Monday Jan 30

Winter 2022

BACKSTORY 52.4 - Battlefield Binoculars on Organizing

            If you organize long enough there’s going to be a time, maybe in a staff meeting, maybe in a classroom or lecture hall, maybe after the movie credits have run, maybe talking a neophyte trainee through their first days, maybe when you least expect it, but the one thing for sure is that there will be a time when objections are raised by somebody to some of the language of organizing, not because it’s so militant, but because it’s so military.  Don’t squirm when that happens.  It’s inevitable, and, truth to tell, we’re guilty.  We talk about campaigns, actions, targets all the time.  Strategy and tactics our stock in trade.  We own it.

            A wonderful, if poignant, story I will always remember from my early days, not too many years after I had become a community organizer after having been a welfare rights organizer for a time and before than an anti-war organizer during the Vietnam War, was told by my old friend and colleague, Bill Pastreich.  He was working a class in the mid-70s as a guest of then Professor Michael Lipsky teaching at MIT in Cambridge, and talking about the work of Massachusetts Welfare Rights Organization, when he had worked thee.  In going over the details of one of the “special needs” campaigns, he highlighted in his usual brusque and blunt style a description of the state welfare director and the governor, whom he described as the “targets” of some actions.  A hand shot up at the back of the room in objection from one of the students monitoring the class.  He said his father, Robert Kennedy, had been assassinated, and he was offended by the language.  Talk about being triggered!  Even my old comrade, Bill, stepped back that time, only to tell the story later.

            Organizers at ACORN were so often compared to the “Marines” of organizing, that we came to embrace the charge.  I can remember a colleague from another organization taking a soft shot at ACORN in the Village Voice or somewhere and accusing the organization of not collaborating, even though we were members of numerous coalitions, and at me personally labeling me a secretive “general” operating in the organizing army.  Despite always referring to myself then as a “foot soldier in the peoples’ army,” remember this was the 70s, the charge ran over me like water off a duck’s back.

            All of which had me downloading Waging a Good War: A Military History of the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1968 by Thomas Ricks, as soon as I stumbled on the title.  His argument is straightforward.  Civil rights organizing was nonviolent, but its deployment of strategy and tactics, leadership lessons, and campaigns had many analogies not only to military terminology, but classic military training and history.  As Ricks explained his purpose in the book, “I began to see the movement as a kind of war — that is, a series of campaigns on carefully chosen ground that eventually led to victory, The Siege of Montgomery. The Battle of Birmingham. The March on Washington. The frontal assault at Selma.”  I’m not going to say that Ricks doesn’t sometimes beat this drum too loudly and too long, but he’s got an undeniable case and frequently the facts hold and actually seem right.

            How can anyone argue with the case he makes early in the book that…

Strategy is a misunderstood concept, often confused with tactics, which deal with the subject of how one actually fights. Strategy, by contrast, involves the larger subject of understanding who you are, and next identifying one’s goals, and only then developing an overarching plan for using tactics to achieve those goals. One of the Movement’s great strengths was that its leaders formulated a strategy, then developed tactics that fit their approach, and finally gave to the people who were assigned to execute those tactics the training they needed to do so.

Even as he sometimes goes overboard, he calls balls and strikes as he sees them.  He raises up some organizers for their skills and slaps down some when they stub a toe, making him not just an observer with a point of view but someone who cares about the ends, not just the means.

            Here’s more from the book to give you a better sense of what I’m saying:

  • Talking about the need to pull out of the Albany, Georgia campaign: “A military maxim holds that one should never reinforce failure.”
  • Referencing civil rights organizer, James Lawson: “You have to have a common discipline when you have twenty-five people on a protest,” he said. “A protest cannot be spontaneous. It has to be systematic. There must be planning, strategy.” What Lawson called “a common discipline” is known in the U.S. military as “doctrine.”
  • Highlighting the importance of training and the Freedom Schools, he notes, “In another exercise, students were paired off and told to take long walks in which each would explain to the other the struggle they were engaged in back home. When they reconvened, the one who had been the listener would be asked to summarize the other person’s situation. This session carried multiple lessons—in empathy, in public speaking, in the common nature of their struggle, and in the possibility of there being multiple approaches to problems.” That’s good stuff!

Over the years, I’ve read book shelves full of books on the civil rights movement in order to learn everything I could to improve our organizing, but still Ricks shared information that was new and valuable to me.

  • For all we know about SNCC, who knew: “… SNCC was remarkably good at record-keeping …[especially] in an outfit that lacked resources… it maintained what the military calls a battle log: staffers in the field called in reports to the organization’s headquarters in Atlanta.
  • “Andrew Young once noted that the SCLC’s ideal campaign lasted about ninety days.”
  • Writing about the 381-day long Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, he shares that it “required about $5,000 a month (the equivalent of more than $50,000 today)” to keep going. That’s information that organizers need to know that you don’t find in your standard history of the movement.

Refreshingly, he’s not a liberal and is plainspoken about what he has researched:

  • Despite high praise for Bob Moses, calling him “one of the more interesting field commanders of the civil rights movement”, he writes: “Moses and other organizers also made a fundamental mistake in letting volunteers depart [after Mississippi Freedom Summer] without some kind of general meeting and debriefing akin to the orientation session in Oxford, Ohio, that had kicked off the summer.”
  • Telling a story that Septima Clark as “… an old hand from the Highlander Folk School, where she had worked with Rosa Parks, had found Young a bit bourgeois. She held him back from cutting in line. The people getting off the bus who were arriving for classes haven’t eaten yet, she told him, and you shouldn’t eat until after they do. This episode resonates with anyone familiar with the long-standing practice of the American military that officers should eat only after the troops have been fed.”
  • He’s a huge fan of Martin Luther King, but doesn’t hesitate to say, “But in tactical terms, his greatest shortcoming may have been his profound dislike of being behind bars.”
  • He’s not a fan of James Famer and makes that point with a story about Doris Castle on the Freedom Rides, when Famer was pleading paperwork in Atlanta, and “…Castle listened, stared at him out her bus window, and then said, “Jim. Please.” Farmer, by his own account, was shamed aboard. Yet in his hesitancy, Farmer had committed a third major mistake. At key moments, leaders must lead from the front. He hadn’t.” In an earlier mistake, he had forgotten about his “base.”

Ricks, as I’ve admitted, may not be everyone’s cup of tea.  The way his book applies a military lens to this great movement may seem sacrilegious to some.  Nonetheless winning social change involves struggle and conflict.  It’s not slapdash and a social media call. Building the organizations that can make it happen requires something that requires discipline, planning, persistence, leadership, courage, and a whole lot more if we want to win the “good wars”.  Many might prefer to take the history and stories of the great civil rights movement with a lot more sugar in the sentences.  There’s plenty of praise where it belongs, but, as I’ve shared, there’s plenty to learn from his military perspective.  We already use a lot of the language, whether we like to admit it or not, so we might as well shine as much light on the work as we can if it allows us a better chance at winning, and in that sense, for organizers and activists, this is book is a must.


Wade Rathke is the Chief Organizer of ACORN International, Founder and Chief Organizer of ACORN (1970-2008), and Founder and Chief Organizer of Local 100, United Labor Unions (ULU).