Book Review: “Waging a Good War” — A Civil Rights Strategy for the Future

By Jim Kates

In this valuable history, Thomas E. Ricks looks at the critical events of “The Second Reconstruction” as a series of campaigns in a nonviolent war.

Waging a Good War: A Military History of the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1968 by Thomas E. Ricks. Macmillan, 448 pages, $30.

There are the books that you want to read for review, and then there are the books that you are asked to review. I have a small, guilty stack of these I’ve been working on.

And then there are the rare books that are thrust under your nose and you can’t ignore them. You put aside the others to look at these.

That’s how I come to write about Thomas E. Ricks’s Waging a Good War: A Military History of the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1968.

It is a story that has been told many times before, and one I played a small part in as what Ricks would call a “grunt” in Mississippi. My shelves sag with the tellings — three-volume histories, biographies, autobiographies, and children’s picture books. Ricks’s perspective as a military historian throws new light on familiar events. He looks at the critical events of “The Second Reconstruction” as a series of campaigns in a nonviolent war. The strategies, tactics, and atmospheres are those we associate with conventional warfare: The Montgomery bus boycott is understood as a siege, the freedom rides as “a successful regional raid” behind enemy lines. Birmingham is seen as the critical battle of the war: “Winning the fight there would be the Movement’s equivalent of the Union’s victory at Gettysburg during the Civil War, a turning point that had occurred exactly one hundred years earlier.”

Again and again, Ricks brings in such analogies: “Restated in military terms, the Selma campaign was similar to Yorktown, the last major battle of the American Revolution, in which a hubristic enemy found itself outmaneuvered . . . and wound up trapped on the battlefield.”

In the course of this interpretation, however, perhaps the most powerful points the book makes are by defining warfare not by its weaponry, but in terms of its strategy, tactics, goals, and objectives. The role of active nonviolence in the Movement remains central to its achievements. Ricks emphasizes that the final stage of nonviolent action, reconciliation, sets it apart from conventional warfare.

From his perspective of military organization, Ricks also focuses on the planning and logistics of campaigns that most people know only from their most public and sensational faces — including the Freedom Rides and the 1963 March on Washington. He stresses how the successes of these campaigns depended on their careful preparation and lines of support, and how the setbacks of the Movement mostly came from poor planning and lack of a clear purpose — failures which consistently plagued the segregationist opposition and, occasionally, the U. S. government.

Central to these nonviolent campaigns were staff-level people you may have heard little of alongside the received heroes of the movement: James Lawson, a Gandhian apostle of nonviolence; the invaluable Diane Nash, among a cadre of vital woman leaders and organizers who operated primarily behind the scenes and without adequate recognition; and James Bevel:

When he was present, campaigns seemed to be more dynamic and actions more effective than when he was not. . . Bevel brings to mind Napoleon’s supposed comment that he preferred to use generals who were lucky. In the first half of the 1960s, Bevel was good at making luck.

Ricks is justifiably sympathetic to Bevel’s later personal deterioration. He roots it in the man’s own character, but also places it in the context of the battle fatigue and PTSD that afflicted so many freedom workers at all levels. Ricks calls out the failings of leaders I looked up to when I worked alongside them. What’s more, he is not afraid to point out the mistakes in King’s own “generalship.” He is also scrupulously fair to the “enemy” (a term I’m not comfortable with, but which he uses in a simply descriptive military sense) pointing out the depth and intelligence of Laurie Pritchett, the police chief of Albany, Georgia, in contrast with “Bull” Connor in Birmingham and Sheriff Jim Clark in Selma.

Historian Thomas E. Ricks. Photo: Macmillan

Of necessity, he skips over important elements and stories or gives only cursory attention to others. He is not trying to replicate or rewrite either the larger histories or the more narrowly recounted “campaigns.” Waging a Good War ends in Memphis in 1968, with the assassination of King and with the rise and fall of the Black Panthers, but Ricks does look forward at the end of his narrative to contemporary incarnations of the Movement, especially Black Lives Matter, and their relationship to the lessons of earlier times. “If we are able to . . . complete a second civil rights movement — or a third reconstruction, as some call today’s racial justice efforts — I think it will be the result of a focused effort to organize, train, plan, and reconcile.”

Included in that training and planning, Waging a Good War will be a valuable and necessary resource. It’s also a captivating and accessible general retelling of that history we may think we already know.

J. Kates is a poet, feature journalist and reviewer, literary translator, and the president and co-director of Zephyr Press, a nonprofit press that focuses on contemporary works in translation from Russia, Eastern Europe, and Asia. His latest book of poetry is Places Of Permanent Shade (Accents Publishing) and his newest translation is Sixty Years Selected Poems: 1957-2017, the works of the Russian poet Mikhail Yeryomin.

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