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 complain that outsiders had anything to do with the stories being written almost daily by a young Tennessean reporter named David Halberstam. When he had first begun, he had been the only one covering us. This was his beat, and we always made sure he knew what we were doing. We realized from the beginning how important media coverage was. We knew we needed the press to get our message out, and early on this tall, skinny guy with his big brown eyeglasses was the press.
Halberstam’s ties of affection with the original beloved community are strong enough for him to describe their next campaign, the Freedom Rides, which many of them participated in. But then they dispersed into different arenas and organizations of the struggle. Though Bevel and Powell joined Dr. King’s SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), Nash and Lewis went with the younger, more confrontational SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), and Lewis became the head of that organization. Halberstam gives only a sketchy account of his subjects’ later activities—until he interviews them again for this book.
If Halberstam had stayed in America, he might have become famous for his civil rights coverage. But he had always wanted to be a foreign correspondent, and in 1961 he went to the Congo for The New York Times. The next year he was in Vietnam, where he entered the reporters’ pantheon. In his new book, Halberstam returns to his “first big story” almost forty years later. The recollected events have a glow of his own youth about them, and even when he interviews the “children” after their own later trials and failures, it is hard for him to see them as anything but the shining knights (and their ladies) of the early civil rights crusade.
This tendency is exacerbated by Halberstam’s narrative technique. He speaks not as an interviewer eliciting words from his subjects but as an omniscient inhabitant of their minds. He is not just observing or questioning John Lewis about the way George Wallace’s forces beat marchers at Pettus Bridge in Selma. He is with him, in him, remembering that “there was not even the hint of a breeze.” But Lewis, in his own book’s description of that moment, says: “The surface of the water [seen from the bridge] was stirred just a bit by the late afternoon breeze. Inoticed my trench coat was riffling a little from that small wind.”
A minor thing, of course; but if Halberstam is not infallible on what was happening outside his subjects, how can he be reliable on all their inmost thoughts and feelings? He can say, of course, that his interviews, rarely quoted verbatim, give him reason to think they were thinking what he attributes to them. But the odd thing is that they are rarely thinking any but noble thoughts. He never seems to find any trace, in those exhaustively explored interiors, of envy or selfishness or vanity or lust.
There was no reason for him to perceive such failings in 1960. Few if any frailties had yet been revealed. But after four decades, Halberstam’s unquestioning acceptance of his character’s nobility seems more like an attempt to recapture his own innocence than to tell the heroic but messy story of a movement that is no longer the stuff of instant journalism but of reflective history. It is interesting that Lewis is less defensive about himself or his colleagues than Halberstam is—and Halberstam’s book cannot even be weighed on the same scale with the two published volumes of Taylor Branch’s projected trilogy on the civil rights movement.
There was no reason, I repeat, for Halberstam to know in 1960 what Branch knows in 1998. And even if he had known about various peccadillos, there was no reason to report on them back then—for two reasons: there was a different journalistic standard at the time for reporting on anybody’s private failings, and no one could be happy giving ammunition to the white citizens’ councils and their allies, which were lying about the demonstrators, attributing to them every vice and corruption. The recent release of papers (the ones that have survived several purges) from the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission shows how unrelenting was the campaign to vilify black activists and their white allies. They were called faggots, lechers, drug users. Their employers were intimidated into firing them. Their draft boards were asked to reclassify them. Their children were called illegitimate or of mixed race.
Most of this deluge of filth was bulked out with falsehood. But some of it was true. There was a kind of feverish sexuality in the close ranks formed under danger (hardly a new thing in war situations). Lewis, while denying the scale of reports about this, admits he was not immune to the hero’s adulation given him by women. More seriously, there were clashes of egos, jealousies over winning credit, that threatened to tear the movement apart (and did severely cripple it at times). One gets only the most distant and sanitized references to these things in Halberstam, who is still observing the code of silence that hindered for a while serious historical work on the civil rights movement.
When Ralph Abernathy wrote a book that admitted to some of Dr. King’s sexual affairs, civil rights veterans were outraged, not only because he had talked openly of others’ faults but because he had been one of the principal beneficiaries of reticence: his fellows had muted their criticism of Abernathy’s fumbling efforts to succeed King. Branch also makes it clear that Abernathy’s bitter jealousy over King’s glory may have been more important than the need for candor in writing his book. Abernathy felt he deserved to be a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize, and put himself forward in Oslo in ways that embarrassed the whole King party.
It is not surprising that other civil rights activists have feared the reaction that Abernathy experienced. Andrew Young refused to talk with Branch when Branch was writing the first volume of his trilogy. Young’s own book was delayed for years, and Jesse Jackson has not been able, despite repeated efforts, to produce an autobiography that balances honesty with discretion in a way acceptable to publishers.
Fortunately, Branch’s first volume (Parting the Waters, 1988) convinced Young that the truth can be told without dishonoring the heroes of that noblest time in our recent history. He cooperated with Branch for the second volume (Pillar of Fire, 1998), which tells the full story of events like King’s Nobel Prize trip in a non-sensational way. The King party had prostitutes running in the halls of its Oslo hotel, and Americans were on the point of being arrested until Bayard Rustin returned from a night of gay cruising to placate the hotel security officers. Even with the figure most revered inside the civil rights movement, even with Bob Moses, Branch is delicate enough to tell the story of what seems to have been his mental breakdown in an inoffensive way.
John Lewis has benefited from the new openness. His candor makes Halberstam’s protectiveness look ridiculous. Halberstam quotes with a straight face James Bevel’s claim that he and his fellow seminarians were looked down on by college students because “we were against segregation, and they were against segregation, but we were also against a lot of other things they were for, [like] drinking and partying.” Halberstam treats Bevel’s later sexual antics as a theological development from his “ministerial duties.” But Lewis, who defended Bevel during his later troubles, never had any doubt about his attitude toward “drinking and partying.” In the seminary dorm they shared, Bevel told Lewis in 1957 that he meant to be the classic “chicken-eating, liquor-drinking, woman-chasing Baptist preacher.” Halberstam says that Diane Nash married Bevel “to the surprise of everyone in the Nashville group.” Since Halberstam knows that many men in the movement (and some in the press) had a crush on the beautiful Nash, it must seem to him that no one was worthy of her. But Lewis, who knew Bevel’s hypnotic effect on people, says that their marriage “truly surprised no one.”
Halberstam admires Lewis in a somewhat condescending way, which reflects no doubt the impressions he formed in 1960 of an inexperienced rural youth: “He was a person of singular purpose, unshakable in his beliefs, limitless in his faith, and with sufficient intelligence, at each critical juncture in his life, to know the difference between a good man and a bad man.” But Lewis has had “sufficient intelligence” to lead SNCC in its solider days, to win the admiration of Robert Kennedy, to forge an honorable career in Congress, and—now—to write a book of shrewd assessments. Though it is not a vainglorious book, nor a mean one, Lewis defends convincingly the stands he took, even when he was differing from people who had more experience than he did—people like Will Campbell and James Forman. He criticizes Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young without indulging in the rant against them of his SNCC colleagues, and he tells the story of his own ouster as the leader of SNCC without bitterness. His reverence for Dr. King does not make him idolize the man. He knows that King was capable of flinching, as when he refused to show up at the Pettus Bridge march in Selma. Lewis is living proof that one can be uncompromising without being unforgiving. His account of the sit-ins and freedom rides is not only more reliable than Halberstam’s but more moving. The sentimental title of Halberstam’s book is indicative. It is, indeed, a kids’ version of history. Lewis’s is the adult version.
One of the more interesting portraits in Lewis’s book is of his weird friend James Bevel. He admires the man without being hoodwinked by him, as Halberstam clearly was. Halberstam does not list Jesse Jackson among those he interviewed, and his few references to him are slighting. He says others were “put off by the obvious nature of Jackson’s soaring ambition.” But he never thinks of Bevel as descending to self-puffery. I have a different impression. The greatest speech I have ever heard in my life is the one Bevel gave in Memphis on the day after Dr. King was shot. Itold him that immediately afterward, but he was too busy trying to fly off for Atlanta to talk with me.
After my article on that day appeared in Esquire, however, and he read my description of his moving oratory, he came over from Washington to my house in Baltimore, and embraced my wife and me as “Brother! Sister!” He had a proposal. I was to write a book celebrating him as he took a march from Washington to the UN to demand international recognition of the black American nation. He would split the profits of the book with me (with him of course holding veto power over what Icould say in it). When I said Ihad projects of my own, he turned on all his dazzling rhetoric. I owed this to the movement, to history, to America, to my children. Nothing could be more important than this march, or my book on it. When Istill held out, he said I could have the book’s profits to myself. No deal? Then he would not exercise any control over what I wrote. He did not give up for a long time; he knew his persuasive powers. But when at last he saw that I was not going to give in, he got up without a word, took his coat out of the closet himself, and left. No goodbye. No “Brother!” No “Sister!” Had Halberstam been there, I think even he would come to see that “soaring ambition” can be joined with courageous protest and brilliant oratory.
June 25, 1998