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Waging a Good War: A Military History of the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1968


Waging a Good War: A Military History of the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1968

In WAGING A GOOD WAR, Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas E. Ricks offers a fascinating look at the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s. With a particular focus on the nonviolent efforts of this era, he has crafted a concise history of how the Movement’s leaders and volunteers operated like generals and soldiers in war.

On December 5, 1955, after a whole day of Black citizens boycotting the segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama, Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech subtly indicated the boycott’s strategy and tactics. Strategy, as Ricks defines it, is what your goals are, while tactics are the “how” that will accomplish the goals. King’s strategy and tactics were simple --- Black Americans deserved to be treated as equal members of society. Christian ideals like love and forgiveness “provid[ed] the spirit” and strategy, while inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi “furnish[ed] the method,” the tactic of active nonviolence.

"With his narrow focus on nonviolence, [Ricks] has produced a detailed, gripping and easy-to-grasp account of the Civil Rights Movement. His military analogies are potent, helping to unwind the Movement from color blindness and the 'gauzy sentimentality' with which many Americans often romanticize it."

To sustain the 381-day boycott among as many Black Montgomerians as possible, communication was crucial. Black churches were like “command posts…secure locations where plans could be made, training sessions held, and orders issued.” Logistics, like in war, were just as important. How would people get to their jobs and appointments without buses? Car pools and a transportation committee stepped in.

The boycott even had its reconciliation phase planned, or, as the US military would call it, “Phase IV Post-Conflict Operations.” The goal was to “find a way to live together down the road.” When Montgomery buses dropped their racist regulations, former boycotters were to be respectful and dignified, refraining from just bitterness. Some Black ministers rode buses just to supervise others.

Segregationists responded to Montgomery by counter-attacking the wrong enemy --- the NAACP. Viewing the courts and legal systems as the best vessel for civil rights, the NAACP denounced active resistance like the boycott. Ricks draws an interesting comparison. When the French government captured rebel Algerian leadership and opened the door for more radical leaders, more active roots for civil rights became the only option once the NAACP’s hands were tied in courts.

Enter the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins. James Lawson, knowing they could not be successful everywhere, followed the “concentration of force” military ideal and dispatched reinforcements to replace arrested protestors. Outside the restaurants, white allies would call the police if violence erupted and fare better as witnesses in prejudiced courts. Diane Nash, a key Movement figure, was struck by the symbiotic love that she and her fellow protestors had for each other, trained to shield one another from beatings. In combat, a deep trust between soldiers, or “unit cohesion,” increases more effective decision-making and communication.

The Freedom Rides sought to stake equality’s flag deep in enemy territory. A federal ruling protecting interstate travelers from state segregation laws was almost never enforced, which the Movement took as a challenge. Segregationists responded with violence; Ricks dubs attempted arson assassinations, and the appalled reactions from the media, “victories.” He compares the attacks to combat casualties, which are “always regrettable, but sometimes necessary in order to fulfill the mission.” This would have been an appropriate time for Ricks to discuss Black figures who did not agree with everything in the nonviolence playbook. Many, like Malcolm X, did not believe that accepting casualties or enduring gang attacks were righteous prices to pay.

The Birmingham campaign targeted segregated voting rights. Once marches and arrests exhausted their reinforcements, James Bevel, Diane Nash’s husband, enlisted children, hoping the police would violently suppress them and be seen on national television. The move worked. White businesspeople in the area saw their ventures dwindle and cried for change, to the chagrin of Birmingham police and politicians.

The fight for equal voting rights continued in Selma, Alabama. About 600 protestors marched toward Montgomery, arranged in military-esque companies and smaller squads. Unit cohesion thrived since the squadrons already knew and trusted each other. Throughout the Deep South campaigns, Ricks contextualizes the region’s Confederate history. Just before the march reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge, he reminds readers that Pettus was a Confederate officer and Klansman. Police brutally attacked the marchers on that bridge; 140 were injured, half of whom required hospitalization. The horror was broadcast live on television, which led to President Lyndon Johnson voicing support for what would become the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

After Selma, WAGING A GOOD WAR reads like falling action. Ricks discusses Stokely Carmichael and the emerging “Black Power” movement, the Black Panthers and, more recently, Black Lives Matter. With his narrow focus on nonviolence, he has produced a detailed, gripping and easy-to-grasp account of the Civil Rights Movement. His military analogies are potent, helping to unwind the Movement from color blindness and the “gauzy sentimentality” with which many Americans often romanticize it. The people and protests are depicted as complex pieces in a struggle for equality, regardless of how one feels about the ideals and tactics of nonviolence.

Reviewed by Sam Johnson on October 21, 2022

Waging a Good War: A Military History of the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1968
by Thomas E. Ricks

  • Publication Date: October 4, 2022
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • ISBN-10: 0374605165
  • ISBN-13: 9780374605162