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Waging A Good War: A Military History of the Civil Rights Movement
By Ed Hagerty (reviewer)
Waging a Good War: A Military History of the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1968
by Thomas E. Ricks
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022)
Many readers will be familiar with the works of popular journalist and historian Thomas Ricks, such as The Generals, Making the Corps, and Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq. Ricks brings his lively prose and insightful analysis to bear once again in Waging a Good War, in which he examines the Civil Rights Movement in the context of a military campaign, bringing to light many similarities in organizing, training, and executing strategy and tactics. The parallels seem superficial at times, but several significant commonalities effectively support his point for a close connection.
Ricks seems to be the first researcher to examine the Movement in terms of its connection to military principles, but how can campaigns based primarily on nonviolence as their primary weapon be comparable to military operations? Ricks addresses that question decisively in his preface. First, activists in the Movement saw themselves as engaged in a protracted moral struggle similar to warfare. In contrast, others recalled that although it was a nonviolent war, it was nonetheless a war, with marches being one of the key tactics. As Ricks asserts, the march is a vital element of warfare that is sometimes more decisive than violence. Second, he examines the Movement as a series of campaigns that parallel military efforts. He views the Freedom Rides as an example of a long-range raid behind enemy lines. Nashville sit-ins were offensive campaigns that demanded services, while the Montgomery bus boycott withdrew patronage to pursue a defensive campaign goal. Finally, Ricks demonstrates his understanding of military leadership by comparing some of the Movement's key personnel to successful generals. In that regard, one of the book's greatest strengths is treating the Movement's leaders fairly. This book is not just about Martin Luther King, though he naturally figures prominently. Ricks examines the importance of several lesser-known leaders he identifies as vital to developing successful strategies and tactics.
The modern civil rights movement began with the familiar story of Rosa Parks's refusal to give up her seat to a white rider on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus in December 1955. Ricks makes the case for military-like training and preparation in examining Parks' role. As an official with the Montgomery NAACP, Parks had attended a two-week summer session at the Highlander Folk School, which had its roots in "the philosophy of well-disciplined nonviolent direct action" (14). Black leaders viewed Parks, a middle-aged Sunday School teacher, as the perfect person on whom to base a boycott campaign designed to advance the cause of racial desegregation. Shortly after her arrest, Martin Luther King gave his debut speech for the Movement in which he clearly outlined the overarching goal of redeeming "the soul of America" (16). Black people, he asserted, were American citizens, and they demanded equal treatment. They were tired of being abused, he continued, yet he decisively rejected violence in favor of a greater weapon, the weapon of nonviolent protest. Simultaneously, the Movement was aggressively militant in the tradition of Gandhi, to whom nonviolence did "not mean meek submission to the will of the evil-doers, but . . . the pitting of one's whole soul against the will of the tyrant" (20-21). The difference between military violence and militant nonviolence, Ricks asserts, is that "the latter flummoxes the foe" (21). More than any other, that statement captures the essence of the Movement's success.
The essential structure of the Movement took shape in Montgomery, and it had many parallels to military action. First, it was necessary to establish clear lines of communication and then handle the logistics of providing alternative transportation during the bus boycott. Next, a staff was organized to handle administrative tasks such as finances. King was designated the face and voice of the Movement, essential to the need to maintain message discipline and speak with one voice. Meanwhile, Montgomery city officials engaged in disinformation campaigns to confuse protestors and discourage financial contributions. King and the Movement's leaders reacted immediately to counter the bogus information. Eventually, in a significant misstep, city officials arrested King and more than 100 others, including about twenty ministers. That quickly brought national attention to the Movement and led to a six-fold increase in monetary contributions and broader sympathy for the cause. The Montgomery boycott also brought new leaders to the fore, such as James Lawson and James Bevel. Success in Montgomery relied on community involvement based on the existing infrastructure of Black churches, which made participation and support for the boycott highly visible. Those churches were "effectively a citadel for the Movement" (32).
From the victory in Montgomery came many lessons that would foster the successes of subsequent campaigns. Leaders recognized the need for regional organizations to plan effectively, recruit and train volunteers, fundraise, and ensure discipline. To begin that process, King invited several Black ministers and community leaders to a meeting where they agreed to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The first campaign would be to double the number of Black voters in the South by 1960, but the effort soon foundered. In a parallel to the military maxim that one should never reinforce failure, King began to draw away from the voter registration effort and, with James Lawson's help, refocused on compelling desegregation of lunch counters in Nashville. Success in those sit-ins depended mainly on a cadre of volunteers well-trained in nonviolence and able to withstand the verbal and physical taunts of enraged whites. When police arrested the protestors, another wave took their place in what Ricks considers the nonviolent counterpart to military concentration of force. Demonstrators who shared abuse and jail cells developed close bonds similar to "unit cohesion" (60), while post-action discussions filled the role of "After-Action Reviews" (61). From the Nashville Movement arose a second national organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which Lawson claimed was dedicated to "nonviolent revolution" (66).
By the time the Freedom Rides began in May 1961, segregationists were already on their back foot, having made several missteps and operating consistently at a disadvantage. They had to defend everywhere, while the Movement chose the time and place for action. Segregation also no longer had the force of federal law on its side. White supremacists had few realistic tools to defend their beliefs. They could use the courts to fight desegregation, slowing progress, and fall back on their final recourse to actual or threatened violence. That option became increasingly risky to deploy in the face of national news coverage, particularly on TV, without generating negative publicity. Many segregationists fell victim to the error of believing their own lies about Black inferiority, Black contentment with the status quo, or Black susceptibility to follow outside agitators. Most importantly, segregationists never put forth a vision for a successful outcome.
Despite its opponents' handicaps, the Movement often struggled with missteps, internal divisions, and failures. Yet, Ricks shows that the adherence to sound military principles served it well and eventually propelled it to success. In his epilogue, Ricks notes lessons and takeaways from the Movement applicable to today's environment. He cites factors common to most campaigns: Training, Discipline, Support Structures, Planning, Strategy, and Reconciliation. The latter might be the most difficult to implement, but it embodies the concept that the goal is not to crush adversaries but to change them.
With the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington recently passed, now is a suitable time to review the events of that period with Ricks' excellent overview of the Civil Rights Movement in the context of military history. One aspect of the book that readers might find somewhat disappointing is the lack of an exploration of the nexus between the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-War Movement. It would have been instructive to explore the impact of one on the other, but that was different from his purpose in the book. Instead, as it stands, Ricks' Waging a Good War is a fine primer on the history of the era, as well as an incisive analysis of the key figures and events that gives much credit to leaders consistently overshadowed by the towering reputation of Dr. King.
Ed Hagerty is a former USAF member and reserve officer who served with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI). He received a doctorate in History from Temple University, and he teaches History at American Military University.