In America, civil rights pioneer Martin Luther King is commonly imagined as a secular saint whose moral righteousness alone routed the forces of segregation.
While not entirely inaccurate, this simplistic view ignores King’s formidable strategic talents.
Strategy is primarily understood in the military context, but its tenets are not unique to warfare.
King was not a military strategist, but his deft formulation and execution of strategy was key to his political struggle against entrenched forces of segregation and inequality.
Both his monumental successes and tragic setbacks have value to the student of strategy.
Though mostly nonviolent, the civil rights movement shares many similarities with insurgencies.
As military historian Mark Grimsley argued in a March 2009 lecture at the Army Heritage Education Center, civil rights campaigners faced an entrenched political and social order in the South that employed legal obstructionism and violence to protect itself. Clearly, any campaign to overthrow such an order would be a massive undertaking fraught with all kinds of dangers.
King’s actions were informed by the central strategic premise that racial equality was guaranteed by the basic framework of the United States Constitution in theory if not in practice.
Thus, appeals to conscience could galvanize the country behind him. King also correctly identified what Carl von Clausewitz calls the opponent’s center of gravity (a point of connectivity, unity, or purpose from which the opponent comes together) as the dominant political and social structure of the South, built on a holistic system of both informal and formal processes of discrimination.
This center of purpose animated and motivated individuals like the notorious Birmingham, Alabama police official Eugene “Bull” Connor, providing the moral, political, and organizational basis for the continued suppression of African-Americans.
Strategic insights, however, are academic without the creativity—identified by Clausewitz in his idea of military “genius”—and flexibility possessed by all great leaders.
King was a canny political operator who strategically inserted himself into the national debate over the constitutionality of racial consideration in matters of the state and strived to maintain both personal and strategic momentum.
King positioned himself to eventually become the central figure of the movement and maintained calmness in the midst of both external adversity and acrimonious internal movement politicking.
King’s strategy formulation can be analyzed using the military construct of ends, ways, and means.
From his central premise King articulated the desired outcome that the action is designed to produce.
His objective was the dismantling of the both formal and informal political and economic mechanisms that had kept Blacks as second-class citizens throughout American life.
King conceptualized the “ways”–the simultaneous mobilization of demonstrators and a narrower pressure strategy on elites via political negotiations and court challenges.
Finally, the means available were an increasingly politically mobilized Black civil society, the beginnings of the student movement, and segments of the postwar liberal consensus.
To accomplish this, King faced the unenviable task of challenging an entrenched Southern political order and motivating a largely indifferent federal government to act.
Additionally, he needed to organize the Black community while attracting a larger and more diverse coalition of political supporters.
To do so, King changed perceptions by illustrating the advantages of opposition and the structural weaknesses in the otherwise strong networks of segregation.
In order to translate these strategic goals into a method for action King employed what military theory calls operational art, a method of arranging tactical actions together according to a single operational idea.
The operational idea, in turn, accomplishes strategic aims nested in a campaign plan. King and his subordinates stumbled at times in not only choosing the right theater of engagement but also sequencing their gains together.
The actual tactical conduct of marches and demonstrations also proved problematic. King’s tried and true tactic was to use marches to cause a Southern reaction that would trigger media attention and then use the resulting crisis to press for a favorable resolution. By relying on a single tactic, he often opened himself up to the adaptation of his adversaries. But at the time it was the only tactic available to him.
King’s personality and the power of his promises were crucial to recovering from numerous setbacks and errors. King had to juggle the complex organizational dynamics of his own movement in order to further his own policy as a guide to political action.
Strategists formulating political, military, and business strategies often don’t understand that the chaotic and often irrational process of politics is what produces policy. King did net necessarily master these dynamics, but his accomplishments demonstrate that he was successful enough in balancing them.
King’s strategy had some flaws; he was idealistic by nature and this was the reason for his broad and ambitious approach.
By shifting midstream to a more generalized critique of the Vietnam War and class inequalities he sought to significantly expand his strategic end without a consideration of the limited ways and means to achieve them.
King’s strategic disconnect, as well as the growing cleavages in American society that emerged in the late 60s, foiled some of his larger aims and fragmented his coalition. So some might argue that he had failed from a strategic perspective.
However, a more measured reading reveals that many aspects of his initial strategy were a success—the system of discrimination that he fought against was dealt a devastating blow.
Moreover, King’s efforts not only opened a space for Black life in America but also helped normalize the idea of pluralism in American life.
King achieved his aims with the power of words, economic boycotts, peaceful demonstrations, and canny political operating.
His success against overwhelming odds illustrates that strategy is not just a means of winning wars. It is a method for realizing goals and developing human potential.
Adam Elkus is an analyst specializing in foreign policy and security. He is currently Associate Editor at Red Team Journal. His articles have been published in West Point CTC Sentinel, Small Wars Journal, and other publications.
He blogs at Rethinking Security and The Huffington Post. He is currently a contributor to the Center for Threat Awareness’ ThreatsWatch project.
Hakim Hazim is the founder of Relevant Now, a nationally recognized security consultancy and has been published with TheGrio.com, U.S. News & World Report and national security publications.
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