March 23, 1998 12:00 PM

by David Halberstam

Journalists often move along the surface of history like stones skipping across a stream. David Halberstam goes deeper, taking the measure of society’s savage currents and treacherous shoals. With The Children, he revisits a story he covered as a 25-year-old reporter for the Nashville Tennessean. On a winter day in 1960, a handful of black college students in downtown Nashville quietly took seats at whites-only lunch counters and waited to be served. “I think I knew,” he writes, “that these young people were not going to be turned around, nor were they likely to stop once they won their first localized victory.” They didn’t. Several of the Nashville “sit-in kids,” as they were called, later risked their lives in Freedom Rides and went on to became civil-rights leaders.

Thirty-eight years later the Pulitzer prize-winning author documents in detail what has happened since to the protesters. Some continued with careers in medicine, education or politics. (Among their ranks were future Congressman John Lewis and Marion Barry, who metamorphosed from activist to mayor of Washington and, as Halberstam writes, “a figure of shame to many people who had first rallied around him.”) Their years in the long fight for civil rights had affected all of them.

Although Halberstam’s narrative is frequently disjointed as he shifts his focus from individual portraits to the larger political scene, this is a remarkable and rewarding testament to the bravery and idealism of people who forever changed relations between blacks and whites in America. (Random House, $29.95)

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