I may write a full review of this amazing book when I’m done with it in a few days, or the following may do the trick. But for now I have a strategic question, which I’m sure labor unions and civil-rights organizers have answered many times in the past. At the risk of dramatically oversimplifying, the strength of the civil-rights movement and of labor unions comes from two sources: the power of groups rather than individuals, and attention from the media. Lewis inspiringly explains each of these sources of power throughout Walking with the Wind, but he doesn’t go into much depth, so far as I can tell, on the obvious question: if everyone is aware that these are its sources of power, then the obvious responses are to divide the movement and to cut out the media. So why didn’t this happen?
Specifically, imagine if civil-rights marchers hadn’t been taken off to the same prison, where they could coordinate their responses together, sing songs together, and provide each other moral support. Even imagine if they were taken to the same prison but held in separate cells. Yet time and again, that seems not to have happened: the marchers were kept together, and in their unity they found their strength. The police, at least thus far in the narrative, didn’t seem to realize that disunity was their ultimate weapon. Only one time thus far have they kind-of-sort-of figured it out, namely when the marchers demanded complete racial integration of lunch counters in Nashville, and the authorities countered with, essentially, partial integration. Some of the old guard took the bait, and there was a moment of ideological disunity within the movement. Splitting groups by ideas is useful, and I’m sure it’s part of a long historical tradition of dividing and conquering. What I’m wondering is why the authorities didn’t physically separate the movement.
Part of the answer might be that, in the presence of a modern media environment, such separation is impossible: if you drag protesters off to separate jails, the cameras will be following you the whole way.
Another answer might be that the authorities, along with the rest of white society, just could not — intellectually and emotionally would never be able to — respond to the movement in this sort of strategic, thoughtful, rational way. This answer seems right to me, actually: in its Gandhian way, the movement killed the authorities with love. Look your attacker in the eye while he’s smashing your skull. Try to talk with your assailant so that you can humanize him and, even while every fiber of your being screams out to treat him as the enemy, remember a newborn baby who at one time was innocent. Empathize with him and pity him: it’s not he whom you loathe, but rather the society that turned that innocent child into the monster who’s putting out a cigarette on your neck.
The movement knew the goals it was after and calmly pursued them; the authorities and the segregationists knew only rage. To ask the South to coolly reply to the movement’s unity by disuniting it is to expect calm rationality where none existed and where none could exist. Given time, perhaps the South could have formed a strategy to effectively combat the movement on its own terrain. But as it happened, the movement’s strategy had paid off before the South could stop it.
If I’m reading Lewis right, the movement’s strategy — the Gandhian strategy — explicitly foresaw this outcome. As the book unfolds, I suspect Lewis will tell us that the movement was working great until those untrained in Gandhian methods joined in. When calm is deliberately arrayed against rage, the rage can only increase and consume itself. When the movement understandably grows impatient with the slow pace of change and it starts to be rage against rage, then that is an entirely different battle with a very different end.
I’ve read books before, like Nixonland, that described the movement from a more synoptic historian’s perspective; Walking with the Wind is the first I’ve read from the perspective of a man whose actual head fell under the actual truncheon. It’s gripping and impossibly moving.