It was probably the best-run volunteer movement of modern times — and amazingly democratic. The people who signed on seemed to come together as much by accident as anything else; those pulled into it often had little inkling, as they first came aboard, of how much it would change not merely their country, but their own lives.
Above all the civil rights movement reflected a deep yearning on the part of ordinary people for a more just America. It was essentially a struggle to define the national conscience in a predominantly white, middle-class country — and, in the process, to undo the darkest chapter in American history: that of slavery. This was not just a test of the quality of life in Mississippi and Alabama, it became increasingly clear, but the ultimate test of the nature of democracy in America itself.
The movement created its own momentum: The greater the risks the young people took — and the more cruel and violent the resistance they encountered — the more the rest of the nation swung to their side. The cream of young Southern black students was met by bombs, guns, cattle prods and attack dogs. As that happened, the rest of the nation often had to make choices it would just as soon have not made.
This essay is excerpted from David Halberstam's foreword to My Soul Looks Back in Wonder: Voices of the Civil Rights Experience (AARP/Sterling Publishing, 2004).
After graduating from Harvard in 1955, Halberstam took his first newspaper job on a Mississippi daily. He covered black student protests against segregation for The Nashville Tennessean and won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Vietnam. His book The Children profiles the young people who took the civil rights movement into the Deep South. He died in a car accident in 2007 at age 73.