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Book review: Waging a Good War: A Military History of the Civil Rights Movement, by Thomas E. Ricks

Thomas E. Ricks, a Pulitzer Price winning war correspondent, focuses his considerable reporting skill on the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, Ricks views much of Movement as a war. "One of the Movements great strengths was that its leaders formulated a strategy, then developed tactics that fit their approach, and finally gave the people who were assigned to execute those tactics the training they needed to do so." Ricks cites the U.S. Military's failure to adhere to these three steps as one of the leading causes of its failure to win the Vietnam War.

The method of nonviolent confrontation, as practiced by Mahatma Gandhi of India, was paramount to the Movement's success. The purpose of non-violent protests was to make the adversary see you as a non-threatening, thoroughly human being. This was not easy. Being beaten with chains and pipes to within an inch of your life, was not for everyone, but those who kept the faith while suffering under such inhumane treatment, were able to prevail and advance the cause. As Ricks makes clear, Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence was an active, and not a passive, resistance--involving bold and sustained confrontation, both on the ground and most important of all, in the court of public opinion.

The Civil Rights Movement began in Montgomery, Alabama in 1954, when a Black American seamstress named Rosa Parks, refused to give up her seat to a white person, on a city bus. Her refusal led to a boycott of all public transportation in Montgomery, by African Americans who resided there. It lasted thirteen months and resulted in bringing an end to a city policy that favored white over black passengers. Ricks points out that Rosa Parks was herself a student of Gandhi's philosophy, who realized the goal of civil rights protests was not to influence attitudes but to force change.

The boycott drew the support of a number of Black ministers throughout the Southland, in particular Martin Luther King, Jr. who would go to on to become the Civil Rights' spokesman and most visible leader. His first speech was, according to the author, "intensely American," strongly non-violent, and rooted in Christian faith, especially "a vigorous belief in love and forgiveness." In it, King signaled that the Montgomery bus boycott and the coming Civil Rights Movement would be a campaign not just to free Black people but also "to redeem the soul of America." The central claim of the Movement, King said, was for Blacks "to be treated as equal members of American society."

In turn, the southern Black churches served as headquarters for the movement, as well as sanctuaries and safe houses.

From the Montgomery bus boycott, the Movement moved next to Nashville, to concentrate on voter registration. When that effort failed, King directed the movement to concentrate in a new direction. This would be the lunch counter sit-ins where a number of Black students would order lunch from various downtown restaurants in and around Nashville. Knowing they would be denied service, they insisted on being served, which provoked a number of whites to attack them mercilessly. Prior to the sit-in, the students were trained to endure taunts and beating by whites, while remaining friendly and courteous. "Keep your eyes on the prize," they were admonished. After several of these sit-ins, the white establishment relented, and on May 10, 1960, all six downtown restaurants were desegregated.

One of the benefits of the protests was the national coverage the Movement generated, in Northern newspapers, and broadcast media. Another was an increase in donations, from about $87 when the Movement began, to about $22,000. The psychological effect on Nashville's black citizens was notable, too. Said one civil right leader, "A general feeling of dignity and self-respect has come to life."

After Nashville, the movement moved to the Freedom Rides, in which Civil Rights activists boarded public buses destined for the Jim Crow South, buses that were attacked relentlessly at various bus stops Notably, a Grey Hound bus was stopped on the open road in broad daylight, and pummeled with bricks and rocks, and set on fire. Miraculously, all the Freedom Riders escaped unharmed,. Such incidents would then headline that evening's national broadcast news .

The forces of segregation were committed to maintaining the status quo everywhere across the southern states, which put them at a considerable disadvantage because they had so much territory to defend. By contrast, the Civil Rights Movement, could pick the time and place of engagement. Thus, the initiative remained almost always with the force of desegregation.

The Movement next set its sights on Birmingham, Alabama, which meant going up against one of the most determined segregationists in the Southland, Governor George Wallace, and Birmingham police commissioner, Bull Connor, who thought nothing of setting attack dogs on protestors, as well as utilizing high-powered fire hoses. However, something had changed in Birmingham before the protestors arrived. The Birmingham business community, fearing unwanted media coverage, favored appeasement, while those who held political power did not. This led to a compromise, under which the Movement won all six of its demands: the desegregation of lunch counters and bathrooms in downtown stores, the hiring of some Black salesclerks, and the formation of a biracial committee on school desegregation. Bull Connor's sulking comment on the settlement was, "You know what the trouble is with the country? Communism, Socialism and journalism."

The Birmingham compromise occurred in the Spring of 1963. The Movement's plan for that summer was to hold a March on Washington for jobs and freedom. The March would culminate on the National Mall where Martin Luther King would give his famous "I have a dream speech," before a crowd of about 100,000 people. Said a white journalist: "I haven't been for this civil rights stuff and I've never liked King, but I watched him on TV, and after it was over I was proud of the Negro and proud of America. I thought they were going to just criticize us white people. He made my country so beautiful I felt like I wanted to shake his hand."

To make the country truly "beautiful", so that all Americans could enjoy life freely, vote freely, to have their own home, and hold down a good job; yes, for the nation to live up to the promises of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, and to be truly democratic: that was the prize of the Civil Rights Movement.

After contesting for these rights across much of the Old South, in 1965, the Movement achieved its goal in perhaps the most brutal confrontation of all, the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The TV broadcast of the violent confrontation on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, so shocked the nation that Congress finally passed the Civil Rights Voting Act, which the President immediately signed into law.

Upon signing the Bill, President Lyndon Johnson went so far as to recite the Movements oft-repeated slogan, "We shall overcome."


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