Folk Tales, Game Theory and the Civil Rights Movement

This is the text of a speech I am going to give at my next Toastmasters club meeting for the advanced speech manual called Storytelling. It is based on the book Jane Austen and Game Theory by Michael Chwe.

1. Introduction
The civil rights movement in the 1960s was able to prevail and produce the Civil Rights Act of 1964 due in large part to the moral authority of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But the success was also due to some very shrewd strategic thinking about targets to choose for his campaign of non-violent protest.

This legacy of strategic thinking was informed by a source that at first glance might not seem to have anything to do with strategy, and that was the folk tales told by African-American slaves and passed on through generations. Michael Chwe, in his book Jane Austen and Game Theory, argues that both written literature, in the form of the novels of Jane Austen, and the oral tradition, in the form of African-American folk tales, demonstrate a keen understanding of strategic thinking.

2. Game Theory
The science of strategic thinking is called game theory, and it has been developed in the latter half of the 20th century with the tools of mathematics. Think of a game of chess. If you make a move here, then that will influence my decision about where to do my next move. In turn, my next move will influence your decision about where to do your next move. You are I are strategic actors, meaning that we have a choice of certain actions, and we try to develop a strategy that will maximize our benefit, at the same that you are trying to maximize yours. Any kind of interaction, competition or struggle can be put into the framework of strategic decision making or game theory.

It turns out that if a strategic actors understands how the other side thinks, and can predict what that person will do, then that strategic actor has an advantage. However, if the strategic actor does not understand how the other side thinks, or to put it a different way, is clueless, then that strategic actor has a disadvantage. Here’s the key point: If there is a difference in power between one actor and another, the one who is relatively powerless but understands strategic thinking may be able to gain an advantage over the more powerful one if that person is clueless.

Let me tell you a story to illustrate my point called Flossie and the Fox.

3. Flossie and the Fox
Flossie was told by her mother to take a basket of eggs to her grandmother, but to watch out for the fox, who LOVES eggs. But Flossie had never seen a fox before, so she didn’t know what to look out for. Flossie skipped along and she encountered a strange creature who said, “I am a fox, and I want those eggs.”

“I purely don’t believe it … how do I KNOW you’re a fox? Maybe you’re some another animal who’s just saying that so I’ll be scared and give you these eggs. Good day, whatever you are …” and off she went.

“Whatever do they teach children these days? “ said the fox. The fox says, “I’ll prove to you that I’m a fox, then. Look at this thick fur!” Flossie said, “that just means you could be a rabbit—they got’s thick fur!” She went on.

“Okay, I’ve got another proof. I’m a fox—because I’ve got this long pointed nose.” Flossie said, “a rat’s gotta long pointed nose, too. You could be one of them … I ain’t given no eggs to no rat.” She walked further.

“Well, how about my bushy tail, then? How do you explain that?” Fox was satisfied that her had the girl cornered with his logic. “You could be a squirrel, they got bushy tails.”

The fox kept following her, thinking of how he could finally prove to the girl that he was a fox so she would give him some eggs. A cat was running hurried from the other direction, and the fox said, “hey, cat! I need some help here!” The cat looked at the fox chasing after the girl and wondered why the FOX needed help. “This girl doesn’t believe I’m a fox—she doesn’t believe anything I say. You’re a third party, you tell her what I am.”

“Oh, he’s a fox, all right!” Flossie now turned to the cat. “well, how do YOU know that he’s a fox?” “Well, he’s got sharp claws and yellow eyes.” “Well, so do YOU. That just shows that he could be a cat!” The cat said, “hey, there’s a hound coming this way, so I don’t have time to argue—goodbye!”

A hound? Well, it was the hound belonging to Flossie’s grandmother, who smelled the fox and was coming this way to chase him off. As the fox dashed away, he yelled, “well at least the HOUND has a lick of sense. He knows what I am! I’m a fox!”

And Flossie said, “I know.” And she walked unhindered all the way of the way to her grandmother’s house.


4. Game Theory in Story
How does this folk tale reflect strategic thinking? If it were a contest of power, the fox could have overpowered Flossie easily. But rather than focusing on the eggs, she changed the framework and made the contest about the fox’s own identify. She instinctively knew that because he was powerful, he would have a powerful ego, and would do anything to defend it. So she distracted him, and made him play a new game by her rules, and by outfoxing the fox, bought herself just enough time to get to her destination safely.

You may consider this a tale of amusement and entertainment, but the strategic thinking buried in this story and many others like it was a legacy that the African-Americans who told them passed on to future generations so that they could use it when it was needed.

5. Game Theory and the Civil Rights Movement
And in the 1960s, that legacy informed the planners of the civil rights movement, including Dr. Martin Luther King. In 1962, they had tried to mobilize the community in Albany, Georgia, but the chief of police had read Dr. King’s speeches and had researched his tactics and directed his police to use “no violence, no dogs, no show of force” and because he knew of King’s strategies, was able to neutralize them and avoid a confrontation. In January 1963, the activists in the Southern Christian Leadership Council developed a tactical plan to desegregate Birmingham, Alabama. Why did they choose that place as a target? Because of the public safety commissioner, “Bull” Connor, who was the prototypical figure of a white racist law enforcement officer. He was willing to use violent tactics, including police dogs and fire hoses on demonstrators even if they included women and children.

This not only accelerated and built up the momentum of the movement in the South, but gained Dr. King new allies throughout the country as the violence was shown on television in living rooms all across the nation. They chose “Bull” Connor because he was bull-headed, and therefore clueless, acting in such a way that would win his battle, but ultimate help lose the war against civil rights, when the Civil Rights Act was finally passed the following year.

And in the legacy of African-American folk tales, we find today, when Civil Rights again are under attack, a powerful message, that we can use the power of language to confront the language of power and, God willing, prove Dr. King correct who said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”


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