Almost exactly a century after America’s first civil rights war began with the artillery shelling of Fort Sumter, the nation’s second civil rights revolution was launched with a much quieter, but in some ways far more powerful, bombshell. It was called Big Saturday: Saturday, February 27, 1960.
A group of some 300 well-dressed college students, nearly all of them black, walked quietly from a black Baptist church in North Nashville to the central shopping district downtown, entered a handful of prominent department stores and sat down at the lunch counters, waiting to be served. Although it was not the first time some of them had done so, and although another band of protesters in Greensboro, North Carolina, had also organized what became quickly known as a sit-in, the Big Saturday demonstration proved to be the first action — the first violence, the first bloodletting — in the long and cruel campaign to win equal rights for black Americans. Eighty-one of the protesters, many badly beaten, were taken to jail: none of the white assailants was arrested.
The Big Saturday protesters had formed a group the size of a first-year college lecture course. Five years later, a crowd only twice as large — still barely the size of a small church congregation — walked six blocks from a Selma church to a bridge across the Alabama River. On the other side waited a "sea of Alabama state troopers," as march leader John Lewis later recalled it. Lewis and Hosea Williams moved on quietly until they were within speaking distance of the guard, knelt and began to pray. And as they knelt there, their hands clasped and their heads bent, the state troopers charged, bludgeoning the protesters with clubs and raking them with tear gas. That day, March 7, 1965, became known as Bloody Sunday.
"It was a war," says journalist/author David Halberstam, who covered those early sit-ins as a young reporter for The [Nashville] Tennessean and who shortly after made his reputation covering the war in Vietnam for the New York Times. "Martin Luther King was the general, and these kids were the foot soldiers, the shock troops . . . who deliberately picked out the most dangerous places to put their bodies on the line. They were like the airborne brigades that dropped in on D-Day.
"And the more I looked back at it, the more I found out about the Freedom Rides, the more respect I had for their extraordinary courage," says Halberstam, who had been sent abroad in the early ’60s but returned for a short time toward the end of the period. "Mississippi in 1964 was scarier than Vietnam."
Nearly 40 years after he covered the early sit-ins in Nashville, Halberstam has returned to reread, and to rediscover, his first big story, one that perhaps he is less well-known for but which meant as much to him and his forging of a professional ethic as his Vietnam coverage. The Children, Halberstam’s evocation of the central characters in the Nashville movement, "brings me back to a particular point in my career that I’m extremely proud of — and going back to these stories all those years ago, I was pleasantly surprised" by the maturity of his reporting.
The Children painstakingly recreates the lives of the eight young men and women who became the core committee of the Nashville Movement, layering their memories, their fears, and their victories in overlapping chapters. It was a testament, Halberstam says, "to the nobility of ordinary people, acting upon the democratic ideal."
In 1960, Halberstam writes, "They did not think of themselves in those days as being gifted or talented or marked for success, or for that matter particularly heroic, and yet from that little group would come a senior U.S. Congressman [Georgia’s John Lewis]; the mayor of a major city [Marion Barry of Washington, D.C.]; the first black woman psychiatrist to be tenured at Harvard medical school [Gloria Johnson-Powell]; one of the most distinguished public health doctors in America [Rodney Powell]; and a young man who would eventually come back to be the head of the very college in Nashville he now attended [Bernard Lafayette of American Baptist College]."
"These young people were not ’empowered,’" Halberstam says soberly, "they were scarcely members of the privileged class. In fact, most of them came from dramatically underprivileged circumstances. Yet somehow they found the faith to make this country worthy of its promises in the face of constant physical danger."
Their revolution was greatly assisted by the coincidence of two unrelated historical forces: the growing appeal of moral rather than physical authority, as articulated by Mohandas Gandhi, whose philosophy of passive resistance they adopted; and the emergence of television as a national "eye" (the rise of American media being a subject Halberstam has explored in other books as well). The violence, the immediate enormity of it and the undeniable, almost contagious ugliness of it struck the American public as forcibly as video from Vietnam, the first "armchair war," would only a couple of years later.
In fact, it might well be said that the Civil Rights Movement was the real first armchair war. Because when television showed children being blasted down streets with water guns, or when newspapers all over the country printed the photograph of a state trooper splitting open the head of a praying John Lewis, it made every American citizen a witness to such inhumanity, and forced each to make a moral choice of his or her own. "Their ability to use television in a moral sense, to dramatize on TV what it cost America to be racist and to maintain the system of segregation" was an argument of irrefutable power.
Against what might have seemed overwhelming logistical and political odds, the war was won.
"It was an extraordinary triumph," says Halberstam. "In 1960, Congress was dominated by a decrepit generation of Southern leadership that was dead set against them; the Justice Department grudgingly supported them; JFK thought they were a pain in the ass; and the FBI, or Hoover, was violently opposed to civil rights. Four years later, both houses of Congress were competing to pass legislation, Hoover had gradually come to respect them, and [President] Johnson was their greatest ally.
"And they succeeded in doing it all really on a moral principle. They set out to appeal to the conscience of the federal government, to draw the beast of segregation out from under cover and make the American people see the price the country was paying to remain segregated: Bull Connor and his police dogs and the fire hoses and the cattle prods."
When Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965, John Lewis was there.
Eve Zibart is a staff writer with The Washington Post.