Some Lessons from the Civil Rights Movement

The Civil Rights Movement was the most successful protest movement in American history.

In less than a decade, the Civil Rights Movement dismantled the almost century old monstrosity known as Jim Crow. Moreover, the Civil Rights Movement changed America’s entire political system by dismantling the racist Democratic infrastructure in the South.

Hence, studying the Civil Rights Movement can show Americans today how to change their country. Today’s America suffers terrible injustices similar to those that motivated the Civil Rights movement. Those injustices include growing poverty, widespread racism, corruption, an increasingly oppressive government, and widening income inequality.

I think somebody could organize a similar movement today. The massive George Floyd protests in 2020 and the resistance to mask mandates show the hunger for change is there. Moreover, there is a group Black Lives Matter which could form the nucleus of such a movement. Unfortunately, the leadership is lacking.

Can there be a New Civil Rights Movement?

However, the challenges a new Civil Rights Movement will face differ from the problems Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and his followers faced.

Unfortunately, histories of the Civil Rights movement usually focus on the high moral character of the participants and ignore the strategies and tactics they used. Such hero worship makes learning from history difficult because it promulgates the myth that Civil Rights leaders were superheros who changed history through their character.

One result of this fairy tale history is to spread the horrible belief that Americans cannot imitate the Civil Rights leaders because Dr. King and his associates were more than human. Hence, nobody can follow their example. In reality, the Civil Rights were people who adopted a successful strategy.

This nonsense reminds me of popular military histories which emphasize battlefield heroics over studies of strategies, weapons, and tactics. Such history can teach character, but it offers no practical lessons.

Thus, we need to study the Civil Rights’ leaders’ tactics and strategies, not their characters. Cloning Martin Luther King Jr. is impossible, but we can imitate King’s strategies and tactics.

Strategic Lessons from the Civil Rights Movement

Some of the most important strategic lessons we can learn from the Civil Rights Movement include:

1. Demonstrate your Power

The successful “battle” of the Civil Rights movement was not Bloody Sunday or any of the sit-ins or boycotts in the South. Instead, it was the 28 August 1963 March on Washington.

King won the Civil Rights War by bringing over 200,000 people to Washington, DC, on that day. By mobilizing an enormous crowd, King was sending America’s leaders a message. The message was that he could bring tens of thousands of people to Washington anytime he wanted.

Hence, King could stage massive demonstrations in Washington at the height of the Cold War. Such demonstrations could embarrass US leaders and destroy their efforts to “promote democracy” and fight Communism abroad.

Moreover, King was promising politicians such as President John F. Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) a nightmare if they did not act on Civil Rights. The nightmare was constant demonstrations that could disrupt national life.

One person who understood King’s message was Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas). When he became President in a few months, LBJ rushed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress. LBJ used all his power and his legislative abilities to overcome some of the most powerful men in Congress to get the Act passed.

If there had been no March on Washington, there would have been no Civil Rights Act of 1964. American political leaders had been promising Civil Rights legislation for generations and failing to act. Southern Democrats in the US Senate could block them. The March on Washington so frightened LBJ that he used every weapon in his arsenal to get the Civil Rights Act passed.

The lesson of the March on Washington is clear. No political movement can succeed without massive demonstrations of its power. Mass protest movements, in particular, must show that they mobilize enormous numbers of people and concentrate those people on the doorsteps of the powerful.

By filling the National Mall with black people, King showed LBJ that the Civil Rights Movement was a force to be reckoned with. King was also sending the message that future gatherings could get violent if Congress did not act.

Sadly, modern white historians usually ignore this obvious history. Instead, they spread the shoddy mythology that LBJ was fulfilling the wishes of the martyred JFK rather than admitting the obvious truth that Johnson was afraid of massive demonstrations. In particular, LBJ wanted no giant marches in the election year of 1964.

Hence, the first action a new Civil Rights Movement needs to take is to organize massive public demonstrations. These demonstrations could include marches on Washington and massive demonstrations at state capitols, where politicians are passing voter suppression laws.

Notably, huge marches by West Virginia teachers forced that state’s Republican legislature to give educators a 5% pay raise and reject state funding for private schools in 2019. The movement was so success full it spread to other states.

I think the teachers’ strikes could be a model of power demonstration for a new Civil Rights Movement. For example, strikes and mass demonstrations could force state legislatures to abandon or reverse voter suppression efforts.

History shows any new Civil Rights or justice movement in America will need massive public demonstrations. Those demonstrations will need to mobilize tens of thousands of people and they will need to be directed at the seats of power. The sight of thousands of people gathered for a cause can force leaders to change.

2. Use the Media

One of Dr. King’s greatest insights was to see the value of a new communications technology: television.

King realized that TV cameras could broadcast the horrendous reality of Jim Crow into every living room in America. Moreover, the same cameras could transmit the horrors of Jim Crow to televisions  all over the world.

For example, the violence on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, 7 March 1965. Television cameras broadcast a vicious attack by Alabama state troopers and others on Civil Rights protesters marching from Selma to Montgomery.

Hence, Southern Racism could become a major threat to America’s Cold War strategy. The US could not promote democracy or criticize the Soviets without looking hypocritical. Soviet crimes were far worse, but there no TV cameras covering them.

King’s understanding of new media realities was vital to the Civil Rights movement’s success. King learned to use television through his study of Gandhi’s campaigns in India. During the 1930s, Gandhi used international coverage and newsreel cameras to discredit British rule through demonstrations such as the Salt March.

Today’s protesters could use social media in similar ways. For example, a modern protester can immediately post video and pictures of police brutality to the web and social media. Remember, it was video of George Floyd’s death that triggered last year’s massive demonstrations.

One important use of social media will be to demonstrate a movement’s power. When the mainstream news media ignores a protest movement. The movement’s members can post videos and pictures of the event to social media.

An important tool today’s demonstrators can use is social media influencers. Influencers are celebrities that enormous numbers of people follow on social media. Major influencers can have larger audiences than cable TV networks in today’s world.

Hence, a protest movement can spread its message without going through the corporate media filters. In particular, they can design protests to go viral.

An interesting strategy is to organize flash protests similar to flash mobs. Send out spontaneous calls to people to come out and protest at a moment’s notice.

For example, if a legislature is about to pass voter suppression laws, send out a message for hundreds or thousands of people to gather at the State Capitol and picket or jeer legislators as they walk to their cars. Similarly, you could identify the leaders of the voter suppression effort and have protesters at their homes or at their children’s school or church.

If politicians know protesters will make their lives miserable. They will think twice about voter suppression.

One victim of Bloody Sunday, was Alabama Governor George Wallace (D), whose presidential ambitions the televised violence destroyed. Today’s politicians are even more averse to negative publicity than Wallace was.

More importantly, today’s protesters are in a far better position than King. King had to pray that networks would cover and broadcast his activities. Today’s protesters can broadcast the “news” themselves through social media.

I think social media platforms will not censure or block protests, particularly left wing protests. That gives every protester a powerful weapon, a TV camera in his or her pocket or purse in the guise of a smartphone.

3. Learn from History

Martin Luther King Jr. stole the Civil Rights movement’s strategy and tactics from Gandhi. Reading about Gandhi’s tactics inspired King to try nonviolence in America.

Notably, King first viewed Gandhi’s methods as a strategy, not a moral lesson, as many historians claim. King copied Gandhi because the Indian’s strategy was successful, not because Gandhi was a superior moral being.

4. Understand Political Realities

One lesson King understood, that many modern observers forget, is that Gandhi was a brilliant strategic thinker with a deep understanding of political realities. Similarly, King himself was a strategic thinker who understood American political realities.

Indeed, King’s understanding of politics and the American scene was better than many professional politicians. King understood that most Americans could embrace Civil Rights and racial equality, even when some supposedly brilliant politicians, such as JFK and George Wallace, did not.

Notably, King was one of the first major figures in America to realize the futility and immorality of the Vietnam War. King opposed the war long before opposition was fashionable.

Hence, protesters will need to understand political realities in the streets and in government. Protest movements without a grasp of political realities will fail.

In conclusion, an understanding of the genuine history and strategies of the Civil Rights movement can help today’s protesters succeed. However, any strategy based on the fantasy version of the Civil Rights movement the mainstream media and politicians promote will fail.