— Malik Miah
This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed
How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible
By Charles E. Cobb Jr.
Basic Books, 2014, 294 pages, $28 hardcover.
CHARLES COBB’S PROVOCATIVE title poses a serious question: did armed Blacks play an essential role in the southern Freedom Struggle and the victory of the civil rights movement?
Popular narrative says that the tactic of nonviolent direct action defeated Jim Crow segregation. Yet, as Cobb shows in this brilliant book, that tactic though decisive was at the center of a much more complicated reality.
Nonviolent field organizers in the Deep South were often protected by armed farmers and workers. In Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and other states run by white supremacists who used terrorism to impose their domination, guns were not an option but a necessity for African Americans.
The civil rights victory in hindsight seemed inevitable as the colonial revolutions spread across the world after the Second World War. But it wasn’t. Staunch white southern resistance had kept Blacks outside of the Constitution even during the social explosions of labor in the 1930s.
The powerful ruling class regularly told the civil rights leadership to wait and not “push too fast” for change. Many on the socialist left believed it would take a Third American Revolution to overturn legal segregation. To be a civil rights activist in the Deep South was a dangerous occupation. No one could have been certain that in the 1960s Jim Crow would be defeated.
The role of armed Blacks in the South, as Cobb shows, is one that individual whites understood, feared and respected (to a degree). Ironically, the first laws for gun control were aimed at African Americans. That’s why most African Americans view the gun control debate with caution, based on past and present white violence toward unarmed Blacks.
Cobb explains how gun ownership has a unique place in African-Americans history. He explains the historical relationship between the southern Freedom Movement’s use of civil disobedience and mass action, and the reality of guns as a necessity for self-defense.
While Cobb was a participant and organizer in many of the battles in the early 1960s, the book is not a memoir. It includes interviews with participants and is well researched.
Cobb served as a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) field secretary from 1962 to 1967 in the Deep South. Like many of his generation, Cobb was a 19-year-old freshman at Howard University who joined the southern freedom struggle as a volunteer to register Blacks to vote. He went to Mississippi in 1962. (Cobb later became a managing staff writer for National Geographic and a visiting professor in Brown University’s Department of Africana Studies. He is an inductee of the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame.)
In the Introduction, Cobb writes: “The southern Freedom Movement of the 1960s was broad in its objectives and its strategies, which helps explain the seemingly paradoxical coexistence of guns and nonviolence within it. As noted in 1964 by Robert P. ‘Bob’ Moses, director of the Mississippi project of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). ‘It’s not contradictory for a farmer to say he’s nonviolent and also pledge to shoot a marauder’s head off.’
“A story Stokely Carmichael likes to tell was of bringing an elderly woman to vote in Lowndes County, Alabama. ‘She had to be 80 years old and going to vote for the first time in her life…. That ol’ lady came up to us, went into her bag, and produced this enormous, rusty Civil War-looking old pistol. ‘Best you hol’ this for me, son I’ma go cast my vote now.’” (3)
Black and White Views
As with most issues, there is a white view and a Black view of guns. Many whites see guns as a defense of their Second Amendment right to “fight” a tyrannical central government or to protect their families from criminals (generally meaning Blacks or Latinos, or foreign “illegal aliens”). Colonial and U.S. history shows that whites’ dehumanization of slaves and freed Blacks were connected to an extreme fear they felt for the future if African Americans won their freedom.
Yet for African Americans, guns had little to do with a Constitution that excluded them. Guns were a practical necessity — for protection from white supremacists, racial profiling police forces and vigilante terrorists. Without guns, in rural areas especially, African Americans were defenseless.
It was never about guns, or armed communities, as the means to win freedom. As a minority in a predominantly white country, to initiate armed rebellion was seen by most as a losing strategy, unless as part of a broader revolution as occurred in 1861-65. Even those who advocated an independent Black Belt Nation in the 1930s recognized that self determination must be linked to a much bigger popular rebellion.
Nonviolence and Self-Defense
Cobb explains that the 1955-56 bus boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama, the student-led sit-ins that began in 1960, and the Freedom Rides in 1961 showed the power of nonviolent resistance to white supremacist leaders in the South. At the same time that this tactic was key to winning, he explains, most households had guns and armed supporters protected field organizers.
Martin Luther King’s home in Atlanta was protected. It was common knowledge, Cobb says, that King kept “an arsenal” in his house. After his home in Alabama was firebombed in 1956, King applied for a concealed weapon permit. He was turned down because local police loathed granting such permits to African-Americans, who were deemed “unsuitable.”
King never wavered on his belief that mass nonviolence would win — but he also believed in the right of self protection.
“The history of the southern Freedom Movement,” Cobb states, “is rooted in community organizing, an approach to struggle that began long before the mass demonstrations and public protests associated with the 1960s. Enslaved Africans were not marching on auction blocks or conducting sit-ins to secure a seat at the plantation manor dining-room table. Rather, they were organizing surreptitiously, out of sight of white people.
“They planned sabotage, escapes, rebellions, or, most often, the simple ways and means of survival in a new and hostile land. Still, their efforts and those of the movement participants of the 1950s and ’60s exist on the same continuum, and the struggle of Black people and communities during the mid-twentieth century were shaped by the centuries of oppressive history that preceded them.” (13)
White Supremacist Ideology
Cobb also discusses the origins of white supremacist ideology and the indoctrination of whites with racist beliefs. The capitalist economy in the South was based on creating massive wealth for whites by owning slaves. It required an ideology that said Africans were less than human or not human at all, and could not be trusted with guns or freedom.
“For most Americans,” Cobb writes, “the notion of Black people carrying guns conjures fears rather than admiration or nostalgia.” Colonial Virginia “is the most useful starting point for understanding the beginnings of Black rebellion and the accompanying fear of weapons in Black hands — a fear that led to America’s first gun control laws, which were designed to prevent the possession of weapons by Black people.” (28, 29)
An invented concept of “race” in colonial times legitimized the inferior treatment of Blacks. A white person growing up knowing that his/her skin color conferred advantages instinctively understood this. During British rule, indentured servants who were white were treated differently than Black indentures. Whites received lighter sentences than Blacks — double standards that we still live with today.
For the founding fathers, Blacks were seen as inferior and consciously not included in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. “Jefferson,” Cobb writes, “did not consider Black people human beings with the rights of freed men. . . .
“Well aware that slavery was his new nation’s great founding contradiction, Jefferson awkwardly separated the oppression and injustice of slavery from his idealistic American project of freedom and liberty. Africans had been enslaved because they were inferior, he rationalized, but for his entire life he was dogged by fear that they might revolt against their slavery or, if freed, might seek revenge against those who had enslaved them.” (33)
In an 1821 exchange of letters with John Adams, also a former president from Massachusetts, Jefferson expressed his concern: “If slavery were outlawed, he and others worried, freed slaves would have the right to bear arms; given their numbers they might also seek and gain political influence and power, especially in Jefferson’s beloved South. This concern is essential for understanding the roots of white southern resistance to civil rights.” (34)
The infamous Dred Scott (of Missouri) Supreme Court ruling of 1857 explicitly stated that Blacks were never included in the Constitution. A 7–2 decision written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney declared explicitly that the founding fathers did not see Blacks as people and that they were not included in the Declaration of Independence or U.S. Constitution, specifically the Fifth Amendment provision that “No person shall be… deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
Dred Scott was a runaway slave and no master’s property rights could be limited or taken away by a State or federal law, Taney said. The Declaration’s “All men are created equal” did not apply to Blacks: “It is too clear that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration.”
The Chief Justice added that Black men “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
“Separate but Equal” — Not
White terrorism towards slaves, former slaves and free Africans (many of whom were never slaves) persisted up to the 1861-65 Civil War. After the South’s military defeat the opportunity did briefly exist for the end of Black inferiority. Lincoln’s assassination short-circuited that possibility.
A counter-revolution was unleashed to reverse the march toward equality (symbolized by “40 acres and a mule”). The defeated whites in the South regained political power as the federal government retreated. Slavery was dead but the concept and reality of white supremacy lived on.
African Americans in the South saw their struggle as first and foremost to stay alive, and then to fight for political rights (the right to vote). Physical survival included bearing guns; it was never about taking revenge as Jefferson and other whites had feared.
The Black population stands on a history of resistance. Cobb references the historian Herbert Aptheker who “estimated that between 1619 and 1865 more than 250 rebellions by slaves and indentured servants occurred in the United States.” (37)
The counter-revolution was cemented in 1896 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that “separate but equal” segregation was legal. The first wave of Black Migration to the North started then, and accelerated following the First World War. The Second Great Migration began after the Second World War.
While resistance to white terror continued after the defeat of Radical Reconstruction, the rise of White Citizens Councils, the Ku Klux Klan and the legal violence of the southern state governments led to the modern civil rights movement in the early 1900s.
Organizations like the NAACP (1910) and the National Urban League (1911) fought for reforms to improve the status of Blacks. The immediate goals were to stop lynchings in the South and overturn Plessy. The larger objective was to win integration (rejecting those Blacks like Booker T. Washington who accepted the separation of the races).
The main tactic was legal challenges to discrimination. It didn’t matter. The white establishment considered the NAACP in particular as a threat. It was targeted by southern governments as “un-American “and “communist.” To join the NAACP in the South was an act of resistance.
Direct Action Tactic
During WWII resistance to segregation and demands for equality led to the rise of more militant organizations. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), formed in Chicago in 1942, advocated the tactic of nonviolent mass disobedience to press for equality.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was formed in 1957 by leading activists and led by Martin Luther King Jr., the main face of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Its office was located in Atlanta and its first staff person was Ella Baker. The goal was to form an organization to coordinate and support nonviolent direct action to end Jim Crow.
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was formed in 1960 with the assistance of SCLC and Martin Luther King. SNCC provided enthusiastic foot soldiers across the South. John Lewis, now a congressman from Georgia, was the chairman when he gave his famous, partially censored speech at the 1963 March on Washington.
His successor, Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Toure), who joined the Mississippi campaign (after James Meredith was wounded), first declared the need for Black Power. Active in the Freedom Rides and arrested numerous times, he became chairman of SNCC in 1966 and moved the organization in a more militant nationalist direction.
None of these organizations saw themselves in conflict or competition with the more established NAACP or Urban League. (Divisions between what was known as ”the Big Four” civil rights organizations and Black Nationalists, Pan African supporters and socialist currents developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as it became clear that legal equality would not lead to full equality. The civil rights victory had mainly uplifted the rising Black professional class and elected officials, while the Black working class achieved modest gains.)
Other prominent African Americans including trade union leader A. Phillip Randolph and socialist pacifist Bayard Rustin — the central organizer of the 1963 March on Washington — were involved with the movement and its organizations. African Americans won new positions of leadership in the trade unions, including craft unions that had previously allowed segregated locals in the South.
It took multiple formations and direct action tactics to advance the resistance to white terror and supremacist ideology, and more significantly to change longstanding discriminatory policies of institutions in the North.
Guns and Freedom
Cobb quotes Frederick Douglass who said “that gaining genuine freedom in the South would be requiring ‘the ballot-box, the jury-box and the cartridge-box.’ Similarly, the forceful anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells-Barrett wrote in 1892, ‘A Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every Black home.’” (47)
“For their part,” Cobb writes, “Blacks learned that, absent federal support, armed resistance to white-supremacist violence was insufficient, even if it sometimes saved the moment. Moreover, they discerned that any support they received from their own communities was unlikely to be timely, permanent, or even genuine.” (54)
Many activists for voting rights and desegregation of transportation soon learned to appreciate why guns in the hands of southern Blacks were essential for the nonviolent movement to survive and grow. This reality impacted internal discussions in the civil rights organizations.
Cobb highlights the role of military veterans in the fight for freedom. After World War I, returning Black veterans were angry that they could fight for freedom in Europe but had none in Alabama, Louisiana and other southern states.
Freedom and democracy for Blacks had no meaning in the white supremacist south. The two major parties were complicit in denying Blacks equal rights.
After the Second World War, Black veterans again protested the lack of freedom. The military was not integrated until 1948 by an Executive Order banning racial discrimination, after Congress refused to do so.
Black veterans tended not to be highly political or involved as leaders in the civil rights groups. But they understood violence and the use of weapons. Black veterans’ reaction to white terror sent fears into whites in the South. They replied with violence but were careful to avoid direct confrontations with the armed Black communities.
Deacons for Defense and Justice
In general the armed community groups were informally organized. When Freedom Riders and voting rights activists showed up, they initially didn’t like to see men with guns. But as they lived and worked in these communities, they soon came to see their necessity.
There was one organized group that set an example for other communities:
“In Louisiana, gun use was more thoroughly integrated into the civil rights struggle than in most places in the South. This was due in part to the influence of a highly organized armed self-defense group: the Deacons for Defense and Justice. Nowadays, the Deacons barely appear in study and discussion of the southern Freedom Movement, but they were heavily armed and defiantly outspoken about their willingness to shoot back when fired upon.
“They were committed to protecting the nonviolent movement, but their involvement caused some contention in the movement. Some in the movement felt there was a practical rationale for opposing such groups: namely, that they invited swift, brutal, and overwhelming retaliation by all levels of government. Yet CORE’s Louisiana experience seems to refute that assumption, as well as the argument that organized armed self-defense were incompatible with nonviolence; in fact, CORE organizers helped create the Deacons.” (193)
CORE advocated a nonviolent philosophy. But the reality of white terror in the South led its organizers to accommodate armed community groups like the Deacons. This didn’t change CORE’s overall strategy of mass nonviolent civil disobedience.
Even Martin Luther King refused to publically criticize the right of Blacks in the South to carry weapons, or to protect their communities as whites pressed for their disarmament.
SNCC debated the issue of armed self-defense, including what its members should do. SNCC, like CORE and SCLC, advanced the nonviolent civil protest tactics in the South. During the 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi the issue came up when a SNCC staff worker picked up a gun to help defend the family with whom he was staying. (204).
At the time John Lewis was chairman of SNCC. He was committed to peaceful nonviolence as a way of life. In contrast, Bob Moses, head of the campaign, said, “I don’t know if anyone in Mississippi preached to local Negroes that they shouldn’t defend themselves.”
“Across the South,” Cobb writes, “in the summer of 1964 — the year the Jonesboro Deacons formed — groups and individuals were organizing for armed self defense. Many of these groups took shape within the formally nonviolent civil rights movement.” (214)
Monroe NAACP’s Self-Defense
Cobb explains that the Monroe, North Carolina NAACP chapter was nearly dead after most of its middle class base members quit in the face of violence from the Ku Klux Klan. Returning veterans and others led by Robert F. Williams (a Marine veteran) rebuilt the chapter with Williams becoming president. Instead of bowing to the Klan, the NAACP responded with militant community action and self-defense.
Williams and other leaders joined the National Rifle Association (forming a chapter) and promised to use guns to defend Freedom Riders and the community. His book Negroes with Guns (published in 1962) defended Black armed self-defense.
Framed in 1961 for a “kidnapping” of white motorists (whom he was actually protecting in a dangerous situation), Williams fled to Cuba and later China. A self-avowed Black nationalist, Williams was critical of those in the civil rights movement who advocated a pacifist line.
Many veterans stepped up in Monroe, and the Monroe NAACP’s vice president, Dr. Albert Perry, played a critical role in the chapter’s leadership. Cobb emphasizes that the “Black freedom struggle in Monroe is often associated with the leadership of Robert Williams, whose dramatic expulsion from the NAACP and subsequent exile from the United States have overshadowed what should be the main focus of his and Monroe’s story: a strong black community that would not be pushed around by white supremacists.” (see 107-113)
The fight for equality thus occurred on multiple fronts — lawsuits, direct action protests and self-defense by southern communities. It included the civil rights leaders taking the fight to the international arena.
In 1945, the NAACP asked W. E. B. Du Bois to take the case to the newly formed United Nations. Cobb explains that “Du Bois’ specific task was to ensure that the newly formed United Nations understood the connection between freedom for the colonized world and racial equality in the United States. All of this made Jim Crow an inconvenience and embarrassment to Washington in a way it had never been before.” (101)
Some 20 years later Malcolm X intended to go to the UN again over lack of full rights for Blacks. (He was assassinated in 1965.)
The movement’s internal and public debates sharpened as the federal government moved to end legal segregation with the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965).
In 1966 Stokely Carmichael took over SNCC. Carmichael and others in the organization began to push that SNCC be a Black nationalist organization. CORE also began shifting under the nationalist pressures.
The movement was beginning to divide over the battle for legal equality and using that historic gain, as against more militant layers who pressed for full economic freedom. King himself recognized the divisions and pressed his full agenda of equality and economic justice. King took a stand by 1967 against the Vietnam War and planned the 1968 Poor People’s campaign.
Cobb gives no opinion about the current gun debate, the politics of the NRA (National Rifle Association), and what role guns should play in the current battles for economic justice and freedom. At the same time, Cobb articulates a very valuable point that rings true today: “Nonviolence has never been the center of the discussion, neither during the 1960s nor since.” (245)
Cobb’s account of the southern Freedom Movement confirms that valuable observation. The overriding goal was to win equality, for African Americans to be recognized as part of the Constitution and treated as full human beings. It can only be accomplished by a repudiation of the ideology of white supremacy and white racism, and ultimately by reparations for the descendants of the former slaves who built the country.
None of these objectives have yet been accomplished.
The 400-year history of racial domination in the United States shows that the ability (or right) to own guns remains an essential tool to stand up to white terrorists and overt racist ideologues. A proper understanding of self-defense, I firmly believe, is crucial for our future.
A serious analytical work of the African-American southern Freedom Struggle, Cobb’s book is not widely known but deserves a prominent place on everyone’s reading list.
January/February 2015, ATC 174