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The surprising connection between military strategy and success of the Civil Rights movement

The civil rights campaigns of the 1950s and 60s changed America. It’s hard to think of the nonviolent movement and its leader, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in military terms. Yet that’s exactly what Tom Ricks does in a very interesting book out this fall, “Waging a Good War: A Military History of the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1968.”

“There is a direct relationship between wars and struggles for civil rights,” Ricks writes in an advance copy of the book I read. My skepticism vanished.

This is Ricks seventh non-fiction book on the military themes. He is an acclaimed historian, after a distinguished reporting career at the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. As the Journal’s Washington bureau chief, I assigned Ricks to cover the Pentagon.

For all the obvious differences, Ricks convincingly establishes real parallels between successful wars and the militantly non-violent civil rights movement: the importance of strong leadership; meticulous planning and realistic goals; recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of both your own side and the enemy; learning from inevitable setbacks, and – above all – courage in the face of grave danger.

A good starting point is a million black veterans returning from World War II. Ricks relates the story of Charles Dryden, a black fighter pilot returning to train new pilots at Walterboro Army Airfield in rural South Carolina. The German POWs at the camp were allowed to eat in the white section of the cafeteria; Dryden wasn’t.

Leadership that inspires and is surrounded by talent is a sine qua non of military success – Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Adm. Chester Nimitz, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. “Eisenhower tried to focus on the absolutely essential while delegating to others the merely important,” Ricks notes.

If King was the four-star general of the civil rights movement, he was surrounded by a lot of three-stars: John Lewis, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Diane Nash, Bob Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer, James Bevel, James Lawson, Fred Shuttlesworth and others.

We read or remember the demonstrations, the marches, the eloquent speeches, the courage under attack. That was all made possible by meticulous training and discipline. “Passion and enthusiasm were no substitute for sound strategic planning,” Andy Young noted.

One of the few women leaders in the movement was Diane Nash, who according to Ricks personified Clausewitz’s dictum that the most important task of a commander is to understand the nature of the war in which one is engaged. Last month Nash was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Biden.

John Lewis is remembered for the beatings he endured in leading the Selma marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. He also was a disciplined leader; witness the detailed specificity of his handbook of do’s and don’ts for young blacks sitting in at segregated Southern lunch counters.

Before the Freedom Summer hundreds, almost a thousand volunteers attended two-week training sessions in Oxford, Ohio; those not ready for the dangers of riding buses through Mississippi trying to register voters were weeded out. The Selma march was planned for months. The pictures and broadcasts of “Bloody Sunday” stirred the country and paved the way for congressional approval of the Voting Rights Act.

Logistics are a key to military success. Ask the Russians, with their 40 miles of backed-up, fuel-starved tanks and food-deprived troops North of Kyiv in their invasion of Ukraine, or think of Hitler’s ill-fated 1941 Russian invasion.

The logistical brilliance of the Civil Rights movement was on display in the 1963 March on Washington. It was opposed by some of the old-line Civil Rights leaders and the Kennedy administration, which feared chaos and violence. It was a remarkable success, highlighted by King’s “I have a Dream” speech, one of the most memorable of the 20th century.

That was possible because of the extraordinary assemblage of 2,000 buses, 21 trains and 10 aircraft bringing many of the 250,000 to Washington – and because of the orderly discipline and preparation on the mall. They all left without incident, and in a few hours the mall was cleared and clean.

King and the others made miscalculations, a failed campaign in Albany, Ga., and disastrous foray into Chicago. But they learned from these mistakes, always keeping their eyes on goal, the prize of equal rights. I hope our military leaders similarly learn from miscalculations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Having read Ricks, I couldn’t help thinking that contemporary military leaders, like Gen. James Mattis and Adm. James Stavridis, are more impressive than their Vietnam-era predecessors. But, perhaps unfairly, it’s hard to see a King or a Lewis or a Nash today.

Ricks, noting that Selma’s Bloody Sunday was about voting rights for Blacks, worries now that America is in a “downward spiral,” with efforts to roll back voting rights. Then, recalling those courageous and bold leaders of a couple generations ago, he hopes it can be done again.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

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This story was originally published August 28, 2022 11:00 AM.

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