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David Halberstam 'Speaking Freely' transcript

Recorded May 29, 2001, in New York.


  • Ken Paulson: Welcome to a special edition of "Speaking Freely," exploring how protest and the First Amendment came into play during the civil rights and antiwar movements. I'm Ken Paulson. My co-host today is John Seigenthaler, a highly respected journalist who also served as special assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy during the civil rights movement. After retiring from newspapers, John went on to found the First Amendment Center. John and I are delighted to welcome a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist whose recent book called The Children focuses on the work of courageous young people in the civil rights movement, and whose earlier book, The Best and the Brightest, was the definitive study of American policy in Vietnam. David Halberstam. (Applause) I have to ask the first and most basic question. You graduate from Harvard in 1956 ... .

    David Halberstam: Five.

    Paulson: '55. With great distinction.

    Halberstam: No, I was a terrible student. (Laughter) I was in the bottom third of my class.

    Paulson: That was the heart of my question. How badly did you do at Harvard? (Laughter)

    Halberstam: I think it's true of a lot of people in journalism. I had in those days what we didn't know was attention deficit disorder. I did not focus well on schoolwork, but I was good at something called journalism. I was on the undergraduate newspaper. And I can now think back to the fifth and sixth grade and if I had a teacher that did not connect with me, I can see my mind sort of flying out the window. But I didn't know that then.

    Paulson: Well, I assumed the "great distinction" because you were the editor of The Harvard Crimson, which meant you had some talents. And I presume, given that education, even in the bottom third you have some choices in life. And then you decided that, of all places to go to begin your career, you would go to West Point, Mississippi. What were you thinking?

    Halberstam: Well, West Point was involuntary. There was a Nieman fellow up there named Tom Karsell, who came from Hodding Carter's paper in Greenville, Mississippi. And you have to understand, in the South in those days there were a number of papers which became in effect like an oasis. There was only a handful. We now should not glorify American journalism and Southern journalism by thinking of all these wonderful feisty independent newspapers. Most of them operated along the line of the prevailing values. Tom was a Nieman, as John was later. And one day he hired me. He was going to be the new editor of a new liberal paper in Jackson, Mississippi, the State Times. So I graduated, I wanted to do an apprenticeship. And I thought if you were going to do an apprenticeship, why not do it in the South and why not in Mississippi, which was the most contested, most recalcitrant state? And I got down there, and he was not the editor of the new liberal State Times. He was the assistant to the editor to the famously racist Fred Sullens, editor of the famously, viciously racist Jackson Daily News.

    So I had come 1,200 miles and had no job and did not want to tuck my tail between my legs, having told everybody in Cambridge that I was going to be a star reporter in Mississippi. They found a job on the smallest daily in the state, which was in West Point. And I want over there and, in a way, I had a magnificent year. I learned so much, a small town, a completely different experience having to learn how to deal with ordinary people and seeing the complexity of ordinary people. And working in alien circumstances, something that served anybody that covered civil rights well and later Vietnam well. It was an extraordinary year. And then I was lucky enough to work on what I think, and John would agree, was the best-known national newspaper in the country and probably the best newspaper in the South, the Nashville Tennessean for four years. We had a great tradition on that paper, and we had made that state different from other states. It was a border state, but we had a very good editor, Coleman Harwell. We had a previous editor, Jennings Perry, editor of the editorial page, who had led a fight against the poll tax in Tennessee, which allowed black people in Tennessee to vote, which changed the dynamic of the state completely and gave that state Estes Kefauver and the senior Albert Gore, two senators who did not vote for civil rights bills. And that sense that we would stand apart from conventional racist attitudes, that we would be willing to be unpopular and fight off social ostracism, which was a very powerful thing in the South and most editors in Mississippi and Alabama and Georgia and the deep South gave into it. You have to understand that places like Mississippi and Alabama in those days were soft police states. They really were. So if you were a politician or an editor or a minister who went against the regular attitude on race, if you said the Supreme Court decision on Brown was right, they would drive you out of the state either by fear, by cutting you off from all your friends, by cutting your wife off ... in effect, they snuffed out freedom of speech. So freedom of speech was a very real issue, whether an editor had the right, the willingness, the courage to say the things that in his heart ... and I should say "her" because Hazel Brannon Smith in Mississippi in Holmes County was just so ferocious and so courageous ...

    Seigenthaler: And so punished.

    Halberstam: Punished. They just stripped her and set out to crush her economically as they did so many other people. So these were very nice, genteel, soft police states.

    Seigenthaler: And Ken, I would just say that it was an accident, I think, that David Halberstam came to work for The Tennessean at the moment a very bright and courageous group of young African-American students had enrolled themselves in four local institutions of higher education: Fisk, Meharry, Tennessee State and American Baptist College. And those young students really began there, and then went on to the Freedom Rides in Montgomery and finally ... and not finally at all, because they went on to do great things in the country professionally, but then to Selma and to Edmund Pettus Bridge for that crucial showdown there. David found them and they found him, and the dynamic on this paper that gave voice and coverage to the movement ... it was an electric moment when David Halberstam began to report on that sit-in movement that had its genesis in that city.

    Halberstam: I would like to say very simply that it was not so much me, that there were any number of reporters on that paper... . Wally Westfeldt had been our senior civil rights reporter and he had taken the year off in Sweden. But because of Coleman Harwell's decision, from day one on Brown he had assigned Wally, who should have won the Pulitzer Prize in those years, to go wherever it was that this story took him — Little Rock, Clinton, Tennessee — and cover it. And that had set the orbital thrust of the paper. We were different. We not only covered this at home, we went outside our circulation area. And if hadn't been me, it would have been John, it would have been any number of other very good reporters. Because we had made that decision under Mr. Harwell. I was very lucky in being assigned because I was 25 and I was, in some cases, a year older than the young people themselves. By then I'd been in the South four or five years and this was the story ... I'd been waiting for something like this to happen. And what is important about the young people we're talking about today is it is a reminder that, with all due respect to Martin King and many of the other extraordinary ministers in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, that was really to no small degree a children's movement. The infantrymen, the people who took the risk in dreadful venue after dreadful venue, whether it was Selma or all those terrifying places in Mississippi, they were young. They were the ones who were risking their lives. When the Freedom Rides took place in 1961, John was by then Robert Kennedy's right-hand man in the civil rights movement. When the first buses of these nice, well-meaning CORE [Congress of Racial Equality] people were set on fire and CORE properly, I think, bailed, it was the Nashville kids with this extraordinary leadership and the great teachings of the Reverend James Lawson …

    Seigenthaler: Having been in the fire and broken the ...

    (Overlapping voices)

    Halberstam: ... already disciplined the sit-in movement and winning there, took it over knowing ... this is really like the young Americans in "Saving Private Ryan" landing on D-Day really believing that they would be killed. They were the ones who said, "We will risk our lives to do this." And John, in fact, tried to talk them out of it as did the senior ministers who thought, "Alabama, Mississippi ... it's too dangerous. The Klan is on the loose." J. Edgar Hoover was on the side, effectively, of the forces of segregation. And these young people did it. That is a great, great moment in American democracy. I think it's the best moment in American democracy since the end of World War II.

    Paulson: If we can go back to the very beginning, you told their story extraordinarily well in a book called The Children. And it is a large volume. And yet on day one of covering their story, you probably wrote a 22-inch story, whatever occurred that day that initiated your coverage. Did you have any sense on day one that they would make history?

    Halberstam: I think I knew something was happening. I think watching these young people protest, how well-organized they were, how extraordinarily disciplined they were, the elegance of them, the body language ... we didn't talk "body language" then, but they were erect, their posture. They were extraordinarily well-dressed. I had a sense that something powerful had happened. I didn't know the depth of it, I didn't know how well-trained they were. I didn't know who the Reverend James Morris Lawson Jr. was, or that in the background was one of the great teachers in America, a man who really was a great disciple of Gandhi. But this was the cream of young black Southerners, and they clearly were making a statement. And yes, I think I knew intuitively that something very powerful was happening and that there was a dynamic there. What I found out later was something Jim Lawson taught them when they were all scared and they said, "How can we do this? We're just a bunch of young black kids and we don't know anybody. We're not rich. We're taking on this powerful hierarchy of politicians and businessmen." And Jim Lawson taught them two things. He said, "Yes, you're anonymous. Yes, you're powerless. But the people who run this city will have to make one of two choices. They will either accede to what you want because it is right, in which case you've won. Or they will have to deny you what you want and arrest you, in which case you are no longer anonymous. And if they arrest you, others will come." And that is the dynamic. It's a very Gandhian dynamic. It's the dynamic that took place. I didn't understand all of that, but what I understood was that I was watching the cream of young black Southern men and women, young students making a statement. And there was more to come.

    Seigenthaler: Ken, I don't want to jump ahead of the story, but if you read The Children, the message that comes through is that nobody could have known just what their potential was. David takes them from that sit-in movement to the Freedom Rides. They change a city, they change a region. In a real sense, they changed the country. And then they go on. If John Lewis were here tonight, he would tell you this is true. His colleagues didn't know what their potential was. But David documents the fact that two of them became distinguished doctors, one the public health officer of the state of Hawaii, another distinguished Harvard psychiatrist. Still another, the president of a university. John himself became a member of Congress. Another, an educational expert in Chicago in Cook County. Eight or ten of those children went on to lead very distinguished lives and have a powerful influence on this country in ways nobody ever realized.

    Halberstam: Well, it's also a reflection of untapped talent, wasted talent in this country. If you'd looked at them that day, they were the most unimportant people in Nashville. Who would know that John Lewis at American Baptist Theological Seminary, maybe the poorest school in all America ... I think it was $40 a year and you could work it off. You went to American Baptist if you couldn't get into Tennessee State or Alabama A&M. You would say, "Well, on SATs we can't take this young man." It's a reminder of untapped potential if we don't reach out. How many people have these abilities but have never had a chance to expend the full possibilities of their lives? John Lewis is, to me, just one of the heroes. John Lewis, I think, is the single best American citizen I've ever known. He is so steadfast. Here we are, 40 years later, and he's still doing ten times more things than he should. He's a Congressman, he's generous-hearted, he's not a separatist. He treats everybody the way they would like to be treated. He reaches out to everyone. He still talks about the good community, the noble community...

    Seigenthaler: The beloved community.

    Halberstam: The beloved community that Jim Lawson first mentioned to him. And he was a person who could have had a wasted life that we would never reach. I joined The New York Times that year, the day after John Kennedy's election. And one of my last images of Nashville, right before I left ... the sit-ins are over, they've won, everybody's gone back to their normal lives. I'm downtown on a Saturday picking up something, and there on a street corner absolutely by himself is John Lewis. Nobody else, just doing this on his own. And he's trying to register black people to vote. And I thought, boy, he has really got staying power. And 40 years later, he still has staying power. But it's a reminder again of untapped potential in our society when we don't make full democracy, full education, full economic possibilities available to ordinary people.

    Paulson: The children took a risk when they went into the lunch counters in Nashville and staged the most organized early sit-ins there. Initially, those encounters were peaceful and then they grew more violent. And then, as you point out, becoming the next generation of Freedom Riders was a great risk. And there was a period in which your path crossed with the children, right, John?

    Seigenthaler: My path crossed with the children because after the first wave of Freedom Riders, Jim Farmer's CORE group, was stopped, I was sent down by the attorney general to escort them to New Orleans, which I did, by air. They couldn't go by bus. The buses would not take them. Greyhound said, "No way. They burned one of our buses, bombed another, and we won't do that." So I then was sent down. The morning after I got them there, I had a call from the attorney general at about two in the morning. He said, "There's another group coming down from Nashville. Do you happen to know someone named Diane Nash?" Diane Nash was a young Fisk student, a junior that year. I said, "I know her casually."

    Halberstam: "Your city," I think he said. "She's from your city." (Laughter)

    Seigenthaler: That's right. And he said, "Well, we'll call her up and tell her that she's in the command chair. Tell her she may not bring these children down there because somebody's going to get killed. This group almost got killed." So I called her and I said, "Do you remember me?" And she did. And she called me Mr. Seigenthaler. And I said, "Look, I'm here in New Orleans because that first wave of Freedom Riders ... mauled and mangled, bones broken, heads crushed. You must not let these students come down here. They're gonna get killed." And she said, "Mr. Seigenthaler, they all signed their wills last night. They know some will get killed. But we cannot let violence overcome nonviolence." And so I was stuck with trying to get a second wave of Freedom Riders from Birmingham to Montgomery to Jackson to New Orleans.

    Halberstam: You're talking about the importance of First Amendment on this, and it's extraordinarily important to the young people who are doing this. They are maybe going to die and they're taking this risk. But one of the things they said was, "Black people have been taking risks for forever and being killed and lynched, and nobody had paid any attention." The newspapers had bottled it up, not covered it or put it back on page 38 with two paragraphs. And people complain about political correctness today. Well, the old political correctness was the ability of the mayor of the town and the police chief talking to each other and to the head of the Chamber of Commerce and to the district attorney so that anything blacks did to protest their particular plight got sanitized and not in the paper. The role of the media in a free society is so critical. If they were going to take these enormous risks to challenge the existing authority, the most important thing was that the rest of the world knows, the rest of the country, the rest of Alabama. Now there was a lot of control of the press in the deep South. What changed it was the coming of national television and local television. Television wanted the story. It was good film, it was not video then. And they were going to run with it. The civil rights movement and the coming of national television — '57 through '61, the nation is being wired — those two things come together and the capacity of local Southern papers to suppress and censor local indigenous news ends. But they understood, the kids did, the importance of the media. They would take this risk finally because they were finally getting covered as those who had gone ahead of them for 200 years had not been covered.

    Paulson: We celebrate the rights of petition and assembly, but they've been around for 200 years. Are you saying that it was really television that empowered the movement? Would it have happened without the power of television?

    Halberstam: Television brought a national sensibility to a story that local authorities and editors had suppressed for so long. It's very important that the constellations are aligned. Post-World War II, a war for democracy, the generation that comes back and covers it, people like Wally and others have all fought in that war. It affects profoundly a generation of blacks who have also gotten outside these little towns and are confident now, more confident about their citizenship. Brown is making its way up. Television is coming here as an instrument. All these things are coming together to create this orbital force which would do in 10 years, really 11 ... Brown vs. Board of Education to the Voting Rights Act of '65 ... in 11 years, more gets done than in the previous hundred.

    Seigenthaler: And if you just take one moment, because it was replicated many times ... in Montgomery, the day of violence, the day of crisis, the mob, given full access for 25 minutes by the police, the mob focused first on the national television cameras.

    Halberstam: And the Life photographers.

    Seigenthaler: And the photographers. And they crushed the cameras. Then they turned on the Freedom Riders. Not only did the Freedom Riders understand the power, those people in that mob knew that if the camera caught them, they were going to be exposed as monsters, as brutes. It only goes to reinforce David's point that the role of the media was understood not only by the students but by the mobsters, the thugs who were trying to carry on this evil.

    Halberstam: There's a great line in my book from Bernard Lafayette, who was one of the student leaders. He said, "They were trying to take out our eyesight." What's really true is that what Dr. King and Andy Young and the strategists and people like John and others did was take the monster of racism and legal state-sanctioned racism, which existed in the South and which was covered up, and bring it out into the sunlight. America, with this new national sensibility of a national media, both print and television ... television is so important. The New York Times can cover it, that's the national media, but it's a small constituency. But if The New York Times affects NBC, ABC, CBS, and they cover it, the whole country watches this national morality play.

    Paulson: Was The New York Times covering it at that time?

    Halberstam: Oh, yes.

    Paulson: Before television accelerated?

    Halberstam: Oh, yes. That was a decision made by Turner Catledge of Philadelphia, Mississippi, The New York Times executive editor. Immediately upon Brown vs. Board of Education, they would cover this, assigning Johnny Popham, a wonderful reporter, to do it. And then eventually, two of my personal heroes, Claude Sitton and John Herbers. These were foreign correspondents or war correspondents working on American domestic soil. We forget so readily in this country that particular part of our shameful history and how much energy went into suppression of the human spirit, which is why this movement is so great. It is a children's movement. The book that we've mentioned here is my favorite book of my own because it's really about the nobility of ordinary people. They're not famous. They weren't even big men or women on the black campuses. They were the children of people who I think, almost family by family, had never finished high school. So the fact that this was going to be the first member of the family to graduate from college was a great thing to put at risk. Their parents were in most cases off the books economically. They'd grown up in the poorest part of the country.

    Seigenthaler: They did not want their children in jail.

    Halberstam: They had grown up in the poorest part of the country in the Depression. And out of this comes the best moment in American democracy, teaching all the rest of us about what citizenship is.

    Paulson: A perfect summing up. Please thank our guests John Seigenthaler and David Halberstam.


    Paulson: We've been joined today by author David Halberstam and First Amendment Center founder John Seigenthaler. I'm Ken Paulson, back next week with another edition of "Speaking Freely."


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