David Halberstam was a nationally significant late-twentieth-century journalist and writer, who chronicled the Nashville student movement during the early years of the Civil Rights movement in Tennessee. His book The Children (1998) is an influential study and recollection of the impact of the student movement on Nashville’s civil rights history and on the history of journalism in the capital city.
Born in New York City on April 10, 1934, Halberstam experienced a childhood in constant motion as his family moved throughout the country because of his father’s medical military career. They spent time in El Paso, Texas; Rochester, Minnesota; and Winsted, Connecticut. His family finally established roots in Westchester County, New York, where he attended Roosevelt High School and found his love of writing by working for the school newspaper. In 1951 Halberstam attended Harvard University and served as managing editor of the Harvard Crimson. The paper published six times a week, and Halberstam reportedly worked about fifty to sixty hours per week to get the Crimson to press.
After graduating in 1955, Halberstam landed his first professional journalism job at the Daily Times Leader in West Point, Mississippi. He credits the newspaper with giving him the skills necessary to interview “ordinary people” and to appreciate others’ views, even when they were not his own.
In April 1956 he moved to Nashville to work for the Tennessean and stayed for four years—a time he described as wildly happy in John Egerton’s book Nashville: An American Self-Portrait. At the time, Nashville was not only the state political center but also at the center of the national Civil Rights movement. In an obituary on April 24, 2007, the Nashville Post quoted Halberstam’s assessment of his Tennessean years: “In a way, it was as if I had picked the finest of graduate schools—in the best place, at the right time, with the greatest colleagues and mentors.”
Halberstam left Nashville in 1960 to work for the New York Times. Within two years, he became the paper’s foreign correspondent in Vietnam. While overseas Halberstam lugged around his typewriter and filed stories by teletype. Initially a supporter of the war, Halberstam soon began criticizing American policy and believed the U.S. government was deluding itself as much as it was the American people. In 1964 Halberstam, along with Malcolm W. Browne, won the Pulitzer Prize in Journalism for their reporting on the Vietnam War and the overthrow of the Diem regime.
By 1967 Halberstam took a position as contributing editor of Harper’s magazine and began writing books. While in Vietnam, Halberstam gathered material for The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam during the Kennedy Era, his first nonfiction analysis of the Vietnam War. In his first best-seller, The Best and the Brightest, he asked how government leaders could allow the Vietnam War to have happened. The book established Halberstam as one of the nation’s best and most committed journalists.
Halberstam was a prolific author, writing about sports, economic topics, and journalism. In 1997 he helped to form the Committee of Concerned Journalists as an effort to improve the profession. The following year, Halberstam produced his study of the Nashville student movement, The Children, which immediately was recognized as a classic in the historical literature about the Civil Rights movement. In a March 22, 1998, review in the San Francisco Chronicle, Sanford D. Horwitt concluded: “Clearly, the impact of the Nashville students’ actions on the Civil Rights movement in their city and beyond had a lasting effect on Halberstam.”
On April 23, 2007, Halberstam was involved in an automobile accident in California and died of internal injuries.