Where did they find the courage? What makes someone who is hated, persecuted and harassed by his country intentionally bring down more of the same, or worse, on his head? The one in your community? What made the whites of the civil rights movement turn away from their lives of privilege to tread southern fields of rare fruit, calling on the downtrodden to court more abuse, while wondering if each day would be their last, much less privileged day? For many of us with survivor’s guilt that we couldn’t or didn’t want to participate or never experienced Jim Crow, this question is the distillation of all the books, movies, statues, and Black History Months: How did you find the courage?
Thomas Ricks, the Pulitzer Prize-winning veteran war correspondent and prolific best-selling author, has a different question in his new book, waging a good war: How did they win, specifically? In just about 13 years, the movement made America a real democracy in which almost everyone eligible could vote. But 60 years later, the unreconstructed Republicans have reversed much of those gains and are still not done with their anti-democratic blitzkrieg. So, Ricks wondered, how do we identify and replicate the tactics and strategies forged at Dixie food counters that changed the world? Ricks shows us how to go from bravery to victory over today’s peculiar institution, the modern Republican Party.
My question is with eyes wide with reverence, eyes narrowed with purpose. However, their answers are the same. Appalled by America’s fervent embrace of voter suppression and racial manipulation, Ricks immersed himself in the movement that once defeated structural tyranny, he says, and found himself “turning to my own experiences as a war correspondent to interpret what I was reading. I saw the overall strategic thinking that went into the Movement and the field tactics that grew out of that strategy. Issues with which he was familiar from covering military operations in Somalia, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and from writing books on World War II and the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, were carefully and systematically addressed by the human rights movement. civilians. —recruitment, training, planning, logistics, communications and more. I began to see the Movement as a kind of war, that is, a series of campaigns on carefully chosen terrain that ultimately led to victory. The Siege of Montgomery. The Battle of Birmingham. The March on Washington. The frontal assault on Selma.”
“Witnessing” that crusade through Ricks’ “war reporting” answered the wide-eyed question: The movement’s foot soldiers found the courage to risk their lives because, in a world carefully built to make them feel small, stupid, unworthy and afraid, the movement believed in them. We know you believed in them because you invested everything in them, just like the US military does today with minorities (and like it did with me, a working-class black woman who rose through the enlisted ranks of the Air Force to become a member of intelligence). official). The recruiters’ dependence on the volunteers required that they hug whoever showed up and believe that they had what it took. So everyone in the student movement received the same rigorous training in nonviolence, tactics, goals, communications, and the like as Gandhi. There were no unorchestrated introductions and sitting at a lunch counter, any more than walking around a battlefield. You could, and many did, discontinue movement training (usually for being reckless or ambivalent about non-violence, although some dropped out voluntarily, perhaps when asked to write their own eulogies). Both groups value their foot soldiers and their mission above all else, and act accordingly. At its best, America says, “You can be anything you want. Come back when you are successful. The movement and the military said: “You can be whatever you want and we will show you how.” Therefore, minorities stand out in uniform much more than any other section of society. Thus, the dispossessed and poorly educated overturned centuries of oppression by being what Dr. Martin Luther King described as “the best organized and most disciplined,” not the most religious or the most nobly bearing suffering. Ricks tells us that King believed that everyone should be involved in their own liberation, and these students were doing just that: “And in the process, many were undergoing profound personal transformations, discovering a new sense of self-confidence.” He quotes Diane Nash, the brilliant strategist for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and “battlefield commander” honored by President Joe Biden on July 7: “The movement had a way of reaching inside me and bringing out things I never knew. who were there,” he said. , “such as courage and love for people”.
Spontaneously now, these college students, most of them not old enough to vote at the time, would write their wills and give Nash sealed letters before missions, as if deciding in advance to throw themselves on a grenade if need be. Such was the unit cohesiveness and commitment that their intense training created. However, it is hard to believe that a group of teenagers and twenty-somethings designed a tactical operation like this sit-in: “[James] Lawson…deployed 124 students to three downtown dining halls…They were the civil rights equivalent of paratroopers: an elite force of volunteers, well-trained and highly motivated, stealthily dropping on unsuspecting targets…A leader designated for each group would speak for it, and also keep an eye on those under his wing [that is, a squad leader] …they snuck into the dining rooms, sat down and politely ordered service…Lawson deployed observers with instructions to stay on the edge of every protest. [They were] keeping a detailed record of what was happening, sending information to headquarters through corridors, and calling the police when mobs attacked protesters [so they couldn’t claim they didn’t know] … ‘We had white people who were in the background and out of place…so if we needed to have court witnesses and information…we had him instead.’ ”
Five days later, they deployed 200 students, then 300, then 400. In one instance, Lawson concentrated his forces on a single food counter. After the students were beaten and tormented, unresponsive, and dragged away by police, “another wave, notified by spotters and runners, moved in to take their places.” Baffled, the police stopped arresting students after the third wave. Unbeknownst to them, several hundred more students were waiting in a nearby church. In a cell block, a sharecropper’s cabin, or a college dorm, these shock troops went to bed that night victorious over white supremacy. They must have walked on air.
While one could (blasphemously) question the tactical skills of the students, there is no doubt that they strategized based on the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. (Lawson, for example, was himself a student of Gandhi.) Ultimately, they were after the hearts and minds of America.
One of the few flaws in this book is that Ricks minimizes the fact that many of the key leaders of the civil rights movement, such as Medgar Evers and Hosea Williams, were military veterans. Still, Ricks points out that the goal of all nonviolent protest is reconciliation (unlike the military), and to achieve that, the movement had to show racist Southerners the self-portrait of attack dogs and bombed-out churches. But it didn’t have to be that way. During a sit-in, a white man spat in the face of protester Leo Lillard. “Sir,” said Lillard, “do you have a handkerchief?” Reflexively, the man reached for his pocket, then checked himself: “Of course not.” During that same campaign, Diane Nash met with Nashville’s beleaguered and desperate mayor. As Ricks reports, “Trying to connect as a human being, she asked him in an almost soft voice if discrimination based on color is moral… No, it isn’t, she admitted. So, she said, should lunch counters be desegregated? ‘Yes,’ replied the mayor. They shook hands. With that exchange, the desegregation of Nashville began.”
The counterinsurgency was immediate and lasting: George Wallace, Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump. white flight. The assault on the vote, police abuse and a form of predatory capitalism that should twirl its mustache. Even Bull Connor never broke into the Capitol. Perhaps, however, this is how we get back to my original question.
Carl von Clausewitz, says Ricks, emphasized the importance of understanding the nature of the war that was being waged. The students in the movement did this. While the NAACP, for example, focused on litigation, students asked themselves, “Who are we and what are we trying to do?” The answer: “We are people who would rather die than tolerate subjugation.”
Tactically, according to Nash, this meant that segregation would end. She said in an interview, “One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that you can’t really change anyone but yourself, and what we did in the South was change ourselves from people who could be segregated to people who could no longer be segregated. The attitude became: ‘Well, kill us if that’s what you’re going to do, but you can’t segregate us anymore.’” Pure Gandhi.
Ricks is hesitant to explain how the strategies of the civil rights movement can be applied to today’s challenges, just as your radiologist can diagnose but not treat your cancer. But we must apply them. We need to become the people who will not have their votes stolen. Being killed by the police. Let our children be taught Orwellian nonsense. We need to find the language and take the steps that can recruit the recruitable without dividing the majority that we represent. This book is Ricks’s contribution; the rest of us are morally obligated to find our own food counters to claim.