A New Look at the Strategy of the Civil Rights Movement

Thomas Ricks is a military historian. His writing usually explores the dynamics of military strategies in war. His book on the first couple years of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq titled Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003 to 2005, was both bold in its challenge to the conventional Pentagon narrative and revealing in its detail of the warmakers approaches. Ricks emphasized the importance of strategy and the pitfalls of military operations that either lack a coherent strategy or apply one that isn’t relevant to the actual political or military situation.

Given this previous focus in his work on war, the military and those who execute those endeavors, it might surprise the reader that Ricks’ newest work is what he calls “a military history of the civil rights movement.” After all, if there is a movement in the United States other than the antiwar movement that one is unlikely to associate with the military, it would probably not be the movement against racial apartheid and for equal rights for Black citizens. Indeed, until this text made me consider that history in a new light, the only connection I could think of between the civil rights movement and the military was the latter’s use in keeping the southern police forces and civilian racists at bay during the protests that define that movement.

In writing this book, titled Waging a Good War: A Military History of the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1968, Ricks has composed a masterful history of the civil rights movement. It is a history that details several of the campaigns–famous, infamous and otherwise–associated with that history. From the Montgomery Bus Boycott that first pushed Martin Luther King, Jr. into the national spotlight and the crosshairs of the Klan and the FBI to the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike in 1968 where Dr. King was assassinated, the author provides a narrative that is both rich in detail and emotionally wrought. Equally so, he provides a strategic analysis of the numerous campaigns that make up the text, discussing the strengths and weaknesses of each campaign while simultaneously keeping his perspective on the long term goals of the movement over the years.

In his introduction, Ricks tells the reader that by framing the movement in terms of strategy and tactics, his research uncovered and highlighted personalities not nearly as well known as men like King or women like Mississippi freedom fighter Fannie Lou Hamer. Those individuals–James Lawson, Diane Nash, Bayard Rustin, James Bevel and Bob Moses, to name a few–debated and formed strategies, learning from their mistakes and their victories. It was their advice, say as to whether to go ahead with a series of protests in a particular place or to postpone them, that guided the leaders like King. Likewise, it was these women and men who found and encouraged local activists, seeking their knowledge and input before going ahead with a campaign. It was these local folks who most often faced the most danger from racist vigilantes, politicians and law enforcement. The number of local activists who were killed by the forces of reaction in this struggle will probably never be known.

One might think that by taking the approach it does, Waging a Good War would be a boring read; too much analysis and not enough action. Nothing could be further from the truth. This book is what they call a page-turner. The fear of the marchers when walking into a gauntlet of Alabama sheriffs and troopers, the bravado of the children and adolescents facing down Bull Connor’s police dogs and firehoses, the despair of the freedom fighters in Mississippi and the silent strength of the freedom riders as they pull into bus stations across the South–Ricks’ narrative makes these and other scenes as real as the images that flashed on television screens across the nation during those years. Images that served both as a testament to the ugliness of US white supremacy and as an organizing tool for the movement.

Still, this book is much more than a history. It is also a savage reminder of how entrenched white supremacy is in the social, political and economic life of the United States. While reading Waging the Good War, one cannot help but be reminded of the ongoing symptoms of this fact: racist language in political campaigns, too many police killings of unarmed Black men and women to count, public rallies and marches by groups of ultra-right formations informed by white supremacist theory and excused by too much of the mainstream media, even cheered by that media’s more extreme elements. In other words, this text is not just a step into history that not only informs the present, but also a reminder of what remains to be done. Furthermore, by framing his work in terms of how military strategists tend to think, Ricks has also provided today’s anti-racist activists with a manual on organizing. While obviously not a template we can just put today’s situation neatly inside, the essential approaches illuminated here should definitely be considered as the struggle continues.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com