‘Ordinary people’ who accomplished the extraordinary gather in Nashville

Friday, March 27, 1998

It was “A Night of Remembrance” Thursday in the historic chapel at Fisk University, Nashville, as several of “The Children” joined Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam in celebrating the release of his new book by the same name.

The Children

is a cultural commentary on the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, told through the stories of the young people who met in Nashville and went on to become leaders in the national movement. Halberstam, who covered the Nashville sit-ins and marches for The Tennessean newspaper, describes the book as an attempt to capture the nobility of ordinary people who took great personal risks in the name of democracy.

John Seigenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center, moderated the discussion sponsored by Fisk and Davis-Kidd Booksellers. Referring to Halberstam as “the premier journalist of America,” Seigenthaler characterized The Children (one of 15 Halberstam books) as the author’s finest work yet.

“I often wonder if the movement attracted wonderful people to it, or if ordinary people came to the movement and [it] brought out wonderful things [in them],” said activist Diane Nash, now of Chicago, who was a student at Fisk during those years. “I shudder to think of how my life would have been if I hadn’t been here.”

Nash and seven other idealistic students first came together in James Lawson’s workshop on nonviolence. There they learned how to demonstrate peaceably by organizing sit-ins and marches and how to face the possibility of arrest, injury, even death during their repeated attempts to integrate the whites-only lunch counters of downtown Nashville.

Nashville desegregationists “agreed that we could not let violence stop a legitimate, peaceful, organized effort,” Lawson said. “Changes could happen if we ourselves committed to making them happen.”

Now a pastor in Los Angeles, Lawson was expelled from Vanderbilt University Divinity School for his involvement in what he calls the “Nashville Movement.” He says that he hopes The Children helps people recognize the spiritual forces at work in the hearts of the early civil rights crusaders so that they understand the movement was a “movement of God, a movement of history.”

Remembering those days, Dr. Bernard LaFayette—now president of American Baptist College—remembers the fear.

“It was real, and we weren’t naïve at all about life’s uncertainty,” he said. “But we knew that unless we did what we had to do while we still had breath, nothing would change. We didn’t expect to live, but our passion and courage helped us to overcome the fear.”

One by one, suggested the Rev. C.T. Vivian, God brought the young people together to confront the sources of power. And, in the words of Hank Thomas: “It was just a matter of time before [we] could find the right time, the right place, the right moment to fight an oppressive system.”

Announcing that he is still fighting for his civil rights as a gay man, Dr. Rodney Powell said: “As long as we, in our society, tolerate and support institutionalized oppression against any member of our society…we and our children will learn that it’s all right to be oppressive.

“Bigotry is bigotry no matter who is saying it, or how they try to disguise it,” said Powell. “One day, the Christian church will have to apologize to gay and lesbian citizens of this country the same way the Christian church has had to apologize for its role in slavery [and] segregation. If we want to have a just society, we have to include everyone, and in order to do that, we have to be totally intolerant of the denial of justice to anyone.”

Diane Nash believes The Children is an important book because it documents the fact that many of the people involved in the civil rights movement were not “the charismatic, ordained-by-God kind of leaders.”

“People look around and see things that need to be done and think, ‘We need a great leader like Dr. Martin Luther King around today so we can get things done.’ But it’s everybody’s responsibility,” she asserted.

Other principals in the Nashville movement were Congressman John Lewis of Atlanta, Mayor Marion Barry of the District of Columbia, Dr. Gloria Johnson Powell and Curtis Murphy.