as Diane Nash, James Bevel, Jim Lewis, Curtis Murphy, Bernard Lafayette and James Lawson, with heavy emphasis on the Nashville Sit-In Movement and Freedom Rides. The strength of his work is that it reads much more like a fast paced novel than an academic analysis. He does however at the same time provide plenty of background material and socio-economic, political and cultural variables within his work. Halberstam also revisits these former SNCC workers after the "high" of the movement and even much later in life. It's quite obvious the work of a journalist within the pages.
This is a good overview of Civil Rights through the eyes of SNCC rather than a broader based examination of the movement. Halberstam's book is quite impressive, and what I admire is the length of information he was able to attain from the vast interviews he received, largely because he had already covered and had known many of the players as a journalist covering the Civil Rights Movement. If you are just starting out or have little knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement this book would be a good starting point. Journalists make great writers because they simply know how to tell a story. Well done!
David Halberstam is one of those writers who seem to have more words than he can reasonably use. His books fairly bulge at the seams and yet in reading any of his works, it is seldom that a reader feels that too much has been included. As a reporter he seems to have fallen in love with the tangible fact, the telling detail, and he fills his books with them. The Children, an account of the young men and women who initiated the 'sit ins' that sparked the early civil rights movement, is as richly detailed as a Durer etching. The cast of characters is large and the setting in which they are placed is brought to life with great skill.
Halberstam has a way of making sense of things that might mystify most writers. He does this by creating a meaningful context and by deomonstrating meaningful connections - between actions as well as characters. There is a lot of book here, and one can easily loose sight of the story line by getting bogged down in some of the detailed digressions that he seems to love, but taken as a whole, this book makes real the mostly unremembered young heros who drug their elders kicking and screaming into the movement.
I think this is a very important book and deserves a place on any bookshelf devoted to our recent history.
David Halberstam has written an epic history of the young men and women, most still in their teens, who had the courage and nobility of spirit to fight the unjust status quo of segregation, and change the course of our nation's history. This is the story of the civil rights movement in the United States, beginning in the late 1950s and reaching its height in the mid-1960s. The story is told from the eyes of these young people - it is the history they made. "The Children" frequently put their lives on the line, risking physical danger and even death, to join the non-violent protests that would give all Americans equal rights under the law.
The Movement's leaders were two black southern ministers, both strongly influenced by the teachings of Mahandas Gandhi. These two men, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jim Lawson, designed the framework of the mission. They stratagized like generals waging a unique war. Young college students, mostly African Americans, whose parents had sacrificed much to send them to university, were recruited as soldiers. These vulnerable and committed students were schooled in the nonviolent tradition, with workshops, such as: "Justice Without Violence" and "The New Negro In The New South." We meet these children and hear of their experiences in Nashville, Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma, and many other towns and small cities all over the South. Halberstam documents the background of these young troops, their families, and struggles, growing up Black in America. He movingly describes the sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, and the terrible violence of the Klan, and of ordinary citizens, steeped in bigotry, that endangered all of them. We read about the voter registration campaigns, and the founding of SNCC and CORE. The moral, philosophical and political roots of the civil rights movement, and the divisiveness within the group as different ideologies emerged, are well documented, as is the death of Dr. King.
Halberstam draws an amazing portrait of Jim Lawson, whose fervor and dedication moved a generation of Americans to action. The author truly excels, however, in bringing to life the young people whose story this is. We are updated, toward the end of the book, on the lives of the young activists today. This incredibly moving history reads like a novel you don't want to put down. And while we read about a most shameful period in our nation's history, who can fail to be proud of the young citizens who took action to make such important changes?
on July 22, 2006
David Halberstam has written so many great works, but THE CHILDREN may be his greatest achievement. From the outset, this book takes readers on a journey through the civil rights movement through the eyes of both the courageous young people who had decided that our society had to change and the adults who helped them to bring this needed change to America. The book captures readers from the beginning as Halberstam gives a very intimate look at the fear Diane Nash experienced as one of the leaders of Nashville's sit-in movement. The first chapter gives readers a window through which to see the conflicting forces that collided in the heart and mind of Ms. Nash as she contemplated the enormity of what she was doing: changing the south against the wishes of many who, if they had their way, would just as soon hang her as look at her.
The chapters of this work flow so well, and the reader is introduced to so many who made the civil rights movement what it was: Diane Nash, John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, Jim Lawson, James Bevel, C.T. Vivian, etc. etc. etc. The book, a work of historical non-fiction reads almost like a novel. Readers are drawn in by the stories of these heroes, and their triumphs and tragedies take readers on a roller-coaster ride of emotion as they are thrust into this amazing struggle.
Halberstam tells a great story, but the story he tells in this book tops them all. I have read many, many books on the movement, and this is my favorite. I had the tremendous honor to meet John Lewis last summer, and as we talked about much of what he experienced during this period, he asked me "Have you read THE CHILDREN?" When I told them that I had, he commented about what a great book he thought it was and how Halberstam had perfectly captured, as much as possible, what that time was like for those of us who weren't there. John Lewis is a personal hero of mine, and I can think of no better praise for this book. On that note, I would also highly recommend Mr. Lewis' book WALKING WITH THE WIND for those who haven't read it and want another good civil rights title.
on June 15, 1999
This book was wonderfully written...nonfiction in a style that is easy to read and engaging. The author pays attention to the most interesting details and draws you into the story with these pioneers of the civil rights movement. This book is a fabulous way to understand some of the history of our country and the race issues that we deal with on a daily basis. The book is written in a way that engages you every step of the way. The author is very talented and tells a gripping and moving true story.
The Children is David Halberstam's look at the college students who helped make the Civil Rights movement a success. The book is fascinating; Halberstam sweeps you along as events unfold. It is difficult to believe that things were so different just a few years ago. Even at 700+ pages, The Children is difficult to put down.
To me, the best part of The Children is its characters. Halberstam has a gift for making his characters come alive; you feel that you know these young people, warts and all. One of the most fascinating aspects of these biographies is what happened to the characters as the Civil Rights movement ended; some of them were quite successful, others could never find anything as fulfilling. (It is interesting to read Halberstam's take on James Bevel, given that Bevel has been convicted of incest since The Children's publication).
The dust jacket of The Children notes that it is Halberstam's "most personal" book. I think that this works for and against the book. Certainly, Halberstam has a great grasp on "what happened when" and he took the time to get to know each of the Civil Rights workers on a deep level. In other ways, Halberstam's passions work against him. Too often, Halberstam falls for the easy out of caricaturing people he does not like; he cavalierly characterizes Ralph David Abernathy, rival journalists, politicians, college professors, religious leaders, and numerous others as nothing more than one-dimensional simpletons.
Halberstam's opinionated prose reminded me of a review I once read; it stated that Halberstam's gift for narrative can obscure the fact that his approach isn't always 100% solid as history. Given that Halberstam states his opinions as established facts, I think that's a fair synopsis of The Children as well.
On the whole, however, The Children is quite an accomplishment. It tells the story of how a few seemingly-ordinary people helped create a more just society - and Halberstam tells that story in a way that entertains and fascinates the reader.
on October 19, 2004
Halberstam has produced another masterpiece, perhaps his best since B&B. As with Vietnam, this book is permeated by his personal experience as a young reporter full of ambition and working hard to find a story. The story here are the young people, who appeared as if out of nowhere in Tenessee, and entered history with their courage and dignity.
What distinguishes this book from others on the civil rights campaign is its focus not on the most visible leaders of the fight - ML King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers - but on the students who served as foot soldiers and then leaders in their own right. These were young people whose names are not household words, but whose courage and action did as much to change American society and politics as King and the others. It is a truly amazing and inspiring story, as they started in Nashville with solid training in Ghandian non-violence techniques and then went into the deep south, where they were beaten and threatened with a viciousness that shocked the world. In the process their audacity not only pushed a reluctant and cautious MLK to greater ambition, but they matured as political actors and many went on to outstanding careers as politicians, teachers, and preachers.
Halberstam delineates how their non-violence and charismatic dignity in the face of these threats dovetailed with the development of television, broadcasting the brutality of the old south into the living rooms. It was this combination - a mass movement addressing centuries-old injustices, the bad-guy thugishness of their primitivie adversaries, and TV's images - that culminated in the Civil Rights and then Voting Acts of 1965. It is a fascinating analysis of how politics was changing at the time.
But Halberstam doesn't stop there: he also chronicles the aftermath, when new "separatist" leaders emerged, like Stokely Carmichael, who split the extraordinary unity of the movement for more selfish purposes. He also evokes the deterioration of the inner cities as the issues shift to the far more difficult and ill-defined challenges of poverty and personal identity. It is the other half of the story - the disappointing aftermath - when lesser politicians took over and disillusionment set in after a series of terrible assasinations. Perhaps it was inevitable, as the society digested such fundamental change and moved on to the Vietnam war period.
Most interestingly, Halberstam follows many of these students leaders through their entire careers, which serve as the vehicles to portray the issues in the paragraph above. We see some of them unable to sustain the intensity of their purpose, sometimes degenerating into self-destructive paths or irrelevancy as single mothers, demagogues of questionable sanity, and drug abusers. But there were many who became great leaders, entering politics as congressmen and demonstrating that the right to vote really did change America into a more inclusive society, or becoming business men - they were able to participate fully in an integrated society, the first generation of blacks to do so. These individual portraits are masterpieces of depth reporting and the humanistic impulse, which are the hallmarks of Halbertam's unique voice.
This book rises to great eloquence, his best since B&B. Warmly recommended as one of the best books I read in years.
on February 10, 2002
David Halbestam's monumental book, the children, is a hymn of praise to a remarkable group of young people who did much, perhaps most, of the heavy lifting of the civil rights movement. But it is also the story of how one man, James Lawson, influenced a movement and changed a nation. There are many heroes portrayed in Halberstam's book, but perhaps the one indispensable person in the success of the civil rights movement was not Martin Luther King, Jr., but James Lawson. This is not to diminish or belittle the contributions of King, for what more can a man give than his life. But even Halberstam doesn't seem to recognize that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 might never have come about had it not been for the remarkable acheivement of James Lawson in attracting and training the first group of young, tremendously dedicated non-violent protesters in Nashville in 1959 and 1960. This is one of the most inspirational books I have ever read, and while, as several of the reviewers have already noted, the book could have done with some paring of redundancies, if you want a story filled with heroes and heroines, with light overcoming darkness and the good guys winning, this is your book. It should be required reading for every young person in America. James Lawson, jailbird, "draft dodger" and the ultimate "outside agitator," has lived a life of consequence and significance that most of us can only dream about. The remarkable thing is that he found other young people who wished to live lives equally challenging. Human beings, if they are lucky, are given only a few rare opprotunities in their lives to make a real and great impact on their world. Lawson, Nash, LaFayette, Bevel, Powell, Brown, Johnson and the wonderous John Lewis among many others, seized their opportunity, and made life better for not only millions of Black folk held hostage to racism and ignorance, but for millions of their white oppressors as well. The great tragedy is that as the Movement entered its period of greatest success, it was, like the Russian Revolution, seized by some of the most radical elements in what had been the fringes of the movement. And we lost Martin Luther King, Jr., the most effective voice of the nation's conscience.
on January 3, 2016
This is the story of the very young student leaders of the Civil Rights movement beginning in 1959 in Nashville. They started by organized the successful and much copied lunch counter sit-ins, and moved on to spearhead the freedom rides into the deep south, as well as voter registration drives and many other activities. The students were initially organized and trained in Gandhian non-violent protest by James Lawson. They formed the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which was a very important group in desegregation. Its first president, John Lewis became one of the giants of the Movement and is sort of a hero of mine.
Author David Halberstam was an excellent author of many acclaimed books, and I recommend this one to anyone with an interest in this subject. The story is definitely a 5-star story! I gave the book 3-stars because I found it to be very long and at times repetitive. It also occasionally strays too far from the main story. Despite those issues, its a book worthy of your time.