Mark Grimsley explains why the 1960’s civil rights movement should properly be considered an insurgency:
Labeling that movement an insurgency flies in the face of the common perception of what constitutes an insurgency. Three objections spring to mind. One is superficial, though perhaps understandable in the post-9/11 era: Isn’t it outrageous to call the movement an insurgency? Aren’t insurgencies evil? Such a reaction fails to recognize that the term “insurgency” is value-neutral. Insurgents have also fought for noble causes. The United States itself was the product of an insurgency.
The remaining objections are more substantive. First, the movement was nonviolent, so how could it have been an insurgency? After all, even the official U.S. Department of Defense definition of insurgency assumes “armed conflict” as a basic tactic. Second, it is often thought that the civil rights movement received unstinting support from the U.S. government. Popular films such as Mississippi Burning (1988), whose protagonists are Federal Bureau of Investigation agents hell-bent on defeating the Ku Klux Klan, reinforce this interpretation. If so much pressure on segregationist governments emanated from above, then using the term “insurgency” — a challenge to the existing power structure from below — seems preposterous.
These objections, however, hinge on serious misconceptions about the nature of the civil rights movement, about the stance the federal government took toward civil rights, and above all about the scope of the “insurgency” concept. Once these are cleared away, the notion of the movement as an insurgency becomes more plausible. Ultimately, it becomes inescapable.
Typically, groups excluded from power wage wars of insurgency, and Southern blacks certainly fit that description. Before 1965, few blacks in the Deep South could even vote. Nowhere in the South were they able to influence legislation and law enforcement through the normal political process. The civil rights movement attempted to gain access to political power by coercion. Had it been done with guns, no one would hesitate to think of it as an insurgency.