Thinking about the American civil rights movement as a planned military campaign

Thinking about the American civil rights movement as a planned military campaign

I’ve been reading a fine biography of Bayard Rustin, one of the least appreciated of our Civil Rights leaders. (He kept in the background partly because of his old leftist ties and partly because he was promiscuously gay in an era when that was a political problem.)

Rustin, a lifelong pacifist, played a key role in advising Martin Luther King Jr. on the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. He also was the central figure in conceiving and planning the March on Washington in 1963, about which King initially was quite wary.

In both cases, he showed a fine military mind both in developing strategy and also in using tactics consistent with that strategy. When he arrived at King’s house in Montgomery he found guns all around the place. He told King that the firearms were inconsistent with a nonviolent approach, and could lose him the moral high ground.

Rustin also understood the key aspect of the Montgomery bus boycott, recognizing it "the first mass protest that was completely Negro and completely nonviolent." Other actions had been those of courageous individuals challenging segregation in restaurants and schools, but this was something new, an entire community acting as one. As Rustin put it in a Clausewitzian memo to King:

"The center of gravity has shifted from the courts to community action. . . . We must recognize that in this new period that direct action is our most potent political weapon."

In organizing the March on Washington, Rustin also brought a military-like intelligence to logistical planning.

This whole subject would make a fine paper for a smart, imaginative student at a staff or war college.