We can take away many lessons from the transformational achievements of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Its leaders and members improved our country by exercising their constitutional rights to free speech and nonviolent assembly. In doing so, they reminded us that dissent can be hugely patriotic. They led the nation to redefine and expand citizenship, making the country much more of a democracy than it had been when most Black Americans were prevented from voting in a large region of the United States. In doing all this, they provided a lasting example of how to keep in mind America’s vaulting ambitions while addressing its persistent flaws.
Another lesson struck me as I did the research for my new book on how the movement worked: Its leaders were very good at holding meetings. That may seem a mundane point, but it is hardly trivial, because the modern world runs on meetings. Sitting around tables or linking up by Zoom is how a lot of us get things done, or at least try to.
Yet most of us are not very good at meetings, whether in preparing for them, leading them, or participating in them. Too often they end inconclusively, even confusingly. Consequently, they frequently are draining and divisive, when they should be energizing and, if possible, unifying.
By contrast, the leaders and staff members of the civil rights movement prepared well for meetings, took those sessions seriously, and used them to develop action plans they could implement. We know this in part because some groups kept meticulous records. For example, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) — which grew out of the sit-ins of the 1960s, played a key role in the Freedom Rides the following year, and developed a cadre of leaders such as Diane Nash, James Bevel, and John Lewis — was particularly good about keeping precise minutes of its proceedings, including lengthy dissents. In interviews that movement leaders and participants gave in subsequent years, they liked to talk about training and preparation, even if their interlocutors weren’t particularly interested in those subjects. And, oddly enough, the FBI’s fierce campaign against Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whom the agency treated as a public enemy, resulted in transcripts of some of his conversations that also shed light on how he developed strategy with others.
SNCC’s meetings would go on for hours, and sometimes for several days. Dissents were thoroughly aired and examined. The participants strived not for a majority view but for some kind of consensus about the way forward.
Movement leaders used the meetings to explore their differences in agonizing detail. They did this because it was a movement maxim that if you were asking people to put their lives on the line — and they were — then it was essential to hear out their concerns. “When you’re really honest with yourself, and honest with other people,” Diane Nash later said, “you give yourself and them the opportunity to solve problems, using reality, instead of lack of reality. That makes problem solving much more efficient.”
The point of departure for the movement’s meetings was a strong sense of strategy. The US military teaches at its war colleges that strategy is a matter of weighing ways, means, and ends. I think that formula fails to address the most basic question that should be the beginning of strategy: Who are we, and what are we trying to do? Once you define yourself, the path to strategy becomes clearer, and from that should flow tactics that enable you to achieve your goals.
Nash, a brilliant strategist, stated that she and her comrades defined themselves as people who would rather die than continue to tolerate segregation. “What we did in the South,” she explained, “was change ourselves from people who could be segregated into people who could no longer be segregated. The attitude became ‘Well, kill us if that’s what you’re going to do, but you cannot segregate us any longer.’”
Once you have your strategy in mind, you can use basic principles as directional signs. For example, one precept of the movement was to never let an attack go unanswered. In 1961, activists staged the Freedom Rides, riding interstate buses to demand that the South comply with federal anti-segregation rules. But after two ferocious attacks by members of the Ku Klux Klan in two cities in Alabama — Anniston and Birmingham — some of the leaders of the Freedom Rides wanted to end them. Nash and the other students from Nashville refused, saying that to surrender would only encourage more attacks. They prevailed and the Rides continued, capturing national attention and pushing the new Kennedy administration to be more engaged in the issue of civil rights for Black Americans.
The movement’s meetings led to concrete outcomes: marches, demonstrations, boycotts, and other forms of protest. These physical manifestations were designed to send messages. Many of the movement’s leaders were ministers, and in sending people into the streets they were consciously making the word flesh. The classic example of this is the high school students demonstrating against segregation in Birmingham who carried toothbrushes when they marched, signifying their willingness to be jailed if necessary.
The final strategic step after each campaign was to sit down and assess what happened and what mistakes had been made, and to figure out what the next step was.
Brutal honesty sometimes made meetings passionate. Andrew Young recalled once leaping over a table to grab another senior staff member who was yelling at him in a meeting, and another time having to physically restrain the volatile Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth from slugging King at a discussion during the long and intense campaign in Birmingham, Ala., in the spring of 1963.
Freedom was a constant struggle. In the end, those endless hours of meetings led to changes that made this country better, and we all should be grateful for it.
You can apply their approaches. In any meeting, whether in person or virtual, you and your organization — company, school, nonprofit group, even bird-watching club — have to first develop a solid idea of who you are and what you are trying to do. If done right, honest discussion will lead to a clear understanding of what tasks need to be done to achieve your goal. Then you can consider what kind of people you need to carry out those tasks, and you can plan what training and support they need. But as the leaders of the civil rights movement knew, this all must be done with rigorous honesty, and it cannot be a misleading effort to simply get people to agree to what already has been decided elsewhere.
Thomas E. Ricks, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former correspondent for The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, is the author of eight books, most recently “Waging a Good War: A Military History of the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1968.”