Civil Rights Movement Should Never Be Called Insurgency

Professor Mark Grimsley’s article “Why the Civil Rights Movement Was an Insurgency” (Spring 2010) 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 a 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, King’s failure in Albany, Georgia, where he faced an astute and cagey sheriff, is unfamiliar to most people. They are largely unaware of King’s extramarital affairs and efforts by the FBI to blackmail King with audiotapes it made of these episodes. And perhaps most important, 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, they sought enforcement of federal law. By the time “Black Power” became a popular rallying cry in 1966 among youths 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

Director, Center for Nonviolence

St. Bonaventure University

Why not Rommel?

Why was Erwin Rommel excluded from the list of greatest German military leaders (Ask MHQ, Spring 2010)?

George K. DeHaven

Uniondale, New York

Robert Citino responds

Rommel was a highly skilled tactician, an aggressive battlefield commander, and a wily opponent. I just don’t think he was one of the greatest German generals of all time. His campaigns in North Africa were fascinating, but much of that was high-speed, back-and-forth fighting without a great deal of strategic impact. His tendency to lead from the front, useful perhaps for a regimental or divisional commander, often got him into serious trouble as an army commander.

This view was shared by a majority of the German officer corps, staff and field commanders alike. Gen. Alfred Jodl mocked the campaign as “Rommel’s little shooting expedition.” My take: Deploy Rommel on the Eastern Front and see if he would earn the reputation that he enjoys today.

Two more for the “Top Ten”?

Dr. Citino’s excellent analysis of German military “Top Ten” is hard to argue with, particularly since he includes two of my favorites, Heinz Guderian and Helmuth von Moltke (the Elder). I am curious as to where he would place Col. Max Hoffmann and/or Gen. Erich Ludendorff, the architect and implementer respectively of the great German victory over the Russians at Tannenberg in World War I.

Also, if the question was not limited to the period from the Age of Frederick to 1945, where would he place Arminius (a k a Hermann), for his defeat of the Roman legions under Publius Q. Varus at Teutoburger Wald in AD 9?

Andy Kapfer

Annandale, Virginia

Robert Citino responds

I’d have no problem adding one of the commanders or staff officers involved in the smashing German victory at Tannenberg. But I’d have a hard time adding both Hoffmann and Ludendorff. Both claimed almost exclusive credit for the plan that trapped Russia’s Second Army at Tannenberg, and they both can’t be right! I say give the laurels to Hoffmann.

As to extending the list back to ancient times, “Hermann the German” is a reasonable addition. His triumph over Varus at the Teutoburger Wald was a signal moment of world history. I would point out, however, that it’s unlikely that Arminius would have considered himself German. He was a chieftain of the tribe known as the Cherusci.


“What We Think About When We Think About Waterloo” (Spring 2010) suggests Abel Gance’s 1927 film Napoleon was the “most influential silent-screen account of the battle.” The film only covers Napoleon’s early life, not the battle of Waterloo.

In “Vietnam Through the Lens of Larry Burrows” (Portfolio, Spring 2010) the photo of a resupply at Khe Sanh in 1968 is miscaptioned. The unit receiving the supplies was not a marine unit, but Alpha Battery, 1st Howitzer Battalion, 30th Artillery of the U.S. Army, which was part of the relief force moving toward the besieged base. Editor’s Note: Thanks to John H. Dynes, A Battery’s commander, for setting us straight.


Originally published in the Summer 2010 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here