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‘This nonviolence stuff’ll get you killed’

An African-American activist-turned-academic looks back on the history of armed self-defence in the US civil rights movement

ImageIn his recent book on the US civil rights movement, This Nonviolence Stuff’ll Get You Killed, Charles Cobb argues that ‘although nonviolence was crucial to the gains made by the freedom struggle of the 1950s and ’60s, those gains could not have been achieved without the complementary – and underappreciated – practice of armed self-defence’. Indeed, the willingness to use deadly force, Cobb asserts, ‘ensured the survival not only of countless brave men and women but also of the freedom struggle itself’.

A former field secretary with the cutting-edge civil rights group the Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC), Cobb draws on his own and other participants’ first-hand experiences as well as a wealth of recent scholarship.

Those raised on an image of a pristine nonviolent movement, epitomised by Rosa Parks, the Freedom Riders and Martin Luther King, may be surprised to learn about the extent to which armed self-defence played a role.

Thus, civil rights martyr Medgar Evers ‘customarily traveled around Mississippi armed, with a rifle in the trunk of his car and a pistol beside him on the front seat’. Mississippi icon Fannie Lou Hamer kept a shotgun in every corner of her bedroom and vowed that ‘the first cracker even looks like he wants to throw some dynamite won’t write his mama again’. By the time of the famous 1964 Mississippi ‘Freedom Summer’, many SNCC workers in the Deep South were carrying firearms at least some of the time. Even King, in the midst of the Montgomery Bus Boycott (and prior to his conversion to nonviolence), possessed ‘an arsenal’.

Nor was it just a question of individual self-defence: armed self-defence groups were also formed. The best-known were the Monroe chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), led by Robert F Williams; and the Deacons for Defence, which allegedly grew in size until it had some 55 chapters across the South.

Despite real tensions, armed self-defence and nonviolence were often intertwined and viewed as two facets of a single struggle rather than as separate opposed camps.

For example, it was a white activist from the explicitly nonviolent Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) who played a key role in the coalescing of the Deacons as a formal organisation in Louisiana. In 1959, the nonviolent King noted that: ‘When the Negro uses force in self-defence, he does not forfeit support – he may even win it, by the courage and self-respect it reflects’, and Rosa Parks gave the eulogy at Williams’ 1996 funeral.

Nonviolence – ‘the movement legacy most worth looking at’

Image
Theodore Jemison (right) used armed bodyguards during his leadership
of an 8-day bus boycott in Baton Rouge in 1953.
Photo: Tawanda Boatner Green/wikicommons

Despite its title, advocates of political violence and armed guerrilla struggle will find little to comfort them in Charles Cobb’s book.

Indeed, in the book’s opening pages, Cobb explicitly states: ‘This is not a book about black guerrilla warfare, retaliatory violence, or “revolutionary” armed struggle in the South, and I make no attempt to argue that such actions were either necessary or possible. In fact, I consider these notions political fantasy’.

Later, Cobb writes of his hope that the book will help to push forward ‘discussion of both the philosophy and the practicalities of nonviolence, particularly as it pertains to black history and struggle’.

In the epilogue he suggests that ‘notwithstanding the vital role of guns and self-defence in the civil rights movement, in today’s violently tumultuous world, nonviolence may be the movement legacy most worth looking at again’:

‘What amounts to abandonment or walking away from nonviolence’s demonstrable history of success is especially noticeable in the many beleaguered inner-city neighbourhoods blighted by unprecedented levels of violence – especially gun violence.... if there is any place where voices committed to nonviolence need to be continually raised, surely it is in the poorest black and minority communities, where violence and the values surrounding violence – most disturbingly retaliation – are a routine part of everyday life.’

Among the positive contemporary examples that he cites are Los Barrios Unidos (who work with street gangs in western states), the Dream Defenders (who in the summer of 2013 sat in at the Florida governor’s office for 31 days, in the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin) and the Moral Mondays demonstrations that have used civil disobedience to resist attacks on voter registration, Medicaid and social programs in North Carolina.

Plainly, activists continue to wrestle with the issues of nonviolence and self-defence. Packed full of fascinating stories and insightful reflection, Cobb’s book is a valuable case study that helps us to understand – and learn from – this classic struggle in its full complexity.

In the following extract, Cobb recounts some of the challenges faced by activists organising in the Deep South in the mid-’60s.

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Extract from Charles E Cobb Jr, This Nonviolence Stuff’ll Get You Killed (Basic Books, 2014).

Virtually all the SNCC projects across the Deep South were wrestling with the tension between nonviolence and self-defence, trying to find the balance that would best suit the communities where they were working.

Don Harris, who directed a SNCC project in and around Americus, Georgia, told the June 1964 SNCC staff meeting in Atlanta that there had been six shootings in 18 months in his area and that locals were resistant to the idea of not firing back at terrorists. ‘At a mass meeting two nights after the last shooting we talked about nonviolence,’ Harris told the meeting, ‘but the people walked out angry and frustrated.’

Later, in discussion among themselves, staff members in Americus questioned ‘what right they had to stop the local people from whatever they wanted to do.’ SNCC activist Charles Sherrod would later attest that his Southwest Georgia project had ‘many discussions’ about weapons. His project was headquartered in Albany, the major city in the region, and any volunteer or staff person planning to work with SNCC arrived there first and was oriented:‘My instructions were that nobody was to have guns, or buy guns, or take guns into the community, but also to withhold our judgment on the local people who did have guns because everybody in Albany had guns. The counties were just as bad. You couldn’t look into a room without seeing a gun either on the mantelpiece, above the mantelpiece, or in a corner somewhere. We didn’t come to change their local culture.’

Nonviolence was an abstract and sometimes impractical idea to many, perhaps most, people in the rural South, where antiblack terrorism was often protected by local law enforcement and treated as customary by many whites.

The alternative to self-defence could be a brutal death. In 1965, Hosie Miller, the father of Charles Sherrod’s wife Shirley Miller Sherrod, was murdered by a white man in Baker County, Georgia (‘bad Baker,’ as the county was nicknamed), gunned down on his own land following a dispute over some cows.

Not long after her father’s killing, Shirley, then 17 years old, and a handful of other young people desegregated the local high school; the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in the Millers’ farmhouse yard in retaliation. More than a dozen klansmen were there, and the cross burned brightly enough to reveal the faces of several of the night riders. Shirley’s mother stood on the porch with a pistol and shouted out, ‘I know who you are!’ as Shirley and her sisters telephoned neighbours. Armed black farmers quickly showed up and surrounded the klansmen. The night riders were allowed to flee, but only after they had pleaded for the life of one of their number, who was in the rifle sights of an angry young black man. Some of the Millers’ defenders might have considered their actions nonviolent, because no shots were fired in response to the Klan raiders.

Although Charles Sherrod retained his commitment to nonviolence even as he immersed himself in Southwest Georgia, most who emerged from nonviolent protests and began working as community organisers did not press the idea in southern black communities. Many organisers saw nonviolence as a tactic and did not think it necessary to raise the issue unless it was tactically necessary – for example, in bringing people to courthouses to register to vote or for a protest march. Many movement activists agree that there was a racial element threaded into attitudes toward nonviolence: white volunteers seemed to be in favour of it; black activists seemed to be sceptical of it. This of course is not absolute; there were strong black proponents of nonviolence – Charles Sherrod, for example – and there were also whites who considered self-defence valid and necessary.

Respecting community life

Living and working in southern black communities had a profound effect on organisers. Respect for community life was at the heart of their project and affected their attitudes toward armed self-defence. Organisers who were taken into a community felt an obligation to abide by local values, especially if those values were contributing to the protection of the organisers.

Sam Block’s sister Margaret understood this when she was organising in Tallahatchie County in January 1964. She stayed with 86-year-old Janie Brewer, the matriarch of a large black family who lived with some of her children and grandchildren on the family farm about four or five miles outside the tiny village of Glendora. ‘Mrs Brewer asked me what did SNCC mean,’ Block would later recall, ‘and I told her the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And she stopped me. [She said] “you said nonviolent. If somebody come at you, you ain’t gonna do nothing.” ... She pulled up a big ole rifle.... She kept a big rifle behind the chair.... [Mrs Brewer said:] “Shit, we ain’t nonviolent.”’ Ideas like this shaped Block’s own feelings about nonviolence. ‘Since I was living with [the Brewers],’ she later explained, ‘I had to be what the family was.’

The experience of fieldwork changed organisers’ actions as well as their attitudes. One night in August 1964, after four of Mrs Brewer’s sons and another local resident tried to register to vote at the county courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi, whites in cars began circling the family’s farmhouse. This was not the flrst time such harassment had occurred; when SNCC staff took local people to attempt to register to vote, whites often followed the groups back home. On this night Janie Brewer had already been warned by her local sources of a possible attack, and she instructed her children, grandchildren, and SNCC guests to arm themselves and hide in the cotton fields. Meanwhile she and Margaret Block began making Molotov cocktails in the kitchen, ‘spilling gas everywhere,’ Block remembered. ‘And I’m like “Damn if we get burned up in here, everyone was going to swear the klan did it [and] it’s going to be Mrs. Brewer blowing us up.”

As the sheriff and a ‘truckload’ of klansmen approached the farmhouse, Brewer family members and some of the SNCC workers were still in the fields with rifles and shotguns. Before the raiders reached the house, someone shone a floodlight on them. Others fired into the air. Brewer stood on the front porch ready to hurl a Molotov cocktail. Everyone, including the sheriff, fled. Night riders never returned to the Brewer farm.

SNCC and CORE field secretaries almost never had to ask for protection, and when protection was needed, their defenders often received signals that the field secretaries did not even know were being transmitted.

‘Red, don’t shoot him!’

Bernard Lafayette was one of those in SNCC most committed to nonviolence. In Selma in 1963, he was saved from possible assassination by a neighbour and Korean War veteran whose name he remembers as ‘Red’.

“When I saw Red had a rifle I shouted out, “Red, don’t shoot him!”’ he recalled. ‘Then I placed my body between Red and the big burly white man who had been beating me.’”

Red fired a rifle and drove away two white men who had been assaulting Lafayette in front of his home with their fists and a pistol. Lafayette was understandably relieved, but even in the moment he attempted to reconcile his commitment to nonviolence with the gunfire that saved him.

‘When I saw Red had a rifle I shouted out, “Red, don’t shoot him!”’ he recalled. ‘Then I placed my body between Red and the big burly white man who had been beating me.’

Lafayette’s attackers were not killed, or even wounded, and they fled. ‘I stopped Red, that’s the point. My position was practical and moral. I didn’t want to be involved or participate in somebody getting killed.’ Afterward, ‘Red kind of assigned himself as my bodyguard because there were four units in the house. Red lived in one of them and if somebody threw a bomb he was gonna get killed too.’

Organisers recognised that armed protection was an intrinsic part of life in black communities and accepted it as natural and necessary.

Bloody Lowndes

One of the places where guns were thoroughly integrated into movement life was Lowndes County, Alabama, a place so notoriously violent that it was known as ‘Bloody Lowndes’.

Image
Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Touré, 1967
Photo: Michigan State University

When SNCC organisers led by Stokely Carmichael began working there in 1965, just one black person was registered to vote – this despite the fact that the population of Lowndes was 80 percent black. The organisers arrived shortly after the Selma-to-Montgomery march, and almost immediately terrorists began targeting the black community.

In August, students decided to picket stores at the county seat, an action unusual in such a rural area. Accompanying them was a young white Episcopal minister from New Hampshire, Jonathan Daniels, who had first come to Alabama for the Selma-to-Montgomery march and had stayed as a volunteer in Lowndes County. The group was arrested, and released a few days later.

Then Daniels and others of the group entered a white-owned store frequented by blacks to buy some soft drinks.

A deputy sheriff holding a shotgun ordered them out. Then, suddenly, he opened fire, killing Daniels and wounding a Catholic priest, father Richard Morrisroe.

According to Ruby Sales, a Tuskegee student, ‘Things happened so fast.... There was a shotgun blast and then another shotgun blast, and I heard Father Morrisroe moaning for water. And I thought to myself, This is what dead is. I’m dead.’

As the violence grew, black people fortified their homes and began to organise protection.Bessie McMeans of Fort Deposit in Lowndes County placed a mattress in her living room and stacked a dozen or so guns on it. People kept shotguns behind their bedroom doors; they oiled their old pistols and placed them on nightstands.

Local people carried weapons while canvassing for potential voter registrants. They also organised armed caravans to and from mass meetings.

Gun shops stopped selling bullets to black people, but family members and friends who were part of a ‘Lowndes diaspora’ in Detroit and other places outside the state helped smuggle guns and ammunition into the county.

The daughter of one local leader who taught school in Georgia began purchasing large quantities of ammunition and some weapons, which she brought home whenever she visited.

The important lesson here is that SNCC staff did not have to organise self-defence in Lowndes. Nor did they automatically reject the idea of grabbing a weapon if necessary to help protect a household under fire from terrorists.

RL Strickland, a farmer, told Stokely Carmichael, ‘Wal, in this county, if you turn the other cheek... these here peckerwoods’ll hand you back half of what you sitting on.’ Men like Strickland sat on their porches with guns, ‘and Stokely wasn’t inside the house being protected by them,’ says Ivanhoe Donaldson. ‘He was right there with them.’

 Related article: The dangers of armed self-defence.

Charles E Cobb Jr, This Nonviolence Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (Basic Books, 2014, 294pp, $27.99).

Gabriel Carlyle is the PN reviews editor.