There is no reason why the civil rights movement in the American South in the middle of the last century had to succeed. Any number of things might have gone wrong. Police clubs and fire hoses may have cowed the protestors. FBI attempts to discredit and demoralize King and his peers might have worked. President Kennedy may not have felt the attacks on the freedom riders to have been a humiliating propaganda defeat in the struggle against Communism. King and his peers may not have been as adroit at making their case in the press, or they might have been tactically inept at organizing demonstrations and squandered vital momentum. The leadership may have grown weary and disintegrated in a haze of infighting and recrimination. The whole business might have sputtered out around 1961 or so, and a de jure police state for blacks across a third of U.S. territory gone lumbering along for another generation, perhaps finally expiring around the same time Nelson Mandela was released from jail, perhaps turning into something much bloodier than it was.
Now that the civil rights movement is receding into sepia-toned history, its players elderly or dead, now that Jim Crow is a memory equal parts horrifying and absurd, and Martin Luther King has replaced Abraham Lincoln as America’s martyr in the war on slavery, the outcome has taken on an inevitability that it never actually had. Some of this is just the past gelling, but some of it is a specific result of the tactics employed by the people who brought it about. The civil rights leadership portrayed their high-risk, highly-contingent project as an inevitability. They were men of God, and God rewards virtue, so in the end they would prevail. It was that simple. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” King was fond of saying. Stirring words, but they become even more stirring when you consider the possibility that he was bluffing.
Today when we try to take the civil rights movement as a model of how to do politics we naturally tend to believe the stories King and his allies told about themselves, and this can lead us both to underestimate their accomplishment and draw the wrong lessons from it. The key to political victory is not merely to be pure of heart, the crucial tactic is not to stage an emotionally stirring protest, or to find a song as good as “We Shall Overcome”. Non-violence is in general not an effective tactic against a police state. (Though every one of us who lives in America should never stop being thankful that in this particular case it worked.) The fact that King was unable to reverse the de facto legacy of slavery outside the south, abolish racism, and end the Vietnam War is not some great mystery in need of solving. It simply means the man did not have magic powers. He came along at a particular moment in history, and history allowed him to play the role he played. Had King not been assassinated he likely would have gone on to become a marginal figure in American politics–someone like Jesse Jackson, beloved but less relevant with each passing year. Though inglorious, this would have been a good outcome. There are worse things to be than a victim of your own success.
The greatest heroes are martyrs. To reach the final pantheon, you have to die before your time. King did, is now a American saint, and even in death does service as a symbol of our better nature. But martyrdom is always tinged with defeat, which is only worthwhile to the extent that it encourages the everyday business of success. In the midst of all the grandeur that still surrounds the civil rights movement, it’s easy to overlook the more prosaic fact that history is written by the winners, and this time the good guys won.