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David Halberstam Accepts 1999 Melcher Prize and Speaks on "The Children"

On Thursday, October 21, 1999, Pulitzer Prize winning author David Halberstam spoke in front of 110 people gathered at the First Parish Church, Unitarian Universalist in Cambridge, MA, to accept the presentation of the Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA) 1999 Melcher Book Award. The evening was co-sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Cambridge Forum. Patricia Suhrcke, Director of the Cambridge Forum, introduced the evening, and the Rev. John Buehrens, President of the UUA, welcomed guests. Mr. Halberstam was introduced by his friend, the Rev. Edward Anderson, minister emeritus of the Second Congregational Meeting House Society, UU in Nantucket, MA.

Halberstam accepted the Melcher citation (see below) and cash award, and addressed the audience. The comments below are excerpted from his address:

"With the publication of The Children, I can say which [of all my works] is my favorite book. It is The Children. It is my best book because it is a story about faith and courage and the nobility of ordinary people... about the single best moment in American democracy... This was a citizen movement and the people I wrote about were the grunts—and it was their courage and unshakeable faith about their religion and this country, that changed us.

"In a dramatically short period of five years, they brought change to the peripheral laws like lunch counter segregation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965... This ended state-sanctioned legal political racism in America. Flawed as we are, still burdened by the shadow of slavery, no longer anywhere in this country does the state dictate that any individual is inferior by dint of color.

"[This change] came about because a group of children—sons and daughters of the poorest people in the poorest section of the U.S., Southerners growing up in the depression, whose parents had not gone to college, or even high school, with an average of a fifth grade education—children of the most vulnerable people in society, stood on their conscience and brought this change.

"It's not a bad idea to remember this country when [the civil rights movement] began... the Congress of the U.S. was driven and run by geriatric southerners of an intense racism; the FBI—the one group in the country that was supposed to protect ordinary citizens—was led by perhaps the single worst public servant in this century, J. Edgar Hoover, whose only interest was whether these young people were having interracial sex... and [there was] a Justice Department which was only then beginning to swing around, driven by the impulse of these young people, and forced involuntarily to reach for its own conscience.

"The KKK, Citizen's Councils... sheriffs, police chiefs, ministers, editors, [were all] entirely sworn to one thing—to hold on to the last remnants of slavery... slavery in modern incarnation. [The children] started out with every aspect of power in this society—local, state, federal—against them, and utterly without allies, except perhaps the media. And they weren't even big men and women on their campuses. They weren't in the fraternities at Fiske or Tennessee State... five years later, after Brown vs. the Board of Education, they would realize that in the years since 1954, nothing had changed in their lives. The Supreme Court had said that things should change 'with all deliberate speed,' and it seemed more deliberate than speedy...

"But [the children] did have the power of their faith, the lessons of Gandhi, and some great teachers. One of the nice things about the book is that it casts light on some of the secret heroes... [The Rev.] Jim Lawson was far more advanced in his knowledge of Gandhi and non-violence and how to use it in the civil rights movement than was Martin Luther King. He had spent more than a year in prison during the Korean war, he was the son of a Baptist minister, and he had gone, believing that Gandhi probably reflected the teachings of Jesus Christ more than anyone, to India to walk in Gandhi's footsteps. He linked up with Martin Luther King, came to Nashville, started the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and started teaching these young people. He didn't have a great rhetorical sense... but he had strength, a belief, and an absolute knowledge of non-violence. And when they would doubt, as they did—they were young black kids, they didn't know any politicians—how the could do it, they relied on the teaching of Gandhi.

"[It said,] If you act on conscience in a just cause, the city authorities will have to make a decision and accede to the justice of your cause. Or they will arrest you, and you will no longer be anonymous. You will go to jail, and you will be known, and others will follow. And it was this great truth. They arrested 80 people, and the next day, 300 more came. They arrested them, and then 500 came. And soon every store in Nashville was being boycotted. And so they won. And that was the first great thing that [Jim Lawson] taught them. The second great thing that he taught them was that God was in them... in all of them. That they were as good as anyone else. The color of their skin, the size of their house, the wealth of the bank, meant nothing. There was an inherent right given by God, that could not be taken by men. And [they believed that] these rights belonged to them historically, and that gave them strength to hold their faith, and off they went...

"John Lewis was... the single best American citizen I ever met... John referred to Mississippi as 'the valley of the shadow of death.' When they started the freedom rides, the Klan came out and set the busses on fire. The CORE people were gentle. And it looked like the Klan was doing to win. When they went on that ride, they had to know that they might die. American Baptist Theological Seminary... helped them make out wills. They had every reason to be terrified. All their lives, their parents had told them not to make trouble, and here they were doing it. John Lewis always cut to the core... John said, 'if not now, when; if not us, who?' It was the ache of the indignities inflicted upon their parents... watching them not be able to go to stores, or restaurants, or stopping on the road to use facilities, not having decent equipment, having the worst busses... that moved them to do this work. They were taking on the cruelest laws in the country, and this was the death throe of a feudal order. And that made this work extremely dangerous. I asked John how they could do it. And John Lewis said, 'faith... faith in our God, faith that we wouldn't desert each other in times of need, and faith in this country that had never done anything for our families."

"In those five years that changed the country, ['the children'] brought two presidents aboard, they made the Justice Department into their allies and tank drivers... They got Lyndon Johnson to fly J. Edgar Hoover down for the dedication of a new FBI office in Jackson, Mississippi—some said it was the single worst day in J. Edgar Hoover's life—and [above all], they ended state-sanctioned racism.

"When my book was about to come out, a young black friend of mine asked me what was I going to call it, and I said, The Children. And he was concerned, because he thought it might seem denigrating. I said I was going to do it because that's what they were—they were children.

"Emerson said, 'If one good man acts upon his conscience, the whole world will come round.' These young men and women were those people. I'm a secular man... less so than I sometimes think. But their faith became mine. I was never a cynic and good reporters are skeptical. But if you are a young journalist and you start out in the civil rights movement, it's a lesson that the country can change. And there was a lesson there for me—to those to whom so little had been given, could do so much for democracy. I knew they weren't just doing this for themselves—that I was a beneficiary... I knew that this country wasn't going to work until it was made whole... these people were doing this for me... I went to a great university, I could eat anywhere I wanted, my family had been here 70 years. Some of their families had been here 200 years, and they couldn't do those things. So this was a lesson for all of us. They took risks for democracy, and forced all of us who were reporters to take risks. If they could do this for democracy, maybe we should too.

"[So] I am delighted to accept this award for what I think is my best work...it is a reflection of all the things that are best in this country... the strength, the democracy, the true power of faith, and the nobility of ordinary people. Thank you very much."

1999 Melcher Book Award Citation

One day the full story of the struggle of Americans to achieve that "more perfect union" will finally be told. One day the names and the sacrifices of those who attempted to—and to some extent succeeded in—setting the nation's twisted racial record straight will no longer be obscured by the clouds of ignorance and shame. When that day comes and recognition is given to the brave writers who helped us look more clearly into the cloudy days and turbulent times of the civil rights era, surely Mr. David Halberstam's name will be spoken with gratitude.

David Halberstam's name will be spoken because, among other things, he has written a superb book about the lives of a true group of American heroes. His book is titled "The Children," the collective name given to the courageous young African Americans who took the ugly aspects of American political and social reality and tried to make it reflect the declaration (made so long ago) that all people were created equal and had certain inalienable rights.

It is a large book, replete with exceptional details of the personal hardships, the doubts, the fears, and finally the triumphs these college students faced. It is a large book, but then it is a large story. It is a crucial part of America's story and David Halberstam gives it to us through the eyes of Diane Nash, John Lewis, Gloria Johnson, and Bernard Lafayette.

It could be that they were not aware that the sit-ins would change the fact of the civil rights movement and thrust it into the forefront of American racial awareness and heighten the quest for social justice. It could be that a determined Reverend James Lawson and Marion Barry, Curtis Murphy, James Bevel, and Rodney Powell did not know the impact that their actions would have on the American South and the nation as a whole.

It took a truly gifted writer to put it into perspective for us, and David Halberstam has done that in a grand way. As a young reporter covering the civil rights movement, he followed the lives of "The Children" and, in a way, follows their legacy still.

The fabric of American social justice is still frayed at the edges and much work needs to be done to repair it—or, perhaps, make it new. We turn to our social historians, our religious leaders, our writers, and others for insight, for inspiration.

We owe Mr. Halberstam our gratitude. We thank him for giving us "The Children."

For more information contact web@uua.org.

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Last updated on Tuesday, April 3, 2012.

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