Every January on Martin Luther King Day, the media and the politicians take the stage to rewrite the history of the civil rights movement. They try to turn Martin Luther King, Jr. into a harmless saint. They repeat this litany: “Total devotion to the principles of pacifism ended race discrimination in our country. The end.”
It’s all so simple, so sound-bite, so wrong. The truth is revealed in a fascinating new book, This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (Basic Books, 2014).
Writer, teacher and former field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Charles E. Cobb, Jr. recounts the little-told and still-debated history of the role self-defense played in ending the racist Southern police state. Cobb not only interviews many of his former SNCC colleagues but also sharecroppers, small farmers and working-class Black people.
He gives full credit to these regular folks for keeping the SNCC workers alive.
Against a brutal system. Cobb opens with a brief history of Blacks in America from colonial days through WWII. The experience of Black people, first during slavery and then under the United States’ own Jim Crow apartheid system, is a tale of unbelievable violence by the white supremacist power structure.
On the one hand, the knowledge that Blacks were armed could keep the Ku Klux Klan at bay. But if the power structure felt threatened it could and would come down on Black communities with overwhelming force. Cobb details several horrible incidents such as an 1873 massacre in Colfax, La.
The author rightly points out, “Guns and violence are uniquely romanticized in the United States, and they play a leading role in our national creation myth.” The archetype is the lone cowboy in the white hat, fighting evil alone, man to man.
But for Southern Blacks in the 1950s and ’60s, guns were not romantic symbols but practical tools, like hammers or screwdrivers. Country folk were skillful in using rifles for hunting to feed their families, and also for self-defense and community protection. By making it known they had guns at the ready and, in extreme cases, shooting over the heads of marauding Klansmen, many lives were saved.
Some civil rights workers were true pacifists but most learned through their interactions with grass-roots Black Southerners that nonviolence was a tactical question.
Cobb notes with irony that Black leaders were frequently asked by the media about how they intended to prevent potential violence from civil rights demonstrators. But police chiefs, mayors and governors of Southern states were never asked about KKK violence and what those elected officials intended to do to stop it.
This was not just a Southern white bias. President John F. Kennedy and his Attorney General brother Robert, both Northern liberals, refused repeated pleas from civil rights workers for federal protection.
But protection did come, though unofficially, from the very people the young idealists were there to liberate. Cobb writes “People in black communities were willing to do what was necessary to protect fellow blacks who were risking their lives by … actively challenging the status quo; the willingness of some to take armed defensive action enabled the civil rights movement to sustain itself.”
Cobb introduces the reader to heroes like C.O. Chinn, Hartman Turnbow, Annie “Mama Dolly” Raines and Brenda Travis. They and others opened their homes to SNCC youth and sat up at nights watching over them, gun in hand. They had great courage and even greater self-discipline, knowing the razor’s edge on which they walked as self-designated security forces outside church meetings and leaders’ homes.
SNCC field secretary Charles Sherrod recalled:
“[Mama Dolly] had this big shotgun. I tried to talk her out of guarding me but she said, ‘Baby, I brought a lot of these white folks into this world, and I’ll take ’em out of this world if I have to.’ … She would sit in my bedroom window, leg propped up with that big ol’ gun.”
Vital questions. Cobb does not take a stand on whether violence or nonviolence is the answer. Instead, he shows the complexities, layers and forms that resistance takes on — and makes it clear there’s never one easy answer.
The book comes at a time when activists are grappling with deadly police and vigilante attacks on young, unarmed Black men and women. To figure out what form resistance should take, we must look honestly at the hidden history of movements for liberation, especially the Black movement. We’ve got a world to win and lives to save.
Bernadette Logue, a strong proponent of the right to self-defense, can be reached at FSnews@mindspring.com.
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