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Ricks' book argues the nonviolent Civil Rights movement employed a military strategy


Tom Ricks is one of the most distinguished war correspondents of our time. He covered the war in Iraq, among other conflicts, and has written many books. Now he has turned his experience to the history of a nonviolent campaign for change. His book "Waging A Good War" is about the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Those civil rights protesters chose not to arm themselves. Tom Ricks says their effort was much like a war. And they succeeded by following principles of war.

THOMAS RICKS: You're looking at how to conduct a sustained campaign over years against a violent enemy. And what a lot of people in the movement did - Martin Luther King, James Lawson and others - is turn to the works of Gandhi, the great Indian independence leader who himself insisted that nonviolence was actually quite militant. And I think the civil rights movement was militant from the beginning - militant not in the sense of grabbing people by the throat; militant in the sense of being well-disciplined, extremely hierarchical, focused on preparation, doing great training like role playing, pouring coffee on people to prepare them for being attacked in demonstrations, and following up with analysis of how each campaign went and what they could do better. They were a learning organization.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about some of the principles of military action that you think can describe or explain what the civil rights movement attempted to do or sometimes failed to do. One of your principles is that strategy is foremost. What do you mean by that?

RICKS: Strategy is essential. If you don't have a strategy, you have basically a car without a steering wheel. I think, after years of studying the U.S. military, that the civil rights movement did strategy better than the U.S. military does these days. The civil rights movement began with self-definition - who are we and what are we trying to do? Let me tell you a short story that captures that. Diane Nash was an amazing young woman, a college student in Nashville, about 20 years old in 1960, as they were beginning the sit-in demonstrations at lunch counters to demand integration. Her self-definition was this - we are people who are no longer willing to live with segregation; now, we understand you may kill us for that, but that's your problem, not ours.

INSKEEP: And that is what you mean by a strategic goal. It's not, we have this tactic of sit-ins at lunch counters, or for a military, we have this tactic of using tanks; it's, what is our larger goal, and what are the beliefs behind that goal?

RICKS: From that, tactics will flow. If you say we are nonviolent people who are demanding change, well, how are you going to carry that out? You're going to subject yourself to brutal beatings, and you are not going to fight back. Later on, Diane Nash is one of the strategists running the Freedom Rides in 1961. Southern states had whites-only seats on buses. So to protest that and to demand that federal law be enforced, the Freedom Riders planned to ride buses across the South. And when a Kennedy administration official called Diane Nash and said, you know, you people are going to get killed, you're going to get burned up in those buses, and she said, we know that; before we get on the bus, we write letters to our parents, and we sign our wills.

INSKEEP: What role did failures play in the civil rights movement success, by which I mean, when did they fail, and what did they learn?

RICKS: A classic failure of the civil rights movement came pretty quickly in Albany, Ga., 1961, 1962. There was a lack of planning in it, and the goals they set were extremely big. Martin Luther King gets pulled into it after it has made some of these missteps. King sits down and says, OK, what are we going to learn from this? And he stews on it a lot. And the lessons are, let's be more focused in our goals. Let's not try to change everything at once. And let's not pick places that are run by intelligent, adaptive police chiefs, which Albany, Ga., had.

Instead, as they planned their next campaign, they look at Birmingham, Ala., and Birmingham has the perfect enemy - Bull Connor, the head of public security in Birmingham. He's a pigheaded man. He's stubborn. He's thuggish. And they found early on that Birmingham, indeed, was a near-totalitarian city for Black people. But that meant that Black adults were terrified of marching and rightly so. They'd be beaten. They'd lose their jobs. They might be bombed. They might be arrested and taken into jail on false charges. One of Martin Luther King's advisers, James Bevel, a very good strategic thinker, says, I know what to do; let's have children march. That way they don't lose their jobs because they don't have jobs. We can still fill the jails and swamp the jail system.

And he trains them up. He indoctrinates them in how nonviolence works, how you don't try to hit back at the police. And very quickly, he gets these thousands of kids out there marching. They fill the jails. And Bull Connor, in frustration, turns police dogs and fire hoses on these kids, some of the fire hoses so powerful they knock the bark off of trees. One woman recalled, when the fire hose hit your head, it pulled the hair out of your head. And it was very successful because the nation looked and said, wow, the white supremacist structure of Birmingham is willing to do this, even to kids. And the president, President Kennedy, pays attention, and that really is when the Birmingham campaign succeeds, and that cracks segregation across the South.

INSKEEP: As you're talking, I'm seeing another analogy to the wars that you have covered as a reporter or studied as a historian - either you learn from your defeats and adapt to the enemy, or you lie to yourself about how things are going, and you lose.

RICKS: Yes. And I kept on thinking of the contrast here to the Iraq war for a couple of reasons. The civil rights people, the leadership and the rank and file, worked at being honest with themselves. What are we doing? How are we doing it? Whereas the U.S. in Iraq frequently lied to themselves about what they were doing, how they were doing. We told ourselves we are liberators, not occupiers, and so we carried out a very sloppy occupation that we weren't prepared for. So part of the fun of this book for me was to finally write about what I, in the title, call a good war. These are people doing good things in good ways and changing America for the better. And so I was finally able to use all the knowledge and skills I'd acquired in decades as a military writer to write about something I felt good about.

INSKEEP: The latest of many books by Thomas E. Ricks is "Waging A Good War: A Military History Of The Civil Rights Movement." Tom, thanks so much.

RICKS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.