I recently picked up a book that's been sitting in my must-read pile for a long time: David Halberstam's The Children, a remarkable account of the African-American students who began the momentous lunch-counter sit-ins in Nashville in February 1960 and went on to risk their lives as Freedom Riders and as movement leaders in Birmingham and Selma. Half a century on, it can be easy to forget that citizens of this country took such risks, and made such sacrifices, in order to gain basic human rights.
Still, I thought I knew the story. So I was startled to find myself pierced, on the very first page, by Halberstam's description of one young woman's inner struggle:
Years later, though she could recall almost every physical detail of what it had been like to sit there in that course on English literature, Diane Nash could remember nothing of what Professor Robert Hayden had said. What she remembered instead was her fear. A large clock on the wall had clicked slowly and loudly; each minute which was subtracted put her nearer to harm's way. ... It was always the last class that she attended on the days that she and her colleagues assembled before they went downtown and challenged the age-old segregation laws at the lunch counters in Nashville's downtown shopping center.
Halberstam then describes Diane Nash's memory of the night before the first sit-in, on Feb. 13, 1960:
On that evening, she had sat alone in her room at Fisk University. Suddenly she was hit with an overpowering attack of nerves. What had she gotten herself into? she wondered. ... She, Diane Nash, a coward of the first order in her own mind, a person absolutely afraid not just of violence but of going to jail, was going to join a small group of black children and ministers and take on the most important and resourceful people in a big, very white, very Southern city....
It was a joke, she thought, it will never happen. We are a bunch of children. We're nice children, bright and idealistic, but we are children and we are weak.
I think I know why those words pierced me the way they did. Over the past year and a half, I've gotten acquainted, and at times worked closely, with a group of student climate activists in the Boston area. And while the situation they face is vastly different on multiple levels -- historical, cultural, political, personal -- from what students like Diane Nash confronted, I've seen them begin to make similar choices, and to take, or be willing to take, similar risks. A number of them have been arrested -- some multiple times, and in unpredictable circumstances -- for acts of nonviolent civil disobedience protesting the Keystone XL pipeline and extreme fossil-fuel extraction. And they are ready to do more.