Waging a Good War: A Mostly Unhelpful History of the Civil Rights Movement (full series)
Tortured Thesis | He Is Writing This Because . . .
The Army of One
The Army of One
The clumsy military clichés and analogies in Waging a Good War also caused Ricks to veer into incongruous criticisms of the individuals who waged the good war.
In one example, the federally forced enrollment of James Meredith at Ole Miss in September 1962 is described by Ricks as “a sideshow in the history of the civil rights movement” that “degenerated into what is known in American military parlance as a shitshow.”
Meredith, a military veteran, set out to smash the color barrier at the University of Mississippi and won a U.S. Supreme Court case ordering the school to admit him. When Mississippi’s governor wouldn’t comply, President John F. Kennedy sent U.S. Marshals and ultimately other federal forces to enforce the law. A mob of segregationists showed and started a battle—and got a deadly one in return.
Meredith was admitted and endured a highly acrimonious enrollment under the protection of federal officers.
“The Kennedys, inadvertently, had seen their consciousness raised,” wrote Ricks of the outcome. “After Ole Miss, the president and his brother no longer would attempt to take a neutral stance aimed at finding a balancing point between the two sides.”
So, why did Ricks denigrate the impact of the incident?
Because it wasn’t planned with the military precision at the center of the argument he was straining to make about the success of the civil rights movement.
“What is most striking about the incident at Ole Miss is that none of that sort of careful preparation occurred,” wrote Ricks. “Instead, both sides improvised as they went along, with ugly consequences.”
Meredith was planning his moves but going at it alone. It is impossible to honestly ignore his impact, but he is a big problem for the thesis of the book.
“To a surprising degree, the civil rights movement was uninvolved in this showdown,” wrote Ricks of Ole Miss. “Its leaders saw Meredith as an irascible loner, not a member of any group, and not working in conjunction with them except to seek legal support from the NAACP.”
Additionally, the federal forces sent to integrate Ole Miss were a hastily assembled and insufficiently equipped hodgepodge collection. In his faulty planning, Meredith apparently didn’t ring up JFK and tell him to send in the A-team. Ricks quotes the analysis of a U.S. Marshal at the scene: “We were sent in unprepared, with nowhere near the equipment we should have had.”
The book tallied the casualties: “By the time the sun came up on Monday, more than a hundred of the federal representatives would be injured, and two onlookers—a foreign reporter and a local man—would lie dead.”
In its best places, Waging a Good War is nothing if not an account of the heroic nonviolent stands made by civil rights figures—even in some cases minor children—as they are being violently assaulted and sometimes killed by racists. At Ole Miss, a military veteran brought federal forces into conflict with the violent racists and yet did so without getting innocent civil rights marchers—let alone their children—involved in the consequences.
This followed Meredith’s single-minded and successful effort to get the U.S. Supreme Court to integrate a major southern state university. Afterward, the upshot of his moral courage was a change of heart by the White House regarding which side the Kennedys should take at this pivotal point in American history.
Even in Ricks’s account, James Meredith comes off as a man who unilaterally grabbed major pieces of the federal government and forced them all to do the bidding of the civil rights movement.
In June 1966, once again acting mostly alone, Meredith embarked on a “March Against Fear” from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi. According to the account from Ricks, “a white man from Memphis fired three 16-guage shotgun loads of birdshot at him.”
Martin Luther King Jr. and others joined to pick up the march from the wounded Meredith. When Meredith reemerged from the hospital, he returned to rejoin what Ricks described as “the largest civil rights gathering” in the history of Mississippi.
Generously conceding the obvious, the book provides this personal observation about Meredith, from NAACP official Medgar Evers: “He’s got more guts than any man I know, but he’s the hardest-headed son-of-a-gun I ever met.”
There is no mass planning of a movement in the story of James Meredith, no military precision, little logistics, few instances of coordinated action, almost nothing of what Ricks refers to as a “similarity to military operations.”
The treatment of Meredith isn’t the only instance where Ricks rammed needless judgments into the narrative of Waging a Good War. In two other examples, the NAACP and Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court justice, were repeatedly criticized because their conduct failed to fit the military mold cut out for them by the author.
There is no question that planning, logistics, leadership, and all the rest are critical if a mass social movement—or much of anything else people join to accomplish—is to enjoy sustained success. But huge, consequential, earth-shaking change can and does occur when one—just one—stubborn S.O.B. stands up alone, says “enough!”—and forces the world around them to surrender to their moral courage.
It isn’t surprising that James Meredith was one such person. To take just the legal aspect of his story, a careful reading of the names on many Supreme Court decisions will reveal others like him. It takes a special personality to look at the government and say “no, not me, and not today, I’m taking you to court.”
A better book with a useful premise would have recognized the immensely important power of the individual, alongside that of the masses, and not characterized Meredith as part of a “shitshow,” let alone just a “sideshow.”