Memphis sanitation workers on strike March 18, 1968.

How military methods shaped the nonviolence of the civil rights movement

Author Thomas Ricks discusses his new book "Waging a Good War: A Military History of the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1968."
Memphis sanitation workers on strike March 18, 1968.

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This episode of Nonviolence Radio welcomes journalist and author, Thomas Ricks. Ricks talks with Michael and Stephanie about his new book, “Waging a Good War: A Military History of the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1968.” Together the three explore the ways in which the American civil rights movement framed nonviolence within a military context to advance its goals.

Through a deep and practical understanding of the language and methods of violence, leaders of the civil rights movement were able to use nonviolent action as a powerful, strategic and deeply principled agent for change. The interview makes clear that effective nonviolence is not embodied in spontaneous, impromptu performances, but in deliberate, intentional and meticulously planned actions. Such efforts required dedication and sacrifice, a commitment to and a faith in a greater good along with a willingness to learn, to practice, to collaborate and cooperate:

One of my favorite moments in one of the Nashville demonstrations is a guy spit in a demonstrator’s face. And the demonstrator had been trained – when somebody spits in your face, ask the guy for a handkerchief. And the mob – this guy assaulting the kid, reached in his pocket for a handkerchief and then said, “Hell no.” But for that one moment, there had been human connection.

Ultimately, nonviolence is founded on precisely this human connection, our innate and enduring kinship with one another. This conversation reveals the way that nonviolence can become a powerful force, sometimes fueled by anger at senseless suffering, cruelty, racism and discrimination. But nonviolence does not merely unleash a torrent of rage, instead it carefully and consciously channels anger towards a justice that belongs to everyone.

Stephanie: Thomas Ricks is an American journalist and author who specializes in military and national security issues. He’s a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting with the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal and author of eight books, including the New York Times best seller, “First Principles. What America’s founders learned from the Greeks and Romans and how that shaped our country.”

On this episode of Nonviolence Radio we speak with Ricks about his latest book, “Waging a Good War. A military history of the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1968.

Tom: Of all my books – I’ve written eight books – this book was just meaningful to me and that it was about admirable people doing good things that were hard, but good, that made America a better place. I also felt, after writing eight books, that I’ve finally learned how to write a book. I really enjoyed the writing of this book too. Just telling the story. I was into things like rhythmic variations. So, by the time I got to Selma, I wanted a different tone, and I wanted it to be almost like a daily battle report, about how the Selma campaign was carried out.

Stephanie: Yeah. Very cool.

Michael: Well, I feel that that worked very well, Tom, in exactly the way you say. You know, I’ve written a couple of books myself, and I know what goes into them. The writing – I don’t know how to exactly put this, it just brings you right into the emotional depth of the story, moment after moment after moment. It’s quite wonderful.

Tom: Well, I learned how to write about action from writing about war. And so, I think the easiest thing to do in reporting is reporting on combat. It’s just inherently very dramatic. And all you need is verbs pushing around nouns just to tell the story of what happened.

But I used all that I had learned there writing about this, just let’s go to the action. Once you have the strategic context, once you have the understanding that a James Lawson, or a Diane Nash, or a James Bevel has developed, how does that play out? And that was the most fun to write. It was just interesting. It was compelling to write about how Bevel comes into the Birmingham campaign and says, “No, let’s put kids out on the front lines.” A huge risk, but one that paid off.

Michael: Yeah. I kept thinking, Tom, as I was reading the book, of Max Weber, saying, “War is the continuation of politics by other means.”

Breaking systemic violence

Tom: Here, basically they were using a lot of the methods of war to carry out political change. It was no shock. I mean, the South had a political system built on violence – the violence of slavery, the violence of white supremacism, the violence of Jim Crow. The brilliance, I think, of the civil rights movement was how do you confront a system built on violence? The brilliant answer was you use military methods to develop a nonviolent response.

The South knew how to speak violence. Southern share, Southern politicians, they knew the language of violence, the same way that American police do now. They speak violence fluently. If you use nonviolence, as James Bevel observed, you were always a step ahead of the opposition. They didn’t speak this language. They didn’t understand the language. You were doing things that absolutely flummoxed them.

How do you respond to nonviolent action? The South knew how to respond to violent challenges. The same way that the American government, when confronted with a violent posture of the Black Panthers, said, “Oh, we could do that all day long.” And they went out and killed Black Panthers in a relentless campaign for a couple of years.

But the courage and the discipline and the dignity of the nonviolent civil rights movement, it’s something that, even today, number one, it’s not really understood, which is why I wrote the book. But also number two, it’s not taught in the schools.

The schools, I think, don’t teach civil rights well. I’ve got to think this is not an accident. If you really taught civil rights well, you would be creating generations of political activists.

Stephanie: You know, one complaint that activists in nonviolence often make is that the opposition that they’re working against only understands the language of violence. But, the way that you’re saying that and the way that you’re framing nonviolence within a military context, I think, is really interesting because you’re saying, “Yes, use the language that they know. But use different means to express the same ideas.”

That’s going to give activists an opening to take pause and think about, well, maybe there is another way. And I think that’s really one really important place that we need to get people to, as we’re talking about with activists in Iran, for example.

I wish that your book was translated into Farsi, because it would do so much good.

Tom: So do I. It’s odd you should mention that because as a kid, I lived in Afghanistan and I spoke Afghan Farsi. And I traveled across Iran a lot, so I know Iran. I’ve been to Bashan, Tehran, Tabriz. And I’m watching what’s happening in Iran with great interest. I don’t know whether they have the type of organization and discipline that I’m writing about in this book.

I suspect they do, because I think they probably understand that the movement’s not sustainable if it’s just actions in the streets. But a street action, a demonstration, is the very tip of an iceberg. And in some ways, the last, and least important aspect of any movement.

James Lawson said somewhere – Lawson is the great teacher of the civil rights movement in Nashville in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Lawson said, “The test of a demonstration is not whether you have one, it’s whether you can do another the next day.” Is it sustainable? Does your movement send a message sufficient that people will come back again for it?

Michael: Tom, you make a very good point in your book about the power of the religious establishment helping King. I was just shocked to think about that when you were mentioning Iran. Because in Iran, the religious establishment is the opponent.

Tom: Well, remember that religious establishment in America also was opposed to the civil rights movement. And that is one of the great themes of one of the most important documents in American history, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail. It’s a howl of pain and anger at moderate clergymen who opposed the civil rights movement, who say, time to “wait,” and so on.

So, in Iran, I suspect there are clergymen sympathetic to the liberation movement there. But the dominant powers, yes, the religious establishment, are against them. As it was in America in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

But it does lead to an interesting aspect of this. One thing that I think really energized the American civil rights movement was the Black church showed up. It hadn’t, historically, until the 1950s. And for some reason, I don’t completely understand why, but I suspect it was a new generation of Black clergymen appear.

These Black ministers are kind of part of the WWII generation. Millions of Black Americans served in World War II, and they come back and say, “Time out. The rest of the world operates differently. This is nuts, this white supremacist system in the South.” Some of them are clergymen. And the importance of the Black church is it gives the movement, literally, a sanctuary.

There were so few Black officials. There were so few Black meeting places in the South. But the Black church was one place where you could meet safely, communicate, and transmit orders and train. So, the civil rights movement begins in Nashville, training in church basements.

One thing I liked about the Montgomery Bus Boycott of ‘54 and ’55 is if a strange voice called up the boycott office and said, “What’s happening tomorrow?” The response was, “Ask your church.” So, the church is an effective counterintelligence mechanism, because your church has the information. And if you don’t have a Black church that recognizes you, you are outside the system.

One thing that was really good about the civil rights movement because they had training, because they had intense meetings and discussions, people tended to know each other. In Selma, you marched with your neighbors. And this answers one of the basic problems of provocateurs. The police would put in somebody in the demonstration to use violence, to give the police the excuse then to respond with violence.

So, one of the things they also did in marches would say to somebody, “Hey fella. This is our block marching. You’re not from our block. Go to your own block.” And they would move people out. Parade marshals would cut people out, saying, “This group says you’re not part of them. You need to get out of this.”

So, they were very careful about who was among them. They had informants all the time among them. They knew that. They were people who were in trouble with the police, but you’re a transparent movement. People can come into the church and listen to you. It’s okay to have informants, but provocateurs were very dangerous.

And so, they were very good about recognizing the provocateur and cutting them out and getting rid of them. That comes from training, from familiarity, and from recognizing people who aren’t trained who don’t know how to do this, who don’t have the discipline of nonviolence, and can get your march in trouble if you don’t identify them and move them out.

Michael: A very similar thing happened in Ukraine in 2014 when there were provocateurs and the Ukrainian demonstrators actually photographed them and circulated their photos and gave them a one-way ticket out of the country. So, if they had to come back in, they’d be spotted immediately.


Stephanie: You say that in the book as well, you say that in militaries, the fact that you’re marching next to people that you know, that you feel comfortable with that has a certain effect on your morale as well, right?

Tom: Yeah. The military term is cohesion. You have two forms of cohesion: horizontal cohesion, which is knowing who the people on your left and right are, and trusting them. You may not like them, but you trust them that they’re trained to do the task at hand. In the military, that’s knowing how to operate a machine gun or have three people – one person could shoot, and two other people protect the machine gunner.

In civil rights, it would be trusting that these people knew how to take a blow. If somebody is hitting you, you crouch down, project your head. And as we saw actually first done very well in the Nashville sit-ins, when a mob attacks you, one person gets hit, and then you intervene your own body, and you take the next hit, so you disburse the violence against you.

The key training thing, again and again though, was the person on your left and right, through role-playing demonstration, through lectures and discussions, had learned to overcome the basic human instinct to fight or to flee. When you’re attacked, we all have the instinct to run away or to respond with violence. It was essential in the civil rights movement to learn to overcome that. And the only way to do that is by repeated training.

So, in Nashville, they would sit in these church basements, and they would have people pretending to sit at a lunch counter, and they would pour hot coffee on them. They would put out cigarettes on them. They would push them off of chairs. Then they reversed and the people who had been the mob attacking would then become the demonstrators, and they would reverse it.

And it was almost reassuring when you were attacked because you’ve been trained for this. “Oh, they said this would happen, and it does happen.” And you see you respond well. The people on your left and right respond well. That’s quite reassuring.

One of my favorite moments in one of the Nashville demonstrations is a guy spit in a demonstrator’s face. And the demonstrator had been trained – when somebody spits in your face, ask the guy for a handkerchief. And the mob – that this guy assaulting the kid, reached in his pocket for a handkerchief and then said, “Hell no.” But for that one moment, there had been human connection. “Sir, do you have a handkerchief,” and the most human thing was to almost – to turn to him –

That was actually the moment that persuaded James Bevel. Bevel was very skeptical as a student about all this. And then when he saw this training, he said, “You’re going to ask that man for a handkerchief?” This is interesting. Bevel marches down to the Nashville library and takes out every book on Gandhi. Bevel was never a man for half-measures. He goes down and reads every book on Gandhi he can find and says, “Sign me up. I’m doing this.”

James Bevel

Stephanie: I have a quote here from James Bevel that you cited in the book,  “You learned that asking for change, no matter how overdue and correct the change is, will usually create chaos in people’s minds.” Can you speak to that?

Tom: Sure. Chaos is not a bad thing, is part of that point. When you see chaos, that’s actually a good sign. It means you’re moving towards change. The purpose of organizing is to reorganize society. And chaos is one of the intermediate steps.

Somebody who was very good at this – I mean really good at it, was Bevel. And this is one reason that Bevel was such an important strategic advisor to Martin Luther King.

A good illustration of this is James Bevel is a guest minister at a church – a Black church, a little wooden church in rural southern Georgia. And he’s speaking one Sunday morning, giving a sermon. And in the middle of his sermon, the county sheriff walks into the church and stands in the back, puffing on a cigar. What can be more disrespectful than smoking a cigar in a church during the sermon?

Bevel doesn’t miss a beat. He’s in the pulpit. And he’s talking about the devil. But he says, “But God will always give you a sign that the devil is there. Sometimes, the devil has a forked tail. Sometimes he’s carrying a pitchfork. And sometimes he’s puffing on a cigar.”

And at that moment, the entire church laughs out loud. Why do I mention this? Because the power system has just turned upside down. A rural Black church in Georgia is laughing at this powerful white figure, the sheriff, who probably would have beaten any Black man who laughed at him up until that point.

Bevel had created a chaotic situation. When you turned it upside down, it’s chaotic. Now, of course, what happens is the sheriff turns on his heel and walks out of the church. And that night, the church is burnt. Bevel’s response was, “I didn’t burn the church. I just showed you the violence that’s inherent in this system. But if you laugh at it, and it’s power figures, they will respond with great violence, like burning down your church.”

Michael: And it’s often that extremely violent response that enables change because it reveals what the system has been burying for such a long time: the inhumanity.

Tom: It shows the true face. The South had always told the rest of the country, “We know how to handle the race issue. We’ve lived with these people. We grew up with these people. We’ve got it under control.”

And when the nation saw Birmingham, Alabama policemen beating little children, some as young as 8-years-old, and turning fire hoses on them – the fire hoses were so powerful that it would rip the hair out of your head. It would actually bowl kids down the street. When the fire hose hit the tree, the bark would peel off. The nation saw this and said, “Wait a second. The story the South has been telling us is they have this under control. Apparently, they do not.”

And that was when two things happened. In June of 1963, for the first time after the Birmingham marches, in public opinion polls, civil rights became the number one issue in the country. And secondly was that President Kennedy, who had kind of been on the fence, for the first time, dedicated a press conference to civil rights issues. The direct result of bringing that violence to the surface in the kind of way that James Bevel had talked about.

Need for Emotional Control

Michael: Going to a related topic here, Tom, I really like your touching on the need for emotional control, that you have to control your fear and anger. Another activist somewhere, maybe not in this particular movement, said, “That’s the way we grow.” Now, the important point for me is if you’re doing the right thing politically, and you’re really doing it right with the right means, you’re actually advancing human dignity. You’re advancing the human distant – destiny, both of which you mentioned in the book. So, it’s not just the local effect. It’s part of a long-term change. That’s what really impresses me.

Tom: I agree. It’s discipline and dignity. And it struck me – one of the unexpected pleasures of research in the book was with SNCC in particular, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which is a younger more radical wing of the civil rights movement, growing very, very much out of Black college students of the South.

SNCC kept extraordinary records of its meetings. And its meetings not only went on for hours, they went on for days. Everybody got their say. And one woman in the movement, Casey Hayden, actually, at the time, was married to Tom Hayden. She comes out of Texas. Casey Hayden said, “When you’re asking people to put their lives on the line, you have to hear them out.”

And so, you get these long, 30-40 page transcripts of SNCC meetings in which they’re hashing out the issues because they all need to understand, if I die, this is why I’m going to die. In fact, Bevel again, before the Freedom Rides, before he would allow students from Nashville to get on the best for the Freedom Rides, he said, “I need you to write a last will and testament and I need you to write a letter to your parents explaining why you died.”

And he said, “If I can’t explain to your parents why you died, you’re not getting on that bus. They had more volunteers than they could afford. They had almost no money. They couldn’t afford the bus tickets for all the volunteers they had. So, that was the measure.

So, you take that hope and fear and that worry, and you channel it into something positive – this was always the message of James Lawson and Diane Nash, who was one of my real heroes in this. Nash said, “You always have to seek to take the negative energy, especially when there’s been violence, and turn it into something positive. Otherwise, it just goes out to the crowd and bad things will happen.”

Probably one of the most horrible moments of the civil rights movement is the September 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four little girls are killed and a bunch of other people are wounded. Terrible negative energy. And there’s a funeral and all the civil rights leaders go out to the cemetery to bury the children. And Diane Nash sits down and writes a scathing letter to Martin Luther King about this.

Why did all you people go to the cemetery? You have thousands of people standing here outside the church full of energy, roiling with energy, turbulent, angry. You needed to take that negative energy and make it something positive, and you failed to do so. From that scathing letter comes the planning that she and Bevel do. They actually have a plan for shutting down the State of Alabama, and actually shutting down the state capitol.

And at the time people will say, “This is nuts. You can’t do this.” Two years later, you have the Selma to Montgomery march that does what? It shuts down Montgomery, Alabama nonviolently, which was exactly what Bevel and Nash had recommended. And they did it. It’s brilliant. They were able to say, “We will go to the capital of the confederacy and not a single person is going to die, but we will shut it down.” And they did.

Michael: Gandhi has one of his most brilliant statements – starts off, “It’s not that I don’t experience anger, but I have learned to control my anger.” And King would even go on to say, “Express it under discipline for maximum effect.”

Tom: That’s a great quote. I wish I had known it. I would have put it in the book. Because – expressing anger under discipline, I think, is exactly the formula of the civil rights movement. It’s controlled, but very aggressive, nonviolence. It’s not passive at all. What’s striking to me is that they come at you, you come back at them tomorrow morning. You never let an action go unanswered. This is the striking thing that Diane Nash says when the Freedom Rides are very violently attacked in Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama, the people who had first organized the Freedom Rides wanted to call them off. They said that’s enough. We’re sick of it. We’re beaten up.

And Diane Nash blows a fuse. She says, “If you do that, it’ll be open season on the civil rights movement.” If you say, “Use enough violence against us, and we’ll leave, that is exactly the wrong message to send.” She said, “The message has to be, ‘If you use violence – if there were 500 people there today, there’d be 1000 people tomorrow, 2000 the next day. Violence will only fuel us, that we will use it and turn it into something positive.’”

And that’s why she says, “You have to come back again the next day. You can’t afford not to.” And she does. They really rescued the Freedom Rides. You know, everybody was against them. It’s really striking to me. The government of Alabama, the government of Mississippi, and the federal government all wanted the Freedom Rides to go away.

Diane Nash, at that point, is 21-years-old, almost penniless, has dropped out of college and is living in the YWCA in Nashville. At one point, Attorney General Robert Kennedy yells at one of his aids, “Who the hell is Diane Nash?” Because she was outplaying him and outplaying the segregationist governments of Alabama and Mississippi.

Why? Because she had a strategic approach. That’s one thing that I love about the civil rights movement. It was very strategic. Who are we? That was the first question they asked. It’s a strategic question. Who are we, and what are we trying to do? Diane Nash’s answer was, “We are people who will no longer live with segregation.”

Now if she said, “We know that’ll upset some white folk, then they kill us. But that’s their problem. That’s not our problem. We don’t live with segregation anymore. The rest of the world is going to have to adjust to it or kill us.” And she said, “Sometimes it’ll be one, and sometimes it’ll be the other.” Then they conveyed this strategic way of thinking through their very training sessions. Through their songs, even.

The song, “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” is about strategy. It’s saying, “Look, we may be attacked. We may have setbacks. Not every day is going to be a good day, but keep your eyes on the prize and hold on.”

Stephanie: You give so many good examples in the book that could help people, if they knew how to do that. One of them being that Lewis ended up drawing people who weren’t able to get as trained as they were, he drew up a list of rules, for example. Let’s just go into that for a while.

Tom: Sure. I think the first recognition they had is that you can’t simply have people show up at a demonstration and say, “Be nonviolent.” Nonviolent is an approach. It’s a way of thinking. It’s a way of life. It’s a way of communicating with other people. So, the first thing you need to do is think about is how are we going to train people in nonviolence?

James Lawson takes months training a cadre of about 15 students in the church basements in Nashville before he’s even willing to think about a sit-in demonstration. They do role-playing to teach the body and the mind how to react and to learn. Those become learned reactions. You know, first impulse is not the violent impulse. You know how to operate differently.

Then they do the role-play. They even do reconnaissance. They sit, and they say, “What’s it going to be like?” They scout out the situation. These are all military terms I’m using on purpose because there’s a whole approach here that Gandhi endorsed. Gandhi said, “You have to kind of be more military than your opponent if you’re going to be nonviolent.”

Then they think about recruiting. What kind of people carry this out? And they had people sign nonviolent pledges. At Nashville, John Lewis’ mimeographs out ten rules or so to live by in a nonviolent demonstration. And they say to people, “Look, not everybody is good for this. Not everybody can do this. Not everybody wants to do this. There are other roles. Maybe you can cook food or babysit for the people, so they can eat when they come back from a demonstration or take care of their kids. Maybe you can be a runner and run information from the demonstrations back to headquarters. There’s other things you can do if you can’t be nonviolent.”

And finally, when you are demonstrating, they have a series of controls in play. First of all, each group had a group leader to kind of keep an eye on people to maintain – to buck them up, to say, “Hold on. You know, be careful here.”

Then they also, outside of demonstration, had observers. Usually white people just watching what was happening and writing it down, so somebody could go into court and say, “Well, the policeman says this. But 11:20 I observed the policeman say that. At 11:25, he slugged that man.” And here is somebody who could testify independently.

Then when you had parades and you’re moving, you have parade marshals. Again, looking for the provocateur, looking for somebody who wants to cause trouble, looking for somebody who’s not obeying the rules. There’s a famous scene at the Selma demonstrations where Andrew Young, a very high figure in the civil rights movement, is walking along before the Selma march telling people, “If you can’t be nonviolent, you need to leave now,” and talking to them, reminding them of that.

And finally, people need reassurance they’re going to be taken care of, that there’s going to be ambulances. There’s going to be doctors. That if things go wrong, if they do suffer, that the organization will be there for them.

The training, recruiting, maintaining discipline, maintaining cohesion, taking care of your people, building trust, these are all essential aspects. And this is why James Lawson said, “The demonstration is only the final manifestation of a movement and not even the most important one.” It’s the things that happened for months before a demonstration that determine whether or not that demonstration will succeed.

Stephanie: Which really runs counter to how a lot of demonstrations take place today, right? That people show up because they received a time and a date to show up and crowd the streets and then go home. And then they say, “Well, nonviolence didn’t get us what we wanted.”

Tom: Yeah. I call that blowing off steam. That’s actually what the system wants. The system wants you to go out and a bunch of people out in the streets, and the TV cameras got some pictures of a little violence happening, and that becomes the big story. You lose control of the narrative at that point. And this is all about getting your narrative across. This was the brilliance of the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech that Martin Luther King gives at the march on Washington in August 1963.

After Birmingham, King, and the people around him, said, “The nation now wants to know who we are. Let’s go to Washington and tell them.” And they hold the single largest demonstration up to that point in American history. It is also the biggest interracial gathering in American history. And it is entirely nonviolent.

The March on Washington, August 1963, a couple of hundred thousand people come from around the country, meet peacefully, with not a single arrest taking place all day. And then they go home. And the civil rights movement has introduced itself to the country. And what Martin Luther King does that day, in the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech – and this goes directly to nonviolence – he says, “Okay, you all saw Bull Conner’s nightmare vision of America in the spring of ’63 in Birmingham. Police dogs and fire hoses. Now we here today in August ‘63, the March on Washington, are telling you who we are. We are people who want to be treated equally before the law with dignity as American citizens. That’s what we want.”

It’s a brilliant introduction of the civil rights movement to the American people. Again, dignity and discipline.

Women in the civil rights movement

Stephanie: I think what really is coming out in this interview as well as in your book, is a misconception that people often have around the civil rights movement, that Martin Luther King was the clear leader of the movement and, you know, you learn about Martin Luther King in school, celebrate his holiday. But what you’re showing is that there was leadership at all kinds of levels. So, can you speak to the role that King played in terms of being a leader among many, and how that sort of fit into a wider strategic vision?

Tom: Well, the March on Washington was the result of really probably 12 months of intense work, 6 months of extraordinarily intense work by hundreds of people, to the point of which they’re thinking about how do we – we don’t really trust the Washington DC police. They have a racist reputation at the time in 1963.

They actually recruited Black policemen from around the country to go to Washington and serve as parade marshals. They said, “Wear white shirts, blue pants. Don’t bring any weapons. You’re allowed to bring your handcuffs. You will be the discipline for the march. Not the Washington, DC police. We’re going to keep them looking outward to prevent the Ku Klux Klan from intervening. The point here is that at every moment in its history, the civil rights movement was intensely focused on organization, discipline, and strategy.

I didn’t set out when I wrote this book to write about women and the civil rights movement. But they kept on popping up. I mentioned Diane Nash. Another one is Septima Clark, who actually was a trainer for Rosa Parks, to prepare Rosa Parks for the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott.

Another one was Dorothy Cotton. What Dorothy Cotton and Septima Clark especially did was train the low-level small-town activists. They actually had a school called the Dorchester school outside of Savannah, Georgia, where they would bring people in for a week and teach them the tools of local organization.

Some of these people had never made a long-distance phone call in their lives. So they taught them how you make a long-distance phone call. They taught them how you hold a meeting. Most people still don’t know how to hold a meeting. They taught them how to talk to a hostile white police officer about your constitutional rights. That you actually have a right under the constitution to demonstrate.

Now, that policeman may not want you to observe your rights, but you have that right. And when he doesn’t allow you to follow that right, he is breaking the law, not you. They taught all these things and then they sent them back to their small towns where they made good trouble. And then they’d go back and help those people. And that’s how the movement rolled along.

Spirituality and facing death in the civil rights movement

It was actually a fairly common experience in the civil rights movement. But again and again, people experience the sense that their life was in somebody else’s hands. If they were religious, “My life is in God’s hands.” They had taken a step, somehow – John Lewis talks about this sometimes. Andrew Young has mentioned that at some point you say, “Look, I may die here, but I’m doing the right thing.”

And they talk about it as a release of fear and a sense of liberation. King lived with the notion that he was not going to survive the civil rights movement. There was a time when a Hollywood producer wanted to make a biopic about his life, and kind of offhandedly said, “How does it end?” And King said, “Oh, I know how it ends. It ends with me getting killed.”

Everybody in the movement kind of accepted that that was a genuine possibility that they lived through every day. But they tended to find it very liberating, which is – once you accept the possibility of death, there’s nothing the enemy can do to really scare you. And it really scared the white supremacists. This happens during the Freedom Rides when a Kennedy administration official calls Diane Nash and says, “If you people get on that bus, you are going to get burned to death tomorrow.” And Diane Nash says, “We know.”

They said, “You don’t understand. You’re going to get killed.” She said, “No, we understand that. We understand that totally. You don’t understand we’re willing to die.” Once you do that, once you’ve taken that on – and I think Gandhi had taken it on – they kind of had the upper hand, spirituality. They were already there.

I’ve got to say though that if you lived through all of that unexpectedly, I think it carries a huge emotional and spiritual cost that is not always liberating. What really struck me is the people who survived carried a great weight. ‘Why did I survive?’ Their nerves were shot. Dave Dennis, who was one of the leaders of the Freedom Summer, says by the age of 29 he had a bad heart, high blood pressure. And at one point, one side of his body was paralyzed. Just the constant tension, the constant nervousness.

It really struck me – I was reading a book a couple of years ago about French resistance fighters in WWII. An amazing number of them died after the war in their 30s and 40s. And the historian said, “They were simply old people. They were burned up. They had gone through so much tension, so much difficulty, they had so much adrenaline pumped through their veins, they were gone.”

And I think that was true of a lot of people in the civil rights movement as well. Now, some did live to grand old ages. But a lot of them – one of the continuities that you’ll find is that their kids have had a difficult time growing up with them, that the parents are kind of emotionally distant from them sometimes. Once you’ve been – once you’ve looked upon the divine, it’s very hard to go back to the everyday world.

Michael: Goethe even says, “Once you’ve seen beauty with your eyes, nothing on Earth will satisfy you.”

Tom: Well, and also in the sense that humankind was not meant to look upon the divine. There’s a reason that the Greek statues of the gods have veils over their faces. It was too powerful. Yet, these people were looking at the divine every day and every night.

Michael: That is very sobering.

Heroes of the civil rights movement

Tom: Yeah. It’s another reason – one reason I wrote this book was these people – people who led the civil rights movement and who did the everyday work of the civil rights movement I think are great American heroes who should be on postage stamps, like Amzie Moore. Nobody seems to have heard of Amzie Moore. He was like a resistance fighter for 20 years in Mississippi. I’m amazed he lived. He was the guy. If you were a civil rights worker in Mississippi and you wanted to live, you went to Amzie Moore and asked for his advice. There are people who would tell you, “I am alive because of Amzie Moore.”

These are people – Diane Nash, Amzie Moore, James Bevel, Bob Moses, they should be on postage stamps. They should be as known to the American public as Civil War generals are.

Stephanie: I want to jump back into some of the roots of the American civil rights movement. And there are two questions that I have, I hope we can address them both. One is if you think that the American civil rights movement would have happened without the Indian Freedom Struggle maintaining nonviolence and all of the learning that happened there. I’d like you to talk about that.

And the other is its roots in soldiers coming back from the World Wars and finding that they’re not equal in the United States.

Tom: It’s hard to answer a counterfactual. Would the civil rights movement have happened without the example of Gandhi? I think it would have happened, but without the Gandhian example, I think it would have taken longer. It would have been much harder and not as successful.

The civil rights movement changed America radically in about 12 years. Did it fix it entirely? Obviously not. But it made major changes. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, which the Supreme Court has been systematically destroying in recent years. But the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is one of the most important pieces of legislation in American history.

In my view, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 made Black Americans equal citizens for the first time. And so, ended the Civil War. If we hadn’t had the Gandhi example, I think the movement would have been very different.

Second, soldiers coming home from WWII absolutely had been a huge change. Nine million Americans served in the armed forces of WWII, including 1 million Black Americans. Most of them from the South. They went out and saw a different world and they came back and they said, “You know, I’ve seen a different way of living and I’m not down with this anymore. I have seen Black men perform acts of great courage. I’ve seen white men perform acts of cowardice and vice versa. We’re all human beings. Let’s be treated as human beings.”

An important aspect of this is several veterans became older leaders in the civil rights movement. Ralph Abernathy, who was Martin Luther King’s mentor in Montgomery and later, basically his best friend, was a WWII veteran. And at Ole Miss, the crazy confrontation there about James Meredith. Meredith was an Air Force Veteran.

Medgar Evers, another great civil rights leader. A man of enormous courage who should be better known. Medgar Evers and his brothers were WWII veterans. And I mentioned Amzie Moore a minute ago. Amzie Moore was another Army veteran who comes back and charts an independent course. Amzie Moore works for the post office. It was one of the few jobs where the local people couldn’t retaliate by making him lose your job. He had a federal job. And he saved his money. He bought a gas station on Highway 61.

And here in the Mississippi Delta, in the 1940s, he says, “I’m not down with segregation. I won’t put up ‘white’ and ‘colored’ on the restrooms.” He makes this statement. And they say, “We’re going to stop them.” Amzie Moore was not a nonviolent practitioner. He believed in self-defense – violent self-defense. He would sit in his window with a rifle over his lap. And that’s how he survived, and became this point of refuge for civil rights workers.

So, yeah, I think the WWII vets came into a very changed atmosphere. And the white South responded by saying, “We will use violence against you.” And they did. There were a series of incidents, in Columbia, Tennessee, outside of Athens, Georgia, where veterans were violently confronted by local police or white supremacists. And they said, “No, we’re not going to be treated like that.”

And the NAACP legal defense fund, led by Thurgood Marshall, comes in and intervenes again and again on behalf of these Black veterans. And that is a very important precursor to the civil rights movement.

Michael: I even think that’s another dimension to that, Tom, that once you’ve risked your life in combat for an entity, a state, you feel enfranchised. You feel you belong there. And now when you come back and you’re told, “No, you’re second class,” it’s just complete cognitive dissonance. You cannot accept that.

Tom: I think that’s right. The sense that, ‘Hey, I paid my dues as an American citizen.’ But I’ve got to say – I mean, I think people who are conscientious objectors of WWII also paid their dues as American citizens. I have an uncle who was one.

Stephanie: Who was your uncle?

Tom: His name was Robert Wagner. He was a Quaker and a conscientious objector. And so, instead of serving, went into some sort of camp where they experimented with – during the wintertime, what was the minimum amount of calories you needed to survive.

Michael: Yeah. The pictures of those men are absolutely terrifying. They look like concentration camp victims. What you can achieve is measured by and limited by what you’re willing to sacrifice. And that’s where people are willing to say, “Okay, you can kill me.” Then there’s nothing you can do to them after that. They’re completely free.

Well, I have a very personal and very important question that arose for me in reading the book, Tom. And that is, where do we go from here? You’ve perhaps heard that question before.

Tom: I don’t know. I’m so shocked at where we are now as a country. I never would have predicted this resurgence of white supremacism. It’s not conservatism in America. It’s reactionarism. I have no problem with conservatives. It’s an honorable position in American politics. I do have a big problem with reactionaries. With people who define freedom as the ability to take away other people’s rights. That’s where we are now.

We have a Supreme Court that’s wildly out of step with the American people. And we have, I think, an oligarchical system pretending to be a democracy. Rich people are running this country in a way they never have before. Rich people are running American politics. And rich people run the American congress.

So, I feel we’ve lost our hold on democracy and we need to regain that, and I think we can. But it’s a very long road. And to me, one of the great lessons of the civil rights movement is it takes time, dedication, organization, and the willingness to sacrifice.

Michael: Amen. And I think what Gandhi had was an additional dimension, which he called constructive program. And there were just the beginnings of that in the civil rights movement. But it wasn’t really developed. And that’s where your sustainability comes from.

Tom: And I think we need to revive the notion of confrontational nonviolence. It’s not, “Please hit me over the head.” It’s, “I’m going to be here again and again. And today, if you hit me over the head today, two people are going to be here tomorrow. Four people the next day.” The sense that you really want to impose a cost on the user of violence. It’s not, “You can use violence and get away with it.” It’s, “You’re going to pay a variety of costs you haven’t even dreamed of.”

So, for example, Birmingham, Alabama continues to pay the cost today in its extraordinarily violent and totalitarian police force in the 1940s and ‘50s and ‘60s. At the end of WWII, Atlanta, Georgia, and Birmingham, Alabama were the same size. It’s not entirely because of civil rights. It’s also because the steel industry collapsed in Birmingham. But a major reason is no one wanted to move to Birmingham after 1963.

Whereas Atlanta grew up. And Atlanta, arguably now, is the capital of Black American culture. And Atlanta has exploded, probably too much. I was in Atlanta recently and I used to live there. I didn’t recognize the place. Literally, I was lost. But Atlanta did raise a lot better than most other southern cities, and it benefitted.

So, my point is we need to make it clear that there are going to be costs for the behaviors we are seeing. For anti-democratic behaviors, for authoritarian behaviors, for oligarchies trying to run the American democracy. And these costs are going to be long-running, unforeseen now – unforeseeable, but we will impose them. This is what I mean by confrontational nonviolence. It’s not peace, love, and flowers. It is, “We are going to operate in ways that you can’t control and we’re going to change things.”

And don’t see the other person as the enemy, see them as the victim of a system. That’s the first step towards reconciliation. It doesn’t mean that Bull Conner is going to be our friend. But it means that other people around him might be. Because one thing Erica Chenoweth writes about is splitting away the enemy. And you see this in Birmingham.

Bull Conner orders the firefighters to use their hoses against the demonstrators. The firefighters don’t like this. And one day, they don’t turn their hoses on. This is what Erica Chenoweth calls, “Peeling off the security forces.” Now, sometimes they join you. More often, they simply don’t obey their orders. And that’s a sign of success.

So, you don’t want to alienate people. You want to convince them of the worthiness of your cause and the unworthiness of white supremacism and things like that. So, you treat them like human beings, if at all possible, on an everyday basis.

Another example is of the Albany campaign in Albany, Georgia, early on. One day, King negotiated with the Albany police chief, Laurie Pritchett, and somebody brings in a telegram and hands it to the police chief. The police chief looks upset. And King says, “Is everything all right?” And the police chief says, “I forgot it’s our anniversary – our wedding anniversary.”

King responds, “Chief, you go home. You take your wife out to dinner. Nothing is going to happen today in Albany, Georgia. Tomorrow, at 8 AM, we will resume. But you go take your wife to dinner.”

And this says a couple of things. It says, “We’re willing to be human beings, treat you like human beings.” But it also says, “Tomorrow morning we’ll be back.” It’s a sign of strength. I can control my forces. And we can also behave like human beings here.

Stephanie: That was Thomas Ricks. He’s the author of “Waging a Good War. A military history of the civil rights movement.” This book is available now and you can find it at all the places books are sold.

We want to thank our mother station KWMR, to Matt Watrous, Annie Hewitt, Bryan Farrell over at Waging Nonviolence, to all of our syndicators out there on the Pacifica Network, thank you very much. You can find the show archives at as well as on popular podcast apps. And we’ll be back in two weeks. So, until then, please take care of one another.

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