In this March 17, 1965 photo, demonstrators walk to the courthouse behind the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Montgomery, Ala. The march was to protest treatment of demonstrators by police during an attempted march. (AP Photo/File)

Where did they find the courage? What makes someone who is hated, hunted, and hounded by their country intentionally bring down more of the same, or worse, on their head? Their community’s? The whites of the civil rights movement, what made them walk away from their privileged lives to tramp through southern fields of strange fruit, asking the oppressed to court more abuse, while wondering if each day would be their much-less-privileged last? For many of us with the survivor’s guilt of having been unable or unwilling to participate or who never experienced Jim Crow, this question is the distillation of all the books, movies, statues, and Black History Months: How did they find the courage?

Waging a Good War: A Military History of the Civil Rights Movement, 1954–1968 by Thomas E. Ricks Macmillan, 448 pp.

Thomas Ricks, the veteran war correspondent, Pulitzer Prize winner, and prolific and best-selling author, has a different question in his new book, Waging a Good War: How did they win—like, specifically? In only about 13 years, the movement made an actual democracy of America in which nearly all those eligible could vote. But 60 years later, unreconstructed Republicans have reversed much of those gains and aren’t nearly done with their anti-democratic blitzkrieg. So how, Ricks wondered, do we identify and replicate the tactics and strategies forged at Dixie lunch counters that changed the world? Ricks shows  us how to get from bravery to victory over today’s peculiar institution, the modern GOP.

My question is wide-eyed with reverence, his squinty-eyed with purpose. Yet their answers are the same. Dismayed with America’s fervid re-embrace of voter suppression and the racial gerrymander, Ricks immersed himself in the movement that defeated structural tyranny once, he says, and found himself “calling on my own experiences as a war correspondent to interpret what I was reading. I saw the overall strategic thinking that went into the Movement, and the field tactics that flowed from that strategy. Problems I was familiar with from covering military operations in Somalia, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and from writing books about World War II and the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, were all addressed in careful, systematic ways by those in the civil rights movement—recruiting, training, planning, logistics, communications, and more. I began to see the Movement as a kind of war—that is, a series of campaigns on carefully chosen ground that eventually led to victory. The Siege of Montgomery. The Battle of Birmingham. The March on Washington. The frontal assault at Selma.”

“Witnessing” that crusade through Ricks’s “war reporting” answered the wide-eyed question: The movement’s foot soldiers found the courage to put their lives on the line because, in a world carefully constructed to make them feel small, stupid, unworthy, and afraid, the movement believed in them. We know it believed in them because it invested everything in them, much as the U.S. military does today with minorities (and as it did with me, a working-class Black woman who rose through the enlisted ranks of the Air Force to become an intelligence officer). Recruiters’ dependence on volunteers required them to both embrace whoever showed up and believe that they had what it took. So everyone in the student movement got the same rigorous training in Gandhian nonviolence, tactics, objectives, communications, and the like. There was no unorchestrated showing up and sitting at a lunch counter, just as there is no sauntering onto a battlefield. You could, and many did, flunk out of movement training (usually for being reckless or ambivalent about nonviolence, though some left voluntarily, perhaps when they were required to write their own eulogies). Both groups value their foot soldiers and their mission above all, and act like it. At best, America says, “You can be anything you want. Come back when you’re a success.” The movement and the military said, “You can be anything you want, and we’re going to show you how.” Hence, minorities overachieve in uniform far beyond any other sector of society. Hence, the dispossessed and poorly educated overturned centuries of oppression by being what Dr. Martin Luther King described as “the best organized and most disciplined”—not the ones who were the most religious or bore up under suffering most nobly. Ricks tells us King believed that everyone should be involved in their own liberation and these students were doing exactly that: “And in the process, many were experiencing profound personal transformations, discovering a new sense of self-confidence.” He quotes Diane Nash, the brilliant Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee strategist and “battlefield commander” honored by President Joe Biden on July 7: “The movement had a way of reaching inside me and bringing out things that I never knew were there,” she said, “like courage, and love for people.”

Unbidden now, these college students—most of them not old enough to vote at the time—would write their wills and give sealed letters to Nash before missions, like deciding in advance to throw yourself on a grenade if necessary. Such was the unit cohesion and commitment their intense training created. It is hard to believe, though, that a bunch of teens and twentysomethings designed a tac op like this sit-in: “[James] Lawson … deployed 124 students to three downtown lunch counters … They were the civil rights equivalent of paratroopers—an elite force of volunteers, well trained and highly motivated, stealthily dropping in on unsuspecting targets … A leader appointed for each group would speak for it, and also keep an eye on those under his or her wing [that is, a squad leader] … they slipped into the lunchrooms, sat down, and politely asked for service … Lawson deployed observers with instructions for them to stay at the edge of each protest. [They were] to keep a detailed running account of what was happening, to send information back to headquarters via runners, and to call the police when mobs attacked protesters [so they couldn’t claim they didn’t know] … ‘We had white people who stayed in the background and out of place … so if we needed to have court witnesses and information … we had it in place.’ ”

Five days later, they deployed 200 students, then 300, then 400. In one instance, Lawson concentrated his forces at a single lunch counter. After the students had been beaten and tormented—without reacting—and dragged away by the police, “another wave, notified by observers and runners, moved in to take their places.” Flummoxed, the police stopped arresting the students after the third wave. Unbeknownst to them, several hundred more students waited at a nearby church. In a cellblock, a sharecropper’s cabin, or a college dorm, these shock troops went to bed that night victorious over white supremacy. They must have walked on air.

While one might (blasphemously) question the students’ tactical abilities, there’s little question that they did the strategizing based on Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings. (Lawson, for instance, was himself a student of Gandhi.) Ultimately, they were after America’s hearts and minds. 

One of the few flaws in this book is that Ricks makes too little of the fact that many of the key leaders of the civil rights movement, such as Medgar Evers and Hosea Williams, were military veterans themselves. Still, Ricks points out that the goal of every nonviolent protest is reconciliation (unlike the military), and to do that, the movement had to show southern racists the self-portrait of attack dogs and bombed churches. But it didn’t have to be. During one sit-in, a white man spit in protester Leo Lillard’s face. “Sir,” Lillard said, “do you have a handkerchief?” Reflexively, the man reached toward his pocket, then caught himself: “Hell no.” During that same campaign, Diane Nash met with Nashville’s beleaguered, desperate mayor. As Ricks reports, “Trying to connect as a human being, she asked him in an almost gentle voice whether discrimination based on color is moral … No, it is not, he conceded. So, she said, should the lunch counters be desegregated? ‘Yes,’ the mayor responded. They shook hands. With that exchange, the desegregation of Nashville began.”

The counterinsurgency was immediate and enduring: George Wallace, Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump. White flight. The assault on voting, police abuse, and a form of predatory capitalism that ought to twirl its mustache. Even Bull Connor never stormed the Capitol. Perhaps, though, this is how we circle back to my original question. 

Carl von Clausewitz, Ricks says, emphasized the importance of understanding the nature of the war one was fighting. The students in the movement did this. While the NAACP, for example, focused on litigation, the students asked themselves, “Who are we, and what are we trying to do?” The answer: “We are people who would rather die than tolerate subjugation.” 

Tactically, according to Nash, this meant that there would be an end to segregation. She said in an interview, “One of the things that I have learned over the years is that you really can’t change anyone but yourself, and what we did in the South was change ourselves from people who could be segregated into people who could no longer be segregated. The attitude became, ‘Well, kill us if that’s what you’re going to do, but you cannot segregate us any longer.’ ”Pure Gandhi.

Ricks doesn’t presume to explain how the strategies of the civil rights movement can be applied to the challenges of today, just as your radiologist can diagnose but not treat your cancer. But apply them we must. We need to become the people who won’t have their votes stolen. Be murdered by the police. Let our children be taught Orwellian drivel. We need to find the language and take the actions that can recruit the recruitable while not dividing the majority we represent. This book is Ricks’s contribution; the rest of us are morally bound to find our own lunch counters to claim.

Debra Dickerson

Debra Dickerson, a Washington Monthly editorial advisory board member, is the author most recently of The End of Blackness.