‘It’s good to think strategically’: Thomas E Ricks on civil rights and January 6

In his new book, the historian considers the work of Martin Luther King and others through the lens of military thought

There is a direct connection from Freedom Summer to the January 6 committee,” says Thomas E Ricks as he discusses his new book, Waging a Good War: A Military History of the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1968.

Freedom Summer was a 1964 campaign to draw attention to violence faced by Black people in Mississippi when they tried to vote. The House January 6 committee will soon conclude its hearings on the Capitol riot of 2021, when supporters of Donald Trump attacked American democracy itself.

But the committee is chaired by Bennie Thompson. In his opening statement, in June, the Democrat said: “I was born, raised, and still live in Bolton, Mississippi … I’m from a part of the country where people justify the actions of slavery, Ku Klux Klan and lynching. I’m reminded of that dark history as I hear voices today try and justify the actions of the insurrectionists of 6 January 2021.”

Ricks is reminded of the insurrectionists as he retells that grim history. Watching the January 6 hearings, he says, he “was looking at Bennie Thompson. And I realised, his career follows right on.

“Summer ’64, you start getting Black people registered in Mississippi. A tiny minority, about 7%, are able to vote in ’64 but it rises to I think 59% by ’68. Bennie Thompson gets elected alderman [of Bolton, in 1969], mayor [1973] and eventually to Congress [1993]. And then as a senior member of Congress, chairs this January 6 committee.

“Well, there is a direct connection from Freedom Summer, and [civil rights leaders] Amzie Moore, Bob Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer and Dave Dennis, to the January 6 committee. And I think that’s a wonderful thing.”

Under Thompson, Ricks says, the January 6 committee is acting strategically, “establishing an indisputable factual record of what happened”, a bulwark against attempts to rewrite history.

“It’s always good to think strategically,” Ricks says. Which brings him back to his book.


As a reporter for the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, Ricks was twice part of teams that won a Pulitzer prize. His bestselling books include Fiasco (2006) and The Gamble (2009), lacerating accounts of the Iraq disaster, and The Generals (2012), on the decline of US military leadership. In Waging a Good War, he applies the precepts of military strategy to the civil rights campaigns.

He says: “This book, I wrote because I had to. I had to get it out of my head. The inspiration was I married a woman who had been active in civil rights.”

Mary Kay Ricks is the author of Escape on the Pearl (2008), about slavery and the Underground Railroad. In the 1960s, she was “president of High School Friends of the SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], Washington DC chapter.

“She would pick people up at Union Station and drive them wherever they needed to be. So her memory of [the late Georgia congressman] John Lewis is him arriving, saying, ‘I’m hungry, take me to McDonald’s.’ All our lives we would be driving along, and somebody would be on the radio, and she’d say, ‘Oh, I knew that guy’ or ‘I dated that guy. Oh, I thought he was crazy.’

“So I was reading about the civil rights movement to understand my wife and the stories she told me. And the more I read, the more it struck me: ‘Wow. This is an area that can really be illuminated by military thinking.’ That a lot of what they were doing was what in military operations is called logistics, or a classic defensive operation, or a holding action, or a raid behind enemy lines. And the more I looked at it, the more I thought each of the major civil rights campaigns could be depicted in that light.”

In 1961, campaigners launched the Freedom Rides, activists riding buses across the south, seeking to draw attention and thereby end illegal segregation onboard and in stations. It was dangerous work, daring and remote. Ricks compares the Freedom Rides to cavalry raids, most strikingly to civil war operations by the Confederate “Gray Ghost”, John Singleton Mosby.

“The Freedom Rides as raids behind enemy lines. What does that mean? Well, it struck me again and again how military-like the civil rights movement was in careful preparation. What is the task at hand? How do we prepare? What sort of people do we need to carry out this mission? What kind of training do they need?

“Before the Freedom Rides they sent a young man, Tom Gaither, on a reconnaissance trip, where he drew maps of each bus station so they would know where the segregated waiting rooms were. He reported back: ‘The two cities where you’re going to have trouble are Anniston, Alabama, and Montgomery, Alabama.’ There are real race tensions in those cities.”

Activists faced horrendous violence. They met it with non-violence.

“They did months of training. First of all, how to capture and prevent the impulse to fight or flee. Somebody slugs you, spits on you, puts out a cigarette on your back. They knew how to react: non-violent.

“But this is a really militant form of non-violence. Gandhi denounced the term passive resistance. And these people, many of them followers of God, devoted readers of Gandhi, understood this was very confrontational.”

State troopers break up a civil rights march in Selma, Alabama on 7 March 1965
State troopers break up a civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, on 7 March 1965. John Lewis, chairman of the SNCC, is seen in the foreground, being beaten. Photograph: unknown/AP

In 1965, Selma, Alabama, was the scene of Bloody Sunday, when white authorities attacked a march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and southern racism stood exposed.

Ricks says: “A line I love comes from Selma. People said, ‘What are we doing when the sheriff comes after us?’ The organisers said, ‘No, you’re going after the sheriff.’ A good example: CT Vivian, one of my heroes, a stalwart of civil rights, is thrown down the steps of the county courthouse at Selma by Jim Clark, the county sheriff. And Vivian looks up and yells, ‘Who are you people? What do you tell your wives and children?’

“It is such a human question. And in this confrontational form of non-violence, I think they flummoxed the existing system, of white supremacism, which the world saw was a system built on violence inherited from slavery.”


Ricks has written about his time in Iraq and post-traumatic stress disorder. At the end of Waging a Good War, he considers how those who campaigned for civil rights, who were beaten, shot and imprisoned, struggled to cope with the toll.

“If you want to understand the full cost, it’s important to write about the effect on the activists and their families, their children. Dave Dennis Jr, the son of one of the people who ran Freedom Summer, he and I have talked about this a bit. We believe the Veterans Administration should be open to veterans of the civil rights movement. There aren’t a lot of veterans still alive. Nonetheless, it would be a meaningful gesture that could help some people who have had a hard time in life.”

In a passage that could fuel a whole book, Ricks considers how Martin Luther King Jr, the greatest civil rights leader, struggled in the years before his assassination, in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968.

Like many PTSD sufferers, King sought refuge in drink and sex. But for Ricks, “the moment that captures it for me is he’s sitting in a rocking chair in Atlanta, with his friend Dorothy Cotton. And he says, ‘I think I should take a sabbatical.’ This is about 1967. This guy had been under daily threat for 13 years. I compare him to [Dwight] Eisenhower and the pressures he was under as a top commander in world war two … yet King does this for well over a decade. The stress was enormous. I only wish he had been able to take that sabbatical.”

The campaign took its toll on others, among them James Bevel, a “tactically innovative, strategically brilliant” activist who abused women and children, moved far right and died in disgrace.

Ricks hopes his book might help make other activists better known, among them Pauli Murray, Diane Nash – a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom – and Fred Shuttlesworth, “a powerful character, a moonshiner turned minister”.

Shuttlesworth lived in Birmingham, Alabama, scene of some of the worst attacks on the civil rights movement, most of all the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in 1963, in which four young girls were killed.

To Ricks, “If there’s a real moment of despair in Martin Luther King’s life, it’s the Birmingham church bombing. He says, ‘At times, life is hard, as hard as crucible steel.’ That was the focal point for how I think about what King went through.”

But there is light in Birmingham too. Ricks recounts the time “the white establishment calls Fred Shuttlesworth up and says, ‘We hear Martin Luther King might be coming to town. What can we do to stop that?’ And he leans back and smiles and says, ‘You know, I’ve been bombed twice in this town. Nobody called me then. But now you want to talk?’

“Shuttlesworth threw himself into things. He believed in non-violence as an occasional tactic, not as a way of life. He sent a carloads of guys carrying shotguns to rescue the Freedom Riders from the KKK in Anniston.

Dr Martin Luther King Jr speaks in Selma in February 1965, after his release from jail, supported by his aides including Rev Fred Shuttlesworth, left.
Dr Martin Luther King Jr speaks in Selma in February 1965, after his release from jail, supported by his aides including the Rev Fred Shuttlesworth, left. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

“Then there’s Amzie Moore. I wish I could have written more about him. He came home from world war two, worked at a federal post office so he would not be under control of local government. He starts his own gas station and refuses to have whites-only bathrooms. ‘Nope, not gonna do it.’ To me, he’s like a member of the French Resistance but he does it for 20 years. When Bob Moses and other civil rights workers go to Mississippi, he’s the guy they look up. ‘How do I survive in Mississippi?’ And he tells them and helps them.”


Waging a Good War also considers how campaigners today might learn from those who went before. Ricks says: “Some of the people in the Black Lives Matter era have reached back. I talked to one person who went to James Lawson, the trainer of the Nashville sit-ins in 1960, and asked, ‘How do you go about this? How do you think about this? What about losses? Instructions?’

“A demonstration is only the end product, the tip of an iceberg. There has to be careful preparation, consideration of, ‘What message are we trying to send? How are we going to send it? How are we going to follow up?’ So James Lawson conveys that message. Similarly, Bob Moses, who recently died, attended a Black Lives Matter meeting. There are roots by which today’s movements reach back down to the movements of the forefathers.”

He also sees echoes in two major strands of activism today.

Stacey Abrams’ work on voting rights is very similar to a lot of the work Martin Luther King did with the SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference]. Fighting voter suppression, finding ways to encourage minorities to register and to vote, looking to expand the franchise.

“Black Lives Matter reminds me of SNCC, if somewhat more radical, more focused not on gaining power through the vote but on abuses of power, especially police brutality.

“It’s sad that the problems the movement tried to address in the 1950s and 60s still need to be addressed. We have moments of despair. Nonetheless, one of things about writing the book was to show people who went through difficult times, and usually found ways to succeed.

“The more I learned, the more I enjoyed it. It was a real contrast. Writing about the Iraq war? It’s hard. This felt good. I was hauled to my writing desk every morning. I loved writing this book.”

  • Waging a Good War: A Military History of the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1968 is published in the US by Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Martin Pengelly in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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