'Nashville was my graduate school'

Reminiscences of life in Nashville from David Halberstam, one of America's great talents as a journalist and historian, who has died at 73

David Halberstam, one of the nation's most renowned journalists of the past half-century, died in an automobile crash Monday in California's Bay Area.

On Monday night, sources reached by NashvillePost.com offered a few glimpses of the young Halberstam as a Nashville journalist in the late 1950s — holding forth in parties at the home of Montgomery Bell Academy teacher Tupper Saussy, for instance, a rental property just behind what is now Al Gore's home in Belle Meade — but it became clear that nothing can speak for Halberstam's Nashville connections better than the man himself.

Historian John Egerton interviewed Halberstam for the 2001 book Nashville: An American Self-Portrait. Here's what Halberstam had to say about his time in Nashville:

I've kept some very close friendships in Nashville ever since my days as a young reporter at The Tennessean back in the 1950s. That was a very significant period of my life. I had graduated from Harvard in 1955, as the civil-rights clashes were just beginning to capture national attention, and I drove to Mississippi that summer in a '46 Chevy packed with all my belongings, including a hi-fi player, some records, and a copy of Gunnar Myrdal 's An American Dilemma. I was full of idealism and eagerness to cover what 1 thought would be a big story that was just then beginning to unfold. My destination was Jackson, but the job I had been sent there for didn't materialize, so I ended up as the only reporter at the Daily Times-Leader (circulation 4,000) in West Point, Mississippi.

I lasted ten months. The fact that I lasted any time at all seems amazing to me even now, considering that I was a 21-year-old Jewish kid just out of Harvard and deeply interested in a subject that Henry Harris, the editor, didn't think was a story at all and didn't want covered. One day when I came in to work, he gave me a few hours to clean out my desk. He had already hired my replacement. I still remember his exact words: I was "free, white, and 21," and could go wherever I wanted.

I called Hodding Carter, the great editor over in Greenville, and he told me about an opening at The Tennessean, which he called "the best stepping-stone paper in the country." Carter recommended me to his counterpart there, Coleman Harwell — and so I drove into Nashville on a beautiful April day in 1956, and I stayed on to spend four wildly happy years there, years that remain as good in the recollection of them as they were in the living.

Nashville was a wonderful place to grow up as a journalist. 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. The Tennessean was arguably the best paper in the South (or so we who worked there like to remember it). In the late 1930s and early '40s, the paper had crusaded to end the poll tax, and the eventual repeal of that tax broke the back of the "Boss" Crump political machine based in Memphis. It also allowed many more blacks and poor whites to vote, and that changed the entire political fabric of the state, making many of its politicians more sensitive to race and class issues than their Deep South peers. One of The Tennessean's editors, Jennings Perry (who was also my landlord), led that fight and wrote a book about it in 1944.

The newspaper boasted a proud tradition as an aggressive, combative, fearless voice of the people, a public trust. Compared to Mississippi, which was a de facto police state, Nashville was a nice, livable little city — the state capital, a university town, a pretty literate place, where you could say what you wanted (if you didn't mind being unpopular in some quarters). The atmosphere had not congealed in fear, as had happened farther south. And best of all, the newspaper was right in the thick of every fight, and I was like the proverbial kid in the candy store, just devouring everything I could get my hands on.

You wouldn't recognize that Nashville if you saw it today. For all its amenities compared to the deeper South, it still seemed backward and much less modern than Northern cities, which had been receiving the benefits of a booming wartime and postwar economy far longer than Nashville and the South. Segregation, poverty, air pollution, and public health were glaring problems that most people seemed to take for granted. Everything was closed on Sunday (except churches, of course), and restaurants couldn't serve alcohol, so there were few good restaurants.

But there was an underground nightlife of private clubs, illicit gambling and drinking and sex, smoky jazz and blues dives and country honky-tonks, cops and politicians on the take — and all that seamy behavior got translated for me by my older and wiser colleagues at the newspaper. The South was exotic and mystifying, like another world, suspended in isolation from the rest of the country — until the race issue blew the lid off.

Coleman Harwell was an emotionally conservative man running a liberal paper for Silliman Evans, who had owned it since the 1930s. Behind his crusty formality, Coley was a very likable man, a Southern gentleman. He had grown up in a society that treated white supremacy as a birthright, and when he had to confront the reality of racial discrimination, it became a religious challenge for him. He knew that both he and the paper would be judged by how they handled this story, and he was determined to play it right down the middle — not crusading about it, but not dodging it either. Harwell was not going to look away; he was determined to confront the contradictions of his social heritage — and so would other white citizens if they read the paper. That must have caused him a lot of grief at the Belle Meade Country Club.

Coley assigned Wallace Westfeldt to cover the developing race story, and I was one of numerous reporters periodically sent out to work with him. Wally was a marine veteran, about ten years older than I, and we got along well. He went on to be news director and then producer for NBC News, with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. The paper was loaded with talent. Creed Black ran the editorial page, on his way up to bigger things, and when he left, a young North Carolinian named Tom Wicker replaced him. We had great reporters — Nat Caldwell and Gene Graham (they shared a Pulitzer Prize one year), John Seigenthaler, Mac Harris, Wayne Whitt, Lee Winfrey. Fred Graham, who later went to The New York Times and CBS, shared an apartment with me next to a funeral home on West End Avenue. He had grown up in Nashville.

We ran around together in a crowd that included some other local people — Gil Merritt, John Nixon, George Barrett, and Nancy Gore, Al 's big sister. They were all students at Vanderbilt, or in law school, or already lawyers.

There was some mingling of white and black in that subterranean culture I mentioned, but not out in the open. I got to know some black guys who played jazz together — pianist Brenton Banks, bass player W.O. Smith, drummer Morris Palmer, sax man Andy Goodrich. They were talented and very elegant men who exuded dignity in spite of the constant humiliations and outrages of the segregated culture. Andy was close to my age, and we got to be pals — even covertly double-dated a few times. The quartet played a long gig at Jimmy Hyde's Carousel in Printer's Alley. I still remember the last song they played on their last night there: "Bye-Bye Blackbird." A few years ago, I came back to Nashville to introduce some of those guys at a benefit concert for the W.O. Smith Music School, after Smitty died.

It was in 1959 and '60 that a group of students from the black colleges — Fisk and Meharry, American Baptist and Tennessee A&I — started meeting with the Reverend Kelly Miller Smith of First Baptist Church-Capitol Hill and Jim Lawson, who was a student at the Vanderbilt Divinity School. The sit-ins grew out of those training sessions in nonviolence. I got to cover the start of all that, the clashes at lunch counters downtown. That was the beginning of what would be the student part of the civil rights movement. It was also my first big, running story as a reporter, the story I had been wanting to cover since I set off for the South five years earlier. I learned a lot from those young people. Their families had been in this country so much longer than mine and had been given far fewer benefits and opportunities, yet they were fearlessly prepared to take enormous risks for democracy. How could I, who had been given so much more in terms of education and the right to vote, take fewer risks? It was a lesson that served me well in Vietnam two years later.

We worked hard at the paper, long hours — and then we went out to dinner or to the Alley and kept right on talking shop. I loved every minute of it. In fact, it's hard for me to recall a single unhappy memory from my Nashville days.

The day after the election of 1960, I went to work for James Reston in the Washington bureau of The New York Times, and within six months I was in the Congo as a foreign correspondent. Those assignments came to me, I'm convinced, because I had been so well trained in Nashville. By 1962, I was in Vietnam for the Times, and I won the Pulitzer in 1963 for my reporting from there. The first person I called after I learned about the prize was Coley Harwell. I wanted to tell him that he and others at the paper had made me a reporter. That 's who I owed. So many good people.

I still think of Jack Corn, for instance — a great photographer and a great teacher. He could talk to anyone on an equal plane. Working with him on assignment, I learned how to read people - not just how to do my job, but why it mattered, why you needed to be open and respectful and patient. Those are the things that stay with me — how generous so many people were to me, how much trust I was granted, how much they taught me. Nashville made an indelible impression on me back then.

It's very different now, of course — a lot like Atlanta was in the '50s: bigger, richer, lots of outsiders, pro sports moving in, things changing right before your eyes. Old blood and old money mattered more then than they do now. You can look at that from both sides, the old and the new. Either way, it's a mixed bag of gains and losses. I can't say how it would feel to live there now, though I always enjoy my return visits. But living there 40 years ago was a lucky break for me, and I'll always remember it that way.

David Halberstam's prize-winning newspaper career has been followed by a long string of best-selling books, including The Children, his 1998 account of the Nashville sit-ins and the students who made them a major achievement of the civil rights movement.

© 2001, Beaten Biscuit Press LLC. Used by permission.