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Why the Civil Rights Movement was an Insurgency, and Why it Matters

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Uploaded on Mar 26, 2010

Mark S. Grimsley, Ph.D., Harold K. Johnson Visiting Professor of Military History, U.S. Army War College.
Most Americans fail to appreciate that the Civil Rights movement was about the overthrow of an entrenched political order in each of the Southern states, that the segregationists who controlled this order did not hesitate to employ violence (law enforcement, paramilitary, mob) to preserve it, and that for nearly a century the federal government tacitly or overtly supported the segregationist state governments. That the Civil Rights movement employed nonviolent tactics should fool us no more than it did the segregationists, who correctly saw themselves as being at war. Significant change was never going to occur within the political system: it had to be forced. The aim of the segregationists was to keep the federal government on the sidelines. The aim of the Civil Rights movement was to "capture" the federal government-to get it to apply its weight against the Southern states. As to why it matters: a major reason we were slow to grasp the emergence and extent of the insurgency in Iraq is that it didn't-and doesn't-look like a classic insurgency. In fact, the official Department of Defense definition of insurgency still reflects a Vietnam era understanding of the term. Looking at the Civil Rights movement as an insurgency is useful because it assists in thinking more comprehensively about the phenomenon of insurgency and assists in a more complete-and therefore more useful-definition of the term.

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