Power to the people

With conviction, you can change the world, Halberstam tells Puget Sound audience

By Greg Scheiderer

In an increasingly cynical age in which, for many, the golden rule is that whoever has the gold makes the rules, David Halberstam remains steadfast in his belief that ordinary people can make a big difference in our society. Halberstam spoke to a Memorial Fieldhouse crowd Sept. 9 in a lecture titled “The Children: The Unique Courage and Faith of Ordinary Citizens to Change America.”

Halberstam’s campus lecture drew on his 1998 best-seller The Children, his tale of the early days of the civil rights movement and eight young African-Americans who played a crucial role in the social revolution that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Halberstam was a 25-year-old reporter for the Nashville Tennessean in February of 1960 when the students participated in sit-ins to protest the segregation of lunch counters in Nashville, and he later followed them on the famed Freedom Rides. Halberstam said those battles fought in our own country were more frightening than anything he saw in the jungles of Vietnam.

“I was fortunate enough to be a witness to some remarkable events, so much change wrought in so brief a time,” Halberstam said. It was all the more remarkable, he added, because the children were not at all powerful. Their families had made great sacrifices to send them to college, and they risked everything, their lives included, for what they thought was right. The power structure was completely aligned against them. They had no allies; they were not even part of the “in” crowd on black college campuses.

“It’s a rare story of faith and courage, about American democracy at work,” Halberstam said. “It’s about the nobility of ordinary people, people often scorned, who came from what would be seemingly the lowest echelon of American society and who turned out in those magical years to be nobler of spirit than the worldliest, seemingly more sophisticated people who had so often in the past scorned them. They were great citizens because they changed the country and they made a lot of other people, like me, better citizens.

“It was a portrait of a democracy that had the capacity to listen. They had a faith in democracy, in the power of ideas, in the concept of justice even though justice had never done very much for them, and a sense of faith. They did not boast about their faith, they acted upon it, and they put themselves in harm’s way.”

Against all odds, Halberstam said, the children prevailed.

“They ended state-sanctioned racism and legal and political racism; ended, in some ways, an extraordinary, dark part of the American past.”

Halberstam said the experience certainly changed him, and it changed the viewpoints of many Americans, whether they were there or watching on television, which was just becoming a major medium.

“We all changed,” he said. “If these young people, for whom this country had done so little, could risk so much on behalf of democracy to make it more whole, who am I not to take risks as well?”

An audience member asked Halberstam in a question and answer period following his talk how today’s students could find ways to affect such change. He urged students to find a way to serve. His own daughter, at 23, is working in Teach for America. He said students should get out in the world and see how others live.

“I really believe that one of the worst things that we’ve done in this country is lose a sense of public service,” Halberstam said. “I think it ought to be an obligation. Young Americans are filled with desire to do something, not just to maximize their own material rewards, but to be a part of something larger than themselves and do some sort of public service. It will change you, change how you look at the rest of the world.”

Halberstam’s talk was the latest Susan Resneck Pierce Lecture in Public Affairs and the Arts, named for the recently retired president of the university.

The telling of the story of The Children will continue at Puget Sound Feb. 26 when the Rev. James Lawson delivers one of the series of Swope Lectures on Religion, Ethics, Faith, and Values. It was Lawson, a colleague of Martin Luther King, Jr., who helped organize the Nashville students about whom Halberstam wrote.