The black insurgency holds lessons for 2010: To counter the
insurgency in Afghanistan, for example, the U.S. must 'wrest the
information initiative' from the enemy 'to win the important battle
of perception. -Gen. Stanley McChrystal, 2009
In 1962 David Galula, a cerebral-looking French lieutenant colonel,
arrived at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs as a
research fellow. Powerfully influenced by his observations of postwar
insurgencies and his 21 months as a company commander in the
1954–1962 Algerian War, Galula set down the lessons of his
experiences in Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, which
was published in 1964. Forty years later, it exerts a major influence
on the new American doctrine created to deal with the problem of
defeating 21st-century insurgencies. Like most military theorists of
his day, Galula viewed insurgency through the lens of the Maoist
doctrine of revolutionary war. He saw violence as being a core
characteristic of insurgency. It is not surprising, then, that he
completely dismissed the rumblings of an insurgency then in progress
within the United States. Yet his sophisticated theories perfectly
illustrate the dynamics of what was indeed an insurgency: the
American civil rights movement.
Labeling that movement an insurgency flies in the face of the common
perception of what constitutes an insurgency. Three objections spring
to mind. One is superficial, though perhaps understandable in the
post-9/11 era: Isn't it outrageous to call the movement an
insurgency? Aren't insurgencies evil? Such a reaction fails to
recognize that the term "insurgency" is value-neutral. Insurgents
have also fought for noble causes. The United States itself was the
product of an insurgency.
The remaining objections are more substantive. First, the movement
was nonviolent, so how could it have been an insurgency? After all,
even the official U.S. Department of Defense definition of insurgency
assumes "armed conflict" as a basic tactic. Second, it is often
thought that the civil rights movement received unstinting support
from the U.S. government. Popular films such as Mississippi Burning
(1988), whose protagonists are Federal Bureau of Investigation agents
hell-bent on defeating the Ku Klux Klan, reinforce this
interpretation. If so much pressure on segregationist governments
emanated from above, then using the term "insurgency"a challenge to
the existing power structure from belowseems preposterous.
These objections, however, hinge on serious misconceptions about the
nature of the civil rights movement, about the stance the federal
government took toward civil rights, and above all about the scope of
the "insurgency" concept. Once these are cleared away, the notion of
the movement as an insurgency becomes more plausible. Ultimately, it
Typically, groups excluded from power wage wars of insurgency, and
Southern blacks certainly fit that description. Before 1965, few
blacks in the Deep South could even vote. Nowhere in the South were
they able to influence legislation and law enforcement through the
normal political process. The civil rights movement attempted to gain
access to political power by coercion. Had it been done with guns, no
one would hesitate to think of it as an insurgency.
The first substantive objection to calling the movement an
insurgencythat Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights
activists employed nonviolencefundamentally misunderstands the
nature of insurgency. Insurgencies seek to overthrow the status quo.
The defenders of the status quo do not care about the insurgents'
methods. An exchange between Jesus and Pilate in Martin Scorsese's
film The Last Temptation of Christ illustrates the point. "All I'm
saying," Jesus tells Pilate, "is that change will happen with love,
not with killing." Pilate replies, "Killing or loving, it's all the
same. It simply doesn't matter how you want to change things. We
don't want them changed."
The key issue is ultimately not violence, anyway, but force. Violence
is only one type of force. Mahatma Gandhi, whose methods deeply
influenced the civil rights movement, termed his strategy of
nonviolent resistance satyagraha, which translates as "truth force"
or "soul force." Political scientist Gene Sharp terms nonviolent
resistance "political jiu-jitsu." The metaphor is apt, because
jiu-jitsu is based upon a finely honed understanding of the human
anatomy. A small person proficient in jiu-jitsu can therefore defeat
a much larger opponent, not by kicks, punches, or superior strength
and speed but by knowing and exploiting the key leverage pointsthe
neck, arms, and legsof his opponent's body. In the same way, an
insurgency identifies and exploits the vulnerabilities of its enemy.
And sometimes these vulnerabilities are best exploited through nonviolence.
Resorting to alternative types of force was imperative because the
opponents of civil rights activists had the ability and will to
unleash violence on a massive scale. Segregationist governments had
overwhelming firepower at their disposal in the form of law
enforcement agencies and the National Guard (when under state
control). Further, these armed defenders of segregation often allowed
white mobs to attack civil rights demonstrators. During the civil
rights era (typically defined as the years between 1954 and 1968),
hundreds of civil rights workers were assaulted. At least 40 were
killed in shootings, bombings, or beatings.
Southern law enforcement agencies could also pervert justice and
incarcerate civil rights activists on the flimsiest of pretexts.
During Freedom Summer in 1964, for example, 25-year-old Frank
Cieciorka pinned an 8-by-10-inch piece of paper to his shirt to
identify himself as a voter registration worker. He was arrested and
jailed for five days. His crime? Carrying a "placard" without a permit.
White Citizens' Councils, eventually with some 250,000 members,
sprang up in many Southern towns. Often composed of a community's
leading citizens, the councils intimidated civil rights supporters
and orchestrated economic reprisals against them. Although it could
seldom be proven conclusively, many of the councils appeared to have
ties to the Ku Klux Klan, a paramilitary organization estimated to
have 50,000 members. And Southern law enforcement agencies
collaborated with the Klan on numerous occasions.
For decades, segregationist state governments had gone unchallenged
by the federal government, which presided over a country where de
facto if not legal segregation was the norm. Further, blacks made up
just 10.5 percent of the population in 1960. Under such
circumstances, an insurgency based on violence did not stand a
chance. Not only would Southern governments have exerted their
considerable resources to crush it but the U.S. government would also
have felt compelled to join in the effort. For those reasons, the
author David Galula posited, "A Negro movement trying to exploit the
Negro problem as the basis for a [violent] insurgency in the United
States…would be doomed from the start."
It seems odd, then, to deny that the civil rights movement was an
insurgency because its leaders employed nonviolent strategies and
tactics that did not play into the hands of their adversaries. The
aim of war is to break the will of the enemy. While this is generally
accomplished through violence, it need not be. Sun Tzu put it well:
"For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the
acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill."
And in any event, civil rights activism was not exclusively
nonviolent. Robert F. Williams, who revitalized a chapter of the
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Marion,
North Carolina, routinely carried a pistol, as did its other members.
In 1962 he published Negroes With Guns, an influential manifesto that
rejected nonviolent tactics and argued for black self-defense.
Several groups adopted this policy. The best known of these, the
Deacons for Defense and Justice, consisted largely of veterans of
World War II and the Korean War. Organized to protect Congress of
Racial Equality volunteers as they registered voters in 1964, the
group employed military organization and tactics and had chapters
across Louisiana and Mississippi. Thus to the power of nonviolence,
the method used most extensively, was added the power of credible threat.
The next objectionthat the U.S. government gave the movement
unstinting supportalso does not withstand scrutiny. Although the
U.S. Supreme Court helped spark the modern civil rights movement with
its famous 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision striking down
the principle of "separate but equal" public education, a follow-on
decision took a cautious line, mandating that integration should be
pursued with "all deliberate speed."
Crafted to reassure Southern moderates, the phrase in fact emboldened
white Southerners to block desegregation outright through a program
they dubbed "massive resistance."
President Dwight D. Eisenhower also ensured that desegregation made
only slow progress. Nonplussed by the Brown decision, he asserted
that it had actually "set back progress in the South at least fifteen
years….The fellow who tries to tell me that you can do these things
by force is just plain nuts." Eisenhower thought enforcement of the
Brown decision should be left to the states, rejected the use of
federal troops to compel desegregation, and did nothing when Alabama,
Texas, and Tennessee resisted integration.
The September 1957 confrontation in Arkansas with Gov. Orval Faubus
over the integration of Little Rock's Central High School forced
Eisenhower to reverse his stance on the use of troops. He federalized
the Arkansas National Guard and sent in 1,000 paratroops from the
101st Airborne Division. But he did so only after Faubus behaved with
astounding perfidy. Even then, he told an aide that he considered the
decision the most distasteful of his presidency.
John F. Kennedy, who succeeded Eisenhower, has a reputation as a
friend of the civil rights movement, but his support was more
symbolic than substantial. Privately, he harbored the same
reservations as Eisenhower about the possibility of ending
segregation. And it was Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General
Robert F. Kennedy, who authorized the FBI's director, J. Edgar
Hoover, to tap the phones of Martin Luther King Jr. and other
prominent civil rights activists. Deeply racist, Hoover believed the
civil rights movement to be heavily infiltrated by communists.
The FBI not only tapped phones but bugged the offices and hotel rooms
used by activists. It amassed evidence that King was not a communist.
Undeterred, it seized instead on evidence that he was a philanderer,
assembled taped excerpts of his assignations, and sent them to King
anonymously, along with a note that he was "a fraud" with only "one
way out"obviously suicide.
As late as February 1968 a Central Intelligence Agency summary
reported, "According to the FBI, Dr. King is regarded in Communist
circles as 'a genuine Marxist-Leninist who is following the
Marxist-Leninist line.'" The nation's principal law enforcement
agency regarded the movement as a threat to domestic security.
Kennedy's ambivalence about the movement stemmed not only from his
skepticism about changing racial attitudes but also from his need to
retain the support of the Southern wing of the Democratic Party. For
most of Kennedy's presidency, 35 percent of Democratic senators and
39 percent of Democratic congressmen represented former Confederate
states. If the Civil War–era border states (including Missouri,
Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware) are included, the
figures rise to 41 percent and 50 percent, respectively. Southern
Democrats could have thwarted Kennedy's entire legislative agenda if
he had given more than token support to the civil rights movement.
Moreover, Southern congressmen had already lent powerful rhetorical
support to the massive resistance policy.
In 1956 Virginia senator Harry Byrd and Georgia senator Richard
Russell issued a "Declaration of Constitutional Principles"
condemning the "unwarranted" Brown decision and asserting that it
climaxed "a trend in the federal Judiciary undertaking to legislate,
in derogation of the authority of Congress, and to encroach upon the
reserved rights of the States and the people." With just three
exceptions, every senator and representative from the former
Confederate states signed the declaration, commonly called the
Far from enjoying the federal government's support, civil rights
activists had to contend with a lukewarm Supreme Court and
presidency, outright hostility from the director of the FBI, and a
Congress dominated by prosegregationists. White supremacists could
exploit Cold War fears to create suspicions that the movement was
riddled with communists. Furthermore, polling consistently showed
that most whites, even outside the South, viewed the pace of
desegregation as adequate or too rapidthis at a time when
desegregation had hardly occurred.
To defeat the violence and apathy, the movement faced two strategic
challenges. First, it had to confront the segregationist Southern
governments. Second, it had to maneuver the federal government from
its de facto neutrality to active support for black civil rights. The
means adopted was primarily nonviolent resistance, adapted from the
theories of Gandhi and applied in a disciplined, sophisticated
manner. And although few if any within the movement had heard of
David Galula, they instinctively grasped Galula's contention that an
insurgency based on exploiting "the Negro problem" was doomed. They
therefore consistently spoke in terms of realizing the universally
shared ideals of freedom for all Americans. King's formulation"I
still have a dream…deeply rooted in the American dream"was not just
soaring rhetoric. It was sound strategic communication.
Civil rights activists also grasped Galula's key contention that
insurgencies and counterinsurgencies are essentially struggles for
control of the population. Most people are apolitical. They seek
primarily to earn a living, raise families, and enjoy such creature
comforts as they can.
Activists therefore had to organize and politicize as many blacks as
possible. They also had to detach moderate whites from the vociferous
minority of die-hard segregationists. Southern whites of that era are
commonly seen in retrospect as monolithically prosegregation. That
may have been close to the truth. But the civil rights campaign
brilliantly shifted the crucial question from "Do you favor
segregation?" to "How far are you prepared to go to defend it?"
Ultimately, they persuaded Southern moderates that restoring life to
normal required them to abandon segregation. In this the activists
received powerful assistance from the die-hard segregationists, who
utterly misunderstood the strategic environment, particularly what
counterinsurgency specialists would later call the "human terrain."
Their racism blinded them to the sophistication of the black
insurgency. They persistently viewed the black population as docile
and content with the racial status quo. Consequently, against much
evidence to the contrary, they assumed the movement was the product
of outside agitators.
Outraged by the Brown decision, they viewed even tentative efforts to
integrate schools as evidence of a tacit alliance between the federal
government and civil rights activists. They failed to recognize, much
less capitalize upon, the tepid sympathy (or even antipathy) most
major decision makers then in the U.S. government felt toward the
movement. Indeed, in July 1963, Ross Barnett, the governor of
Mississippi, went so far as to accuse the Kennedy administration of
"aiding a world Communist conspiracy" to divide and conquer the
United States by fomenting "racial strife."
Segregationists persistently overplayed their hand and alienated
Southern whites who were comfortable with segregation but unwilling
to sacrifice to maintain the system. During the Montgomery bus
boycott of 1955–1956, Mayor W. A. "Tacky" Gayle claimed the boycott
could be crushed if white housewives refused to drive their black
maids to and from work. Montgomery housewives would have none of it.
They were willing to comply, they saidif the mayor would wash their
laundry and clean their houses.
Governor Barnett's 1962 defiance of a federal court order for the
token integration of the University of Mississippi resulted in a
firestorm of white mob violence.
The following year, Gov. George Wallace made a similar effort to
block admission of three black students to the University of Alabama.
Those incidents compelled Kennedy to send federal marshals and troops
to enforce the court orders, a step he had tried to avoid.
White moderates lost confidence in the ability of their state and
local officials to behave with restraint. White officials and white
mobs repeatedly antagonized and even attacked reporters who covered
the civil rights movement. They thereby shifted the media stance from
one of neutrality to one that painted the movement, which exhibited
an impressive degree of discipline and restraint, in a positive
light. Because garnering favorable media attention was a central
objective of the civil rights movement, this shift greatly simplified
the civil rights leaders' efforts to take control of the broader narrative.
Modern theorists suggest that a major component for success in
insurgency or counterinsurgency is gaining control of the grand
narrative of the campaign. The August 2009 strategic review of Gen.
Stanley McChrystal reflected this notion when he argued that a
successful counterinsurgency in Afghanistan must "wrest the
information initiative" from the enemy in order to "win the important
battle of perception."
A favorable grand narrative attracts supporters, diminishes support
for the adversary, and gains sympathy from bystanders in a position
to apply pressure on that adversary.
A basic tactic of the civil rights movement was to force
overreactions on the part of segregationists andthis next part was
crucialmake certain reporters were present to record their
overreactions. Dr. King once chided a newsman who quit reporting an
event long enough to stop someone from beating several small black
children. "The world doesn't know this happened, because you didn't
photograph it," King said. "I'm not being cold-blooded about it, but
it is so much more important for you to take a picture of us getting
beaten up than for you to be another person joining the fray."
Galula understood insurgencies as centrally organized and controlled,
an understanding shared until recently by nearly all military
experts. Consequently, American forces in Iraq were initially baffled
to find themselves confronted by a complex insurgency composed of
numerous groups with competing ideologies and aims. They might have
grasped the situation more quickly had they studied the civil rights
movement, for it was in many respects a complex insurgency.
The elevation of King to mythic status has given a misleading
impression that the movement was monolithic. But it was really a
loose confederation of organizations, each with its own leadership
and preferred tactics, and each exhibiting a degree of tension and
rivalry toward the others. For instance, the oldest civil rights
organization, the NAACP, emphasized legal action in the courts.
Thurgood Marshall, then chief counsel for the NAACP, derided King's
Montgomery bus boycott, noting that ultimately it took a successful
lawsuit, not direct action, to force the city bus system to
integrate. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, essentially
a vehicle for King, utilized a top-down organization and initially
preferred tactics by which the black community withdrew from white
public spaces, especially through boycotting white-owned businesses.
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, however, was a
bottom-up organization. SNCC's preferred tactic was to invade white
public spaces, most famously in the widespread lunch counter sit-ins
inspired by those that took place in Greensboro, North Carolina, in
1960. SNCC volunteers often expressed impatience with King's cautious
approach and mocked his penchant for sonorous rhetoric by referring
to him as "de Lawd." Most strikingly, proponents of nonviolence and
proponents of black self-defense were deeply suspicious of each other.
A shrewd segregationist counterinsurgency might have exploited the
cleavages between these organizations. Instead, segregationists
lumped all civil rights groups together. Indeed, in only one instance
did a segregationist community conduct a successful
counterinsurgency. Albany, a town of 57,000 in southwest Georgia, in
1961 became the site of the Albany Movement, a coalition of SNCC,
NAACP, and local groups that attempted to challenge segregation on
several fronts. The attempt was energetic, but its leaders were
inexperienced and beset by internal rivalries. With their effort
floundering, they asked Martin Luther King Jr. to come make a speech.
Once involved with the Albany Movement, King found himself
increasingly caught up, even though local leaders ignored advice from
the experienced SCLC staff.
Those efforts came to naught, thanks to the astute police chief,
Laurie Pritchett. Having studied the SNCC playbook, Pritchett
discovered that a favorite tactic was to demonstrate in such a way as
to trigger mass arrests. Those arrested would refuse bail. By
saturating jail facilities, this "jail, no bail" policy eventually
made further arrests impossible and thereby neutralized the chief
weapon in the law enforcement arsenal.
Pritchett persuaded other police departments to let him use their
vacant jail space. By doing so, he claimed to have amassed enough
cells to confine 10,000 prisoners. It worked. Pritchett, one civil
rights historian has written, wore "his enemies down by sheer
capacity to absorb their capacity to absorb suffering."
Pritchett had also read King's Stride Toward Freedom, which spelled
out King's nonviolent tactics, as well as Gandhi's essays. Realizing
that the success of nonviolent resistance depended upon protesters
forcing overreactions, he trained his police force to exercise
restraint. And police cracked down ruthlessly on white supremacists
that came to Albany looking for trouble. In contrast to the angry
reception media members received elsewhere, Pritchett treated them
like bosom buddies, drinking and joking with them, even telling them
where and when the next big event would occur. The media, in turn,
gave Pritchett excellent press.
Pritchett killed the Albany Movement with kindness. The national
media reported that King had suffered "a devastating loss of face"
and "a stunning defeat." For a time, it seemed King was in danger of
losing all credibility. Albany remained, as Pritchett put it, "just
as segregated as ever," and he had accomplished this in a way that
moderate Southern whites could respect. He had demoralized Albany
blacks while keeping whites united. He had, in counterinsurgency
terms, won the battles for control of the population and the narrative.
Other Southern law enforcement officials would have done well to
emulate Pritchett's methods, and in the next major confrontation
between the forces of civil rights and the forces of
segregationBirmingham, AlabamaPritchett was called in to serve as
an adviser. But King's SCLC had learned much from its setback in
Albany. It carefully selected "Bombingham," an industrial city of
340,000 known as the most fiercely segregated city in the South, as
an arena where its tactics stood a good chance of success.
Unlike Albany, in Birmingham King would be dealing with an
experienced SCLC chapter operating in the city under the able
leadership of the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth. Project "C," for
"confrontation," got under way in April 1963. What Birmingham lacked,
it turned out, was a black population willing to demonstrate in
numbers sufficient for victory. Moderate blacks objected to the
radicalism of the activists. The editor of the local black newspaper
condemned Shuttlesworth as irresponsible and dismissed King as "a
glossy personality." The first marches failed to generate impressive
numbers or to provoke an overreaction from Public Safety Commissioner
Eugene "Bull" Connor.
In desperation, King let himself be arrested and, while incarcerated,
composed his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." But Project C
continued to stall. "We've got to get going," King exhorted his
subordinates. "The press is losing interest. We've got to do
something to get their attention again."
That "something" turned out to be a march by the youths of
Birmingham, most of them teenagers but some as young as six. On May
2, a thousand of them took to the streets. Connor arrested them in an
orderly fashion, but unlike Pritchett, he ran out of jail space.
When another thousand young blacks appeared the next day, Connor
unleashed his police, who assaulted protesters and bystanders alike
with nightsticks and attack dogs. Connor also ordered firemen to aim
their hoses into the crowd. Streams of water, at pressures high
enough to strip bark from trees at 100 yards, knocked demonstrators
off their feet and slammed others into brick walls. News
photographers and television cameras captured the scenes in images
that shocked the world.
Humiliated, Birmingham's public officials and businessmen quickly cut
a deal on May 8 with civil rights activists and began dismantling the
system of segregation.
Birmingham was the turning point of the civil rights insurgency. The
victory played a major role in persuading a hitherto reluctant John
F. Kennedy to fully support passage of a major civil rights bill.
"The events in Birmingham and elsewhere," President Kennedy said in a
nationally televised address on June 11, "have so increased the cries
for equality that no city or state or legislative body can prudently
choose to ignore them."
Kennedy's assassination denied him the chance to see his initiative
through. That task fell to his successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who
signed the Civil Rights Act into law on July 2, 1964. The act
provided for the comprehensive desegregation of public facilities but
did not adequately address the systematic denial of voting rights to
King implored Johnson to press for a voting rights act, but Johnson
bluntly informed King that the white population had absorbed enough
change for the time being. Voting rights legislation had to wait.
While grass-roots organizers worked to register black voters in the
Deep South, the SCLC planned another major campaign of direct action,
this one primarily designed to force Johnson to act. The new target
was Selma, Alabama.
The reasons for selecting Selma were much the same as for Birmingham.
The civil rights movement had a strong organization already operating
in the city. And in Jim Clark, the sheriff of surrounding Dallas
County, it had a law enforcement official sufficiently volatile to
play the role of Bull Connor.
Selma also had a mayor, Joe Smitherman, who hoped to bar blacks from
the ballot box without unseemly violence. To keep Clark in line, he
relied on Public Safety Director Wilson Baker, who in many ways
resembled Albany's Laurie Pritchett.
For a time Clark, a beefy former police captain, managed to behave.
But gradually he lost patience with the activists, and eventually he
struck a defiant 53-year-old woman in full view of television cameras.
Soon thereafter, on February 26, 1965, Alabama state troopers
attacked demonstrators in the nearby town of Marion, hitting dozens
with nightsticks and shooting to death a young church deacon, Jimmie
Lee Jackson, when he tried to protect his mother from a trooper who
was clubbing her.
The SCLC called for a symbolic march from Selma in the direction of
Montgomery, the state capital, 58 miles away. They intended to halt
at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the edge of Selma. But on March 7,
troopers attacked the marchers with tear gas and nightsticks, while a
posse under Jim Clark, some of them on horseback, caromed into the
crowd, wielding clubs as big as baseball bats. News cameras caught
all the violence of "Bloody Sunday," as it became known. That evening
the ABC network cut into its programming to show its viewers 15
minutes of film from Selma. The program being aired, the movie
Judgment at Nuremberg, was nominally about a trial of Nazi judges,
but was really about the complicity of ordinary people in systematic
evil. The juxtaposition was impossible to miss.
Thousands of Americans drove cars, took buses, or boarded flights to
join the Selma activists. Two days later King led a symbolic march
that also stopped at the bridge. A judge ruled that the march to
Montgomery could proceed, and on March 21, marchers set off for
Montgomery, many arriving five days later. President Johnson, who had
earlier brushed aside King's request for a voting rights act, sent a
draft of such a bill to Congress just two weeks after Bloody Sunday.
On August 6, 1965, Johnson signed the National Voting Rights Act into law.
Birmingham and Selma both anticipated what is now called
"fourth-generation warfare" or 4GW, thoroughly explained by Col.
Thomas X. Hammes in The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st
Century. Fourth-generation warfare, Hammes writes, "uses all
available networkspolitical, economic, social, and militaryto
convince the enemy's political decision makers that their strategic
goals are either unachievable or too costly for the perceived
benefit.… 4GW makes use of society's networks to carry on its fight….
It does not attempt to win by defeating the enemy's military forces.
Instead, via the networks, it directly attacks the minds of decision
makers to destroy the enemy's political will."
That describes the dynamics of the civil rights insurgency. Its
nonviolent tactics neutralized rather than defeated segregationist
law enforcement efforts. Its direct-action campaigns deftly attacked
the minds of key decision makerssegregationist governors, Southern
businessmen, and when necessary even federal officials such as
Kennedy (forcing him to back a major civil rights act) and Johnson
(forcing him to immediately help enact a voting rights act). Indeed,
searching for historical antecedents of 4GW, defense analyst Albert
A. Nofi has identified the movement as "one of the most notable
victories in a 4GW" conflict.
The Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote of a
"culminating point of victory." The Voting Rights Act of 1965
constituted that point for the civil rights movement. Although the
insurgency had substantially achieved its aims in terms of civil
rights, activists could not achieve an objective they regarded as
perhaps even more important: economic justice.
An unexamined assumption of most white Americans is that in a "land
of opportunity," legal and political access are sufficient
prerequisites for economic success. Martin Luther King Jr. and other
activists, however, maintained that to eliminate the effects of
centuries of slavery and repression required billions of dollars in
federal aidin short, a major redistribution of national wealth. This
suddenly made the movement resemble Galula's formula for failure: "A
Negro movement trying to exploit the Negro problem."
The six days of rioting in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles that
began just days after the signing of the Voting Rights Act, in effect
a protest against the continued structural racism that kept millions
of blacks in poverty, flabbergasted whites. Continued violence on the
part of white extremists provoked many civil rights activists beyond endurance.
On June 6, 1966, after a gunman wounded activist James Meredith just
hours after he entered Mississippi to begin a "March Against Fear,"
Martin Luther King joined activists from other organizations,
including SNCC's Stokely Carmichael and Floyd McKissick of the
Congress of Racial Equality, to continue Meredith's march from
Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi, in a show of common determination.
During the march Carmichael ferociously rejected the tactic of
nonviolence. "The Negro is going to take what he deserves from the
white man," Carmichael shouted.
Some shouted back: "White blood must flow!" Soon afterward Carmichael
gave an electrifying impromptu address: "We been saying freedom for
six years and we ain't got nothin'. What we gonna start saying now is
'Black Power'!" His audience took up the chant: "Black Power! Black
Power! Black Power!"
The Black Power movement generated a new pride among blacks, in their
history, their culture, and themselves. It was in that respect
indispensable. But it effectively ended all prospect of a renewal of
the insurgency that might have added economic justice to legal and
political rights. King, although he understood the passions that
fueled the call for Black Power, correctly anticipated that the
slogan would cost the civil rights movement the crucial battle of perception.
"Why have [a slogan]," he asked, "that would confuse our allies,
isolate the Negro community, and give many prejudiced whites, who
might otherwise be ashamed of their anti-Negro feeling, a ready
excuse for self-justification?"
The media, which had hitherto presented black activists in a positive
light, now found a new story in black alienation and militancy. White
sympathy for the civil rights movement rapidly diminished. Many white
Southerners again closed ranks.
But nothing could undo what the initial insurgency had accomplished.
It forced a reluctant federal government to take belated but
substantial steps to support civil rights for blacks. It destroyed
legal segregation and toppled the segregationist state governments
that for a century had seemed unassailable. It is fortunate for many
reasons that the insurgency succeeded, and fortunate that its
emphasis on nonviolent resistance won the battle for the Southern
population. It not only mobilized black Southerners but also
succeeded in the key task of detaching from die-hard segregationists
the Southern white moderates unwilling to pay the price of a
continued system of apartheid. Had that not occurred, said a former
King aide, "the South today would look like Beirut looks today."