THE CHILDREN. By David Halberstam . Random House: 784 pp., $29.95

Tom Hayden is a California state senator and the author of numerous books, including "Reunion," "Lost Gospel of the Earth" and "Irish Hunger."

David Halberstam is America's Alexis de Toqueville. For almost 40 years, he has chronicled our national life, from the tragedy of Vietnam to the triumphs in the National Football League. Now, in "The Children," he returns to his roots as a young reporter for the Nashville Tennessean, where he covered the start of the civil rights movement, the sit-ins that galvanized a generation. In following a dozen student idealists through the arc of their lives in the early 1960s to the present ambiguous moment at the end of the century, he shows how people make history and how the making of that history affects their lives.

"The Children" is an important book, especially for today's youth, who will read in its moving and revealing pages the remarkable stories of flesh-and-blood people who were the fiber of a social movement that is at best dimly remembered and mostly associated with leaders too lofty to be emulated.

"The children" was the term used by some clergy, parents and an older establishment to characterize the daring spirit--Halberstam calls it "relentless innocence"--of the sit-in leaders whose average age was no more than 20. It was an affectionate, if sometimes patronizing term. I remember it well, for I was one of those children, living in Atlanta in 1961. I celebrated my 21st birthday in jail with Bernard Lafayette, a figure in this book, who, back then, had been a student in Nashville. We had joined with others for a Freedom Ride to Albany, Ga., where we hoped to desegregate public facilities. That year I also experienced mob violence in Mississippi, where the Nashville students led the bloodiest Freedom Ride.

Looking back on his youthful reporting, Halberstam faults himself and his colleagues for writing stories that were "quite clinical. . . . [W]e did little to try and humanize the demonstrators." More than 30 years later, he seeks in this book to make up for past journalistic sterility by bringing to life some of the fascinating figures in the movement for racial justice. He does so with a sense of dramatic narrative and appreciation for nuance and complexity that moves the reader to empathy and reflection.

Halberstam's book is as much about character as it is about the vast political and cultural struggle that was waged. To taste the flavor of the courageous and compelling men and women who make up Halberstam's story, here are five typical examples:

* James Bevel was one of 17 children, served in the Navy, was a singer in clubs, heard the voice of God, became a Baptist preacher and wore a yarmulke to identify with the prophets and mystify the police. It was Bevel who, in addition to the Freedom Rides, mobilized the children of Birmingham, Ala. in 1963, thought up the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965, urged Martin Luther King to oppose the Vietnam War and, 30 years later, suggested the concept of the Million Man March to Louis Farrakhan. Today Bevel lives in Chicago and, repeating his own family cycle, is father of 17 children.

* Bernard Lafayette was a student at American Baptist College with Bevel and with future Congressman John Lewis. He was a Nashville freedom rider who took the assignment of organizing Selma, Ala., when no one else would. The night he and his new wife, Colia, moved into Selma's Torch Motel, they were met by FBI agents, who urged them to leave and even offered them scholarships to Columbia University. Lafayette was targeted for death and miraculously survived a vicious beating in Selma on the same night that Medgar Evers was killed in Mississippi. He eventually received a doctorate from Harvard School of Education, was a high school principal in Tuskegee, Ala., and became finally president of American Baptist College, where his activism began 38 years ago. In 1991, Lafayette was presented the official keys to the city of Selma by Mayor Joe Smitherman, who unbelievably still held office 32 years after the violent confrontations.

* Gloria Johnson was a medical student at Meharry Medical College in Nashville and was forced to hide her sit-in activities from her role-model mother, whose health was failing. She married and had three kids with Rodney Powell, another medical student activist. Together, they journeyed from the sit-in movement to the Peace Corps in Africa and back to Los Angeles, where she became the first minority student in psychiatry at UCLA Medical School and he directed the Watts Neighborhood Health Center. In 1970, Rodney told her that he was gay. She struggled with the news, lived with him a few more years in Minnesota and Uganda (during Idi Amin's terror) but ultimately fell into depression and attempted suicide. Rodney formed a solid relationship with a white professor from Hawaii, and he and Gloria built their bond anew. She went on to become the first tenured black female professor at Harvard Medical School.

* Diane Nash was perhaps the best known of the Nashville freedom riders. Halberstam opens "The Children" with an interior monologue in which Nash, who had competed in the Miss Illinois beauty contest before the movement changed her life, is overcome with dread as she prepares for her first arrest. Not long after, she was forcing Nashville's mayor to publicly commit himself to lunch counter desegregation. She played the key role in continuing the Deep South Freedom Rides at a time when older civil rights leaders and the Kennedy Justice Department were pressuring participants to call them off. She entered an ill-fated marriage to James Bevel, and they had two children before their relationship collapsed. In a Mississippi courtroom in April 1962, a very pregnant Nash, defended by Bevel (who was not a lawyer), insisted on being jailed instead of pursuing an appeal. "This will be a black baby born in Mississippi, and thus wherever he is born, he will be in prison," she told the stunned judge. Eventually he ordered her release despite a two-year sentence. Years later, separated from Bevel, she raised her children in Chicago, where she continues to engage in social activism.

* Hank Thomas was almost beaten to death in the 1961 Anniston, Ala., freedom ride and survived the terrors of Parchman Penitentiary in Mississippi only to have his hand nearly shot off while serving in Vietnam in 1966. He came out of the Veterans Hospital determined to break barriers in business, and even though he eventually became a millionaire through McDonald's franchises, he was still refused a home loan by four Atlanta banks in the 1980s because he was black. He ultimately built his home. Thomas is active in veterans affairs and has hosted North Vietnamese officers on visits of reconciliation.

The stories go on and on. Taken together, they constitute a whole that is greater than its parts, a picture in which ordinary people emerged from the oblivion of segregation to shape our national history in ways that the "best and brightest" of the establishment could not or would not do.

Halberstam also captures the moral imperative that set "the children" apart from their elders, who counseled retreat from danger: "As far as the young people were concerned, the danger was the very object of the exercise, and was what they wanted in order to push things forward. They had come to sense in some intuitive way that the things they wanted to happen would happen only if they reached and crossed a certain danger point. An intuitive philosophy of the students in the movement was being born: the safer everything was, the less likely that anything important would take place."

But Halberstam is not content to let such courage determine "the children's" place in history. By profiling more than their deeds in a singular place and time, he raises the existential question of what happens to ordinary people, whose ordinariness was extraordinarily altered, when ordinary life resumes its routine pace.

Take Curtis Murphy, who lost several years to alcoholism after Nashville before he settled as a teacher in the Chicago inner city. "Curtis Murphy hit the wall," Halberstam concludes; he was "among the first . . . who had to return to so ordinary a life, the first to learn how hard it was to be middle class."

Perhaps this experience was similar to what combat soldiers go through when they return to civilian life. As soldiers practicing nonviolence, "the children's" goal was to ride into enemy lines, to absorb the hate, violence and the real possibility of death until segregation was rendered impossible to maintain. There was constant danger but also intense love, moments of glory and deepest loss, feelings of redemption followed by burnout, then came unexpected victories, with centuries-old walls collapsing and the shock of watching politicians, who had stood on the sidelines, suddenly marching onto the battlefield proclaiming "We Shall Overcome." For some, the resumption of an ordinary life meant suffering the invisible scars of social indifference, more lasting than the bruises of police brutality.

Angeline Butler, a former Nashville sit-in leader now living in Los Angeles, describes the veterans of this singular experience as "single soldiers" today, making impacts where they can, without the presence of a larger movement.

To immerse myself locally in this Nashville legacy, I attended Martin Luther King Day services Jan. 17 at Holman Methodist Church in South-Central Los Angeles, where the pastor is the Rev. James Lawson. In Halberstam's narrative, Lawson emerges as the most powerful connecting thread, as well he should. At 29, Lawson went to Nashville in 1958 at the call of King and trained "the children" in nonviolence workshops that led to the sit-ins. A religious pacifist, he served one year in prison as a conscientious objector in the early '50s and three years as a Methodist missionary in India, where he became profoundly attached to the doctrines of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi predicted that a black man in America might bring nonviolence to the world, and Lawson was convinced that Martin Luther King Jr. was that leader and worked intimately with him until the day of his death.

Lawson's workshops enabled "the children" to form a focused community that became an instrument of action. He taught patience, knowing that at first people would feel small but, because great ideas mattered, many more would be drawn to the cause when it was seen to be serious. He transformed a legacy of suppressed shame and inferiority for being black into a passion for justice. And he trained people to accept physical assault and jail because those experiences isolated their adversaries and created public sympathy.

Lawson was a brilliant teacher and one of the most steadfast direct action leaders of all. Halberstam describes a remarkable incident in which Lawson, standing in the midst of a threatening mob, is spit upon by a segregationist. When Lawson asked him for a handkerchief to wipe himself off, the assailant complied; Lawson asked him next what kind of motorcycle he rode and turned the spitting incident into a conversation.

He was lead spokesman on the most dangerous freedom ride: from Montgomery, Ala. to Jackson, Miss., on May 14, 1961. Five years later, he remained in the center of the storm and was asked by King to regroup the 1966 Meredith Mississippi march after James Meredith was shot. In 1968, he was minister of Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis, rallying support for the sanitation workers' strike that became King's last crusade.

And 30 years after that madness, Lawson was presiding over the King memorial services at Holman Methodist on a quiet sunny Sunday on West Adams Boulevard. I had attended Lawson's services before, seeking to experience a memory or a flashback of those long-ago times. (I do not make it through "We Shall Overcome" without beginning to cry.) On this particular day, thinking about Halberstam's book and sitting in a virtually all-black congregation, I was struck at how in liberal Los Angeles and northern cities, the reality of segregation is entrenched in the places we worship, where we live, how we educate our children, how we bury our dead.

Still I lectured myself that we must count our blessings. There is a larger black middle class than 30 years ago, voting rights have made a difference and there are oases of genuine multicultural friendship. But segregation is not a thing of the past as we hoped it would be when we were "the children." It is the future our children face.

Only 11% of the students in Los Angeles public schools are white. Harvard University's Gary Orfield and Susan Eaton have shown that school segregation across the country is increasing for black students for the first time since 1954. In Nashville and the Deep South, where the Freedom Rides took place, life is freer than it was, but many conditions have worsened. Thad Kousser's analysis of census data shows that in Nashville in 1960, blacks were twice as likely as whites to be poor, but today they are three times as likely to be poor. In Mississippi in 1990, 47% of blacks were below the federal poverty line. In Albany, Ga., where once I was a freedom rider, the average yearly black wage in 1990 was $5,904.

The ratio of incarceration of blacks to whites nationally in 1960 was five-to-one, while today it is more than seven-to-one. In the vacuum left by our failure to resolve the issues of race and poverty, youthful gang nihilism has proliferated, and multiple conflicts between blacks, Latinos and Asians cast a shadow on our future. Racism has not been defeated: The question is whether it has defeated us.

In spite of these grounds for despair, Halberstam is correct when he writes that Lawson has "remained remarkably unchanged in his beliefs after nearly four decades of social activism." After services, we talked in his book-laden study. Nearly 70, silver-maned, fit and energetic as always, Lawson remembered the events of yesteryear as a living, continuing story, suggesting people I should call in Nashville, remembering how black churches were nervous about King and "the children" in the early days and lamenting the failure to develop a "strategy for the long haul." He observed that King's "I have a dream" speech has been incorporated into American mainstream culture but that the movement's anti-militarism and anti-poverty themes have not. "The '60s are being reversed," he added, by forces that are reviving more sophisticated, even academic, rationales for white sovereignty, such as "The Bell Curve."

Unlike Lawson, Halberstam fails to venture an opinion about race relations today or the impact of the movement overall. Perhaps this is a journalist's prerogative., though by contrast, Tom Wicker, another reporter of those days, has written of the "tragic failure" of the civil rights movement and even suggested that African American voters should abandon the Democratic Party. As a writer, Halberstam is entitled to leave to his readers the meaning of the events he describes. But throughout the book are hints that he is comfortable with, even celebrates, the workings of the very system that the movement opposed as elitist and exclusionary. Those who were scorned and beaten in 1961 are honored by Halberstam as American success stories. That is sweet justice indeed, but what about the conditions those individuals fought to change?

Halberstam left Nashville in the early 1960s, in his words, "in the middle of the story." He was ambitious for fame, meaning "serious recognition within my profession that I was a budding star." He succeeded, winning a Pulitzer Prize for his critical coverage of the Vietnam War. But his individual success in the mainstream may have led him to ignore its limitations.

Was it the mainstream that made voting rights possible, or was it "the children" who forced the mainstream to respond and concede? In his epilogue, Halberstam calls the Nashville sit-ins a shining "example of democracy at work." From the viewpoint of the freedom riders, however, an inclusive democracy was being outlawed for electoral expediency. Halberstam asserts that by 1964, President Lyndon Johnson had turned around J. Edgar Hoover and "completed the slow commitment of the executive branch of the federal government to the side of the activists," a judgment completely at odds with both the facts and the experience of the activists. Halberstam's conclusion is contradicted one page later, when he quotes Johnson telling King in 1965 that a voting-rights act "couldn't be done." Later, he writes that Johnson called King "that goddamn nigger preacher" for his views on Vietnam. Soon young blacks, who received little protection from terrorist bullets in the South, were dying in disproportionate numbers for freedom in Vietnam. Survivors returned to ghettos burdened with exceptional rates of unemployment and drug addiction.

Halberstam glides over these sorry chapters of history too lightly, leaving some readers to conclude that the sit-ins were a mythic example of the American Dream coming true, a case of dissidents being held up to prove that the system works. It would be interesting to know whether Halberstam sees the need for a new generation of "the children" to combat the worsening conditions of race, poverty and gang violence in our cities today. I do.

Whatever my reservations about Halberstam's analysis, I hope the lives he describes so movingly in "The Children" will inspire a new generation to see that only they can move America closer to our professed ideals.

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