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Why the Civil Rights Movement Was an Insurgency

By Mark Grimsley 
Originally published by MHQ magazine. Published Online: February 24, 2010 
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A protest of 15,000 people gather in Harlem, March 1965 (Library of Congress)
A protest of 15,000 people gather in Harlem, March 1965 (Library of Congress)

 

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 below—seems 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 becomes inescapable.

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 insurgency—that Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists employed nonviolence—fundamentally 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 points—the neck, arms, and legs—of 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 objection—that the U.S. government gave the movement unstinting support—also 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 "Southern Manifesto."

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 rapid—this 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 said—if 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 and—this next part was crucial—make 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 segregation—Birmingham, Alabama—Pritchett 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 black Southerners.

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 networks—political, economic, social, and military—to 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 makers—segregationist 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 aid—in 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

Lyndon B. Johnson, who had earlier brushed aside Dr. King's request for a voting rights act, sent a draft of such a bill to Congress just two weeks after Bloody Sunday, and signed it into law four months later. It was the culminating point of victory for the black insurgency (LBJ Library)
Lyndon B. Johnson, who had earlier brushed aside Dr. King's request for a voting rights act, sent a draft of such a bill to Congress just two weeks after Bloody Sunday, and signed it into law four months later. It was the culminating point of victory for the black insurgency (LBJ Library)
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."

 

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12 Responses to “Why the Civil Rights Movement Was an Insurgency”


  1. 1
    Tony Tramonte says:

    I found this to be a very well thought out and interesting article. Mark Grimsley presented his analysis well.

  2. 2
    JoeDoaks says:

    Civil Rights movement an insurgency? Rubbish.

    That movement was part of “The American Process.” It was one of the many attributes that sets the United States apart from from all the rest of the world.

    Elitist mentality pervades the above article. While well presented and sensibly posited it is flawed from its opening.

    The American Civil War is the only insurrection of note to have occurred in the United States. This included violent strikes, demonstrations of every ilk and sectional difficulties (except for as noted).

  3. 3
    Mark Conrad says:

    Excellent and informative article. Thank you.

    Regarding "The American Civil War is the only insurrection of note to have occurred in the United States," I would say that the Civil War was not an insurrection seeking change or seizure of power. It was instead exactly what the South called it — a seccession, i.e. an attempt to separate.

    As the article says, the Civil Rights movement is difficult to recognize as an insurgency because its use of force was a carefully considered application of non-violent force. A more easily recognizable American insurgency would be the post-Civil War action by the white South to destroy – by violent force – Reconstruction. That successful insurrection, won when the Federal government and national mood lacked the resolve to further enforce Reconstruction, set up the segregation that in turn the Civil Rights movement sought to destroy.

  4. 4
    Barry L. Gan says:

    Professor Mark Grimsley’s article “Why the Civil Rights Movement Was an Insurgency” introduces many readers to facts about the civil rights movement that lie outside popular conceptions, and in doing so he provides a useful service as an historian. But he also pushes the definitions of a few words to their outer limits and beyond, in the process helping to establish a dangerous orientation toward legitimate efforts at political change anywhere.

    Most Americans remain unaware of some of the most interesting aspects of the civil rights movement that Grimsley brings to the fore. Although well-known to scholars in the field, the American public is largely unaware of King’s failure in Albany, Georgia at the hands of an astute and cagey sheriff. They are largely unaware of King’s extra-marital episodes and efforts by the F.B.I. to blackmail King with audio tapes they made of these episodes. And perhaps most importantly, they are unaware of how nonviolent strategy worked.

    However, to suggest that the goals of the civil rights movement constitute an insurgency seriously strains the meaning of the term. Grimsley construes insurgency as an effort “to overthrow the status quo.” This definition would classify voters as insurgents if they vote for anyone but incumbents!

    Even if Grimsley wants to maintain that King was out to overthrow the segregation laws of the South, King did so by appealing to federal law. Civil rights activists did not aim to bring down any government. Rather, sought enforcement of federal law. By the time “Black Power” became a popular rallying cry in 1966 among youth disenchanted with King, the major civil rights laws had already been passed. King had moved on to challenge poverty and war.

    Even Blacks who exercised their Second Amendment rights to carry a gun did so as a means of self-defense, not as a means of bringing down a government.

    Grimsley also calls the Supreme Court lukewarm on civil rights. Against the backdrop of Plessy v. Ferguson, the separate-but-equal doctrine that enabled segregation to flourish, it is difficult to view the Warren Court as lukewarm. Segregationists were hanging Chief Justice Earl Warren in effigy frequently!

    But the most dangerous aspect of Grimsley’s article is the idea that people who seek to change the status quo are insurgents. It’s not a giant step from acceptance of that claim to the notion that police and military force should be used to quell protests, tea parties, or any other guaranteed freedoms that people exercise in challenging the status quo.

    Barry L. Gan
    Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Center for Nonviolence
    St. Bonaventure University

  5. 5
    V. Lymberopoulos says:

    The article has some merit.
    While I would argue that the civil rights movement was the non violent third phase of the revolutionary war, to get rid of the heritage of the empire, the reaction to the movement was indeed a counter insurgency.
    Clear evidence of the continued influence of the empire and their tactics of inciting violence and targetted assassinations.
    The author and many other Americans should ask themselves.
    Who's side are you on?

  6. 6
    Charles Stuart Forstall says:

    What good does it do us to erase the line between protest and insurgency? Calling a primarily non-violent movement an insurgency, rather then a protest is condensing and elitist and clearly carries imperial overtones. The author in his own telling says that, "Insurgencies seek to overthrow the status quo" yet he provides no qualifiers. Who's status quo? The traditional definition would have this "status quo" be the government. Yet by his loose definition the entire republican party can technically be seen as insurgents to the ruling democrats. The author effectively pushes the term "insurgency" to absurdity.

    The author is well aware of his omission of "the government factor" within his terms and he focuses attention on the fact that what was at stake were legislative actions. This is where I would like to bring this thought process to a stop. Insurgencies are outside process, they seek their ends outside of the avenues available to people to their government. A protest is an inside process, though perhaps a bit extreme, it does not seek decision by working against the state. Protests are appeals to the state for action within the existing system. The Civil Rights movement at no time sought to overthrow or depose the government. Insurgencies may exist that do not specifically seek to depose governments but they are always by definition at odds with the ends of the government.

    I felt the author really missed the mark when he defined the segregationist as "counter-insurgents." The whole purpose of a counter-insurgency is to restore order, not just control the narrative. The segregationists were simply another faction within the same system. They appealed to the same government as those in the Civil rights movement. At no point are they responsible for maintaining order within the state. Again if insurgency / counter-insurgency are just control of the narrative then we are at a reduction to absurdity.

    What we have is frighting trend with proponents of the 4GW model. Anything and everything may become a military problem and thus require a military solution, even if it is within our own borders and revolves around the control of information. The author in a rather disingenuous way equates protest, an internal appeal, with insurgency an external process at odds with the parent state. As well his willful ignorance of the role government plays in defining what is an insurgency effectively reduces his use of the term to absurdity.

  7. 7
    Charles Stuart Forstall says:

    What good does it do us to erase the line between protest and insurgency? The author in his own telling says that, "Insurgencies seek to overthrow the status quo" yet he provides no qualifiers. Who's status quo? The traditional definition would have this "status quo" be the government. Yet by his loose definition the entire republican party can technically be seen as insurgents to the ruling democrats. The author effectively pushes the term "insurgency" to absurdity.

    Insurgencies are outside process, they seek their ends outside of the avenues available to people to their government. A protest is an inside process, though perhaps a bit extreme, it does not seek decision by working against the state. Protests are appeals to the state for action within the existing system. The Civil Rights movement at no time sought to overthrow or depose the government. Insurgencies may exist that do not specifically seek to depose governments but they are always by definition at odds with the ends of the government.

    I felt the author really missed the mark when he defined the segregationist as "counter-insurgents." The whole purpose of a counter-insurgency is to restore order, not just control the narrative. The segregationists were simply another faction within the same political system. They appealed to the same government as those in the Civil rights movement. At no point are they responsible for maintaining order within the state.

    The author equates protest, an internal appeal, with insurgency an external process at odds with the parent state. As well the author seems to ignore the role government plays in defining an insurgency is. I felt the author was primarily going for rhetorical impact in his purposeful misnaming of a cherished part of the American political process.

  8. 8

    [...] nature of his movement, I think we fail to consider a simple idea that even the occasional military history magazine can express quite clearly — that maybe King was really leading an [...]

  9. 9
    David Wayne Chase says:

    It is ironic to call the civil rights movement an insurrection in the face of what I learned from the book "The Race Beat" by Gene Roberts and Hank Kilbanoff. From them I got the idea that the segregationists were talking about a second secession. This obviously disastrous course of action was rejected and "Massive Resistance" was chosen instead and secession remained just "Angry Talk". By the definition used above the segregationists could also be said to be involved in an insurrection against the federal government.
    No matter how tepidly or reluctantly; the federal government was obliged to support the Supreme Court in the "Brown vs. Board" decision and the "Massive Resistance" movement amounted to an attempt at nullification by the state governments of constitutional federal power. The segregationists found themselves sandwiched between the federal government moved primarily by the NAACP and the court decisions it won and Dr. Martin Luther King's and SNCC's protest movement.
    An interesting alternate history would be if the south attempted another secession and found itself in a two front war against a nuclear armed federal military super power and a black guerrilla uprising simultaneously.

    David Wayne Chase

  10. 10

    [...] "Why the Civil Rights Movement Was an Insurgency", Mark Grimsley, [...]

  11. 11

    [...] Mark Grimsley explains why the 1960's civil rights movement should properly be considered an insurgency: 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. [...]

  12. 12

    [...] "Why the Civil Rights Movement Was an Insurgency", Mark Grimsley, [...]



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