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Waging a Good War: A Military History of the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1968

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Notes From Black Reads

Through the lens of battle strategy, planning and execution, a brilliant military historian provides new perspective on the history of the Civil Rights movement, and its on-the-ground battle plan for social change. Utterly fascinating reading!

#1 New York Times bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas E. Ricks offers a new take on the Civil Rights Movement, stressing its unexpected use of military strategy and its lessons for nonviolent resistance around the world.


In Waging a Good War, the bestselling author Thomas E. Ricks offers a fresh perspective on America's greatest moral revolution—the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s—and its legacy today. While the Movement has become synonymous with Martin Luther King, Jr.'s ethos of nonviolence, Ricks, a Pulitzer Prize–winning war reporter, draws on his deep knowledge of tactics and strategy to advance a surprising but revelatory idea: the greatest victories for Black Americans of the past century were won not by idealism alone, but by paying attention to recruiting, training, discipline, and organization—the hallmarks of any successful military campaign.


An engaging storyteller, Ricks deftly narrates the Movement's triumphs and defeats. He follows King and other key figures from Montgomery to Memphis, demonstrating that Gandhian nonviolence was a philosophy of active, not passive, resistance—involving the bold and sustained confrontation of the Movement's adversaries, both on the ground and in the court of public opinion. While bringing legends such as Fannie Lou Hamer and John Lewis into new focus, Ricks also highlights lesser-known figures who played critical roles in fashioning nonviolence into an effective tool—the activists James Lawson, James Bevel, Diane Nash, and Septima Clark foremost among them. He also offers a new understanding of the Movement's later difficulties as internal disputes and white backlash intensified. Rich with fresh interpretations of familiar events and overlooked aspects of America's civil rights struggle, Waging a Good War is an indispensable addition to the literature of racial justice and social change—and one that offers vital lessons for our own time.

ISBN-13: 9780374605162

Media Type: Hardcover

Publisher: Farrar Straus and Giroux

Publication Date: 10-04-2022

Pages: 448

Product Dimensions: 6.10(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.70(d)

Thomas E. Ricks is the author of multiple bestselling books, including First Principles, The Generals, and Fiasco, which was a #1 New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A member of two Pulitzer Prize–winning teams in his years at The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, he has been called “the dean of military correspondents.” He lives in Maine and Texas.

Table of Contents

Map xi

Preface: A Different Angle on the Civil Rights Movement xiii

Introduction: Stirrings, 1865-1954 3

1 Montgomery, 1955-1956: Besieging a City 11

2 Nashville, 1960: Developing a Nonviolent Cadre 37

3 The Freedom Rides, 1961: A Raid Behind Enemy Lines 67

4 The Albany Movement, 1961-1962: Stymied by an Adaptive Adversary 107

5 Ole Miss, 1962: A Racial Confrontation That Lacked Movement Input 117

6 Early Birmingham, Spring 1963: Putting Children on the Front Lines 133

7 The March on Washington, Mid-1963: Taking the National Stage 171

8 Later Birmingham, Fall 1963: Counter-Escalation Against Children 187

9 Oxford, Ohio, June 1964: SNCC Prepares to Assault a State 201

10 The Battle of Mississippi, July and August 1964: Freedom Summer 219

11 Selma, 1965: Victory-and Factionalization 247

12 Chicago, 1966: A Bridge Too Far 281

13 Memphis, 1968: The Costs of It All 303

Epilogue: The Good War Today 325

Notes 339

Acknowledgments 391

Index 395