Recently I was given a book, Waging a Good War: A Military History of the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1968. The author, Thomas E Ricks, is described as “the dean of military correspondents.” He has authored numerous books about military wars including First Principles, The Generals and Fiasco. My initial reaction was to pause and wonder if I could enjoy a book that used the lessons of war to describe the civil rights movement. That concern turned out to be ill-founded. I recommend this book because of its many lessons that seem quite relevant to our ongoing efforts to end racial injustice.
In Waging a Good War, Ricks makes inescapable the violence and hatred white people inflicted on Black people over those fourteen years 1954 to 1968. Page after page documents the emotional and physical violence the leaders of the civil rights movement faced each day in this traumatic era of American history.
By using the lens of a military historian, he provides a detailed description of how the overall strategy of the movement evolved, of the leaders involved and their courage and diverse personalities, and of the importance of training and education to the success of the movement.
Ricks begins with the story of Rosa Parks and her well-known decision to refuse to give up her seat to a white person on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. She was fed up and took a stand. And the community responded.
Ricks makes clear that the leaders of the civil rights movement had an amazing amount of success in advancing their goal because they approached the fight for change as a series of well-planned campaigns.
Education for early leaders took place at the Highlander Folk School. Founded in the 1930s by Myles Horton for labor studies and adult education, the School became in the 1950s a powerful training center for the civil rights movement. Rosa Parks trained there before starting the bus boycott in Montgomery. Diane Nash, James Bevel, John Lewis and other leaders trained together at Highlander and at Fisk and other universities and seminaries in the south.
Later, as the movement grew and there were multiple campaigns occurring, Ricks details the growth of the Freedom Schools. They served as a training ground for movement leaders and participants in the practical application of nonviolence in confronting police violence and brutality. The schools also offered children of the South an alternative education system that focused on democracy, freedom, and civil rights. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a collaborator and sometimes competitor with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), eventually created forty Freedom Schools throughout the South.
Driving the movement were three simple, compelling goals. Martin Luther King, Jr articulated them in a speech he gave in support of Rosa Parks and the subsequent bus boycott in Montgomery: that Black people be treated with the same respect as everyone else in the country, that Black people be freed and “to redeem the soul of America”.
King went on: “We are here in a general sense because first and foremost we are American citizens…. We are here this evening because we are tired now. And I want to say we are not here advocating violence. We have never done that … The only weapon we have in our hands is the weapon of protest.” (p. 16, In Waging a Good War)
Ricks sums up the goal this way: “The goal of the Movement, the purpose of its strategy, was to end the treatment of Blacks as second-class citizens and so to reorder’s the nation’s public culture. And nonviolence was the overall strategy.”
What I find so instructive for our struggle to advance racial justice today are the clarity of goal and strategy, the coordinated leadership, and the deep commitment to education and training for every campaign and action. For instance Ricks documents how, when the training broke down, the results were lack of progress and more injuries and deaths.
Ricks concludes by reflecting on the current civil rights movement and the emergence of Black Lives Matter movement. His analysis of how the campaigns of the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s was planned and executed raises a lot of questions for me. How do white people best join with racial minorities and their leaders in working for racial justice? How do we come together to shape today’s goals and overarching strategy? What does it mean to financially and personally support a series of campaigns to advance racial justice? What education, training and support for leaders and followers are needed for these campaigns to be successful? Waging a Good War left me asking myself in a new way what is mine and ours to do to advance racial equity and justice in the United Sates?
This is very helpful, Tom. I appreciate that you bring your wisdom and learning to us and ask us those challenging questions.
Thanks Patience, Tom
Thx for reporting on this angle of the civil rights movement.
What I found most interesting is the reminder that strategy and goal-making are essential.
When the discipline of their intense training broke down, they suffered more injuries and death.
Securing Human Rights is work not meant for the faint of heart.
Thanks Sally, indeed it takes fortitude and a commitment to learning and changing old ideas I have found.