Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Those of us who love peace must organize as effectively as the war hawks.” James Lawson, a key figure in developing the nonviolent tactics of the civil rights movement, said, “Protracted struggle is a moral struggle that is like warfare, moral warfare.” With these war analogies in mind, Pulitzer Prize winner and war historian Thomas E. Ricks gives us a new way to understand the movement in his illuminating, engrossing, deeply researched and vividly written Waging a Good War: A Military History of the Civil Rights Movement, 1954–1968.
Segregation was deeply rooted in midcentury America, and many white people were willing to go to extremes to preserve it. Thousands of the civil rights movement’s participants were jailed, many died, and others lived with fears of being bombed, shot, beaten and arrested. In response to these threats, strategic thinking, decision making, recruiting, training and communications all became crucial to the movement’s success, just like in the military. Self-discipline provided the movement’s foundation, along with careful planning and an understanding that the final step must be reconciliation.
By drawing connections like these, Ricks argues that the civil rights movement was militant from the beginning, even though it was nonviolent. As a strategy, nonviolence was not passive resistance; instead, it was an aggressive way to demonstrate “superior skills in resisting.” And because it was so different from militant violence, it confused the foe.
Each location where nonviolent actions took place presented unique challenges, and the movement’s leaders planned their approaches carefully. The bus boycott in Montgomery, sit-ins in Nashville, demonstrations in Birmingham and Selma, the March on Washington and other actions were not, for the most part, spontaneous. Reporters and television studios were invited to capture events so the public could read about, see and hear what was happening as Black citizens demanded to be treated as equal members of American society.
King and John Lewis are major figures in the book, but we also learn about the crucial roles played by other important strategists such as Diane Nash and James Bevel. If you want to understand how the people of the civil rights movement went about changing the United States in the 1950s and ’60s, this is the book to read.