Those Were the Days

It was lucky for David Halberstam, for the civil rights movement, and for all of us that Halberstam became a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean in 1956. Just a year out of Harvard, he was given a front-row seat for one of the most significant of the early struggles against America’s apartheid. The Nashville sit-ins of 1960 were not the first ones (the honor for that goes to four college students in Greensboro, North Carolina), but they were the most thoroughly prepared and skillfully conducted. Those who defied the local power structure knew very well what they were risking. For a year they had undergone spiritual exercises under the guidance of a thirty-one-year-old Gandhian, James Lawson, who had served prison time as a conscientious objector during the Korean War and studied nonviolence for three years in India.

Thanks to the presence in Nashville of several colleges and seminaries, Lawson was able to gather a stellar group of young people in his “beloved community” devoted to change—the brilliant James Bevel, a seminarian who had already served two years in the navy; the poised and courageous Diane Nash, who had been a runner-up in the beauty contest for Miss Illinois; John Lewis, an inexperienced farm boy whose intellectual horizons had just been opened by his seminary studies; Bernard Lafayette, professorial, now the president of the seminary he studied at with Bevel and Lewis. There were also two medical students, Gloria Johnson and Rodney Powell, and a Tennessee State prize student in mathematics, Curtis Murphy.

The story Halberstam tells gets much of its poignancy from the fact that this early band of sit-in agitators was so clearly superior, in moral and intellectual terms, to the screaming whites who would dump ketchup on them at lunch counters, harass them, and arrest them. Yet for all their training and discipline, their efforts would have been blunted, if not entirely defeated, if they did not get the attention of possible supporters on the scene and in distant places. That is why the local establishment seethed at any press coverage of the sit-ins. And bad as “outside agitators” were, local reporting that showed any sympathy was even worse, was a kind of betrayal. Halberstam gives great credit to the editor of the Tennessean, Coleman Harwell, for resisting the anger of Nashville’s power structure at the “nigger-loving” articles written by Halberstam and others. What these critics would have considered “objectivity” was the repressive collusion with city hall demonstrated by Nashville’s other paper, the Banner.

“It was a heady time for me, my first big story,” Halberstam writes, and he could not help but admire the courage and commitment of the protesters, most of whom were in their young twenties, as he was. The respect was reciprocated. John Lewis remembers how coverage in the national media (like Karl Fleming’s in Newsweek) was dismissed as written by “outsiders” who did not understand the South.

But there was no way the governor or the mayor or anyone else could…

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