A review of This non-violent stuff’ll get you killed – How Guns made the Civil Rights Movement Possible, by Charles E Cobb, Jr.
Basic Books, New York 2014. ISBN 978-0-465-03310-2
This book, published earlier this year, sets out to correct the one-sided view of the place of ‘non-violence’ in the conventional account of the great US Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The tradition of armed self-defence in Black communities predated the non-violent tactics, the author explains, played an important part in the struggle, and coexisted throughout with the non-violent protests. The title of the book comes from a warning given in 1964 by a Mississippi farmer, Hartman Turnbow, to the most famous practitioner of non-violence, Martin Luther King: “This non-violent stuff ain’t no good. It’ll get ya killed.” *
The book is history at its very best: an account of one of the seminal social and political struggles of the twentieth century, written by a participant, who had himself grappled with these issues as they unfolded. History-writing doesn’t get more immediate, direct and compelling than this.
Charles E Cobb Jr was a volunteer in the voter-registration drives launched by SNCC, the Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee, in 1962. Like many of the young people who led this drive, he was a student at one of the historically Black colleges and universities in the South.
Cobb was doing voter-registration work in the small Mississippi town of Ruleville in August-September 1962. “On September 10 night-riders drove through the town shooting into the homes of people associated with the voter-registration effort…[One of the homes attacked was] that of an elderly couple, Joe and Rebecca McDonald, [where] I was staying, along with two other SNCC workers, Charles “Mac” McLaurin and Landy McNair, but as it happened, none of us was in the McDonalds’ house when the shooting occurred. I was in town, however, and in a tiny place like Ruleville… gunshots fired anywhere could be heard anywhere, especially in the still of a Mississippi delta night.
“I immediately raced back… and was told that two girls had been wounded, so I rushed to North Sunflower County Hospital where they were being treated. I began to ask about their condition and sought to find out…exactly what had happened. Ruleville’s mayor, Charles Dorrough, was also at the hospital, and he ordered me arrested for interfering with the investigation by “asking a lot of silly questions.” Ruleville’s town constable, S.D. Milam, (the brother of one of the men who murdered Emmet Till) put me next to a police dog in the backseat of his car and hauled me off to Ruleville’s jail.
“Mac, Landy and I had first encountered Mayor Dorrough a few weeks earlier. We… were walking down a dirt road…when a car suddenly stopped beside us. A white man jumped out and, waving a pistol announced angrily, “I know you all ain’t from here, and you’re here to cause trouble! I’m here to tell you to get out of town!… Holding us at gunpoint, Dorrough barked, “You niggers get into this car!” Mac asked why, and the mayor responded, “’Cause this pistol says so!”…
…Back at the McDonald home after my release from jail I found that Dorrough had confiscated Joe McDonald’s shotgun, using my arrest as an excuse. Mr Joe, as we called him, worried aloud about what he would do without it. Like most of the Black people in Ruleville and Sunflower County he was poor, and he depended on a garden in the backyard and his gun to put food on his table, especially now that three young guys were part of his household.
“We told Mr Joe that he had a right to his gun, that the US Constitution gave him that right. He asked us if we were certain. Yes, we told him, and we had a history book with a copy of the Constitution in it. I went and got the book and read the Second Amendment out loud. … Mr Joe told me to fold over the page I had just read and took the book from me. A little while later we noticed that Mr Joe was not around and we asked his wife Rebecca where he was. “He went to get his gun,” she told us. “You said it was all right.”
“We were stunned and fearful. One of our constant concerns in the Deep South of those days was that local people would get hurt or even killed for behaviour we had encouraged…. certainly Emmet Till had been murdered for less. And Dorrough was such an inveterate racist that none of us could have imagined that he would easily return the shotgun. But we had misjudged the mayor, Joe McDonald, and the entire culture of guns in the Deep South. For now, as Mr Joe stepped out of his truck, he was triumphantly raising the shotgun above his head.”
(Later, Cobb explains, he heard that when Mayor Dorrough picked the three volunteers up at the side of the road the first time, “People were peeping out of their windows, scared. And after we got back they said, ‘we never expected to see you again. We thought you all was going to be in the river.’ The fact that we were not murdered was a small victory and became part of the conversation.”)
This little story from Cobb’s personal experience becomes a window through which we can examine the wider themes of the book. Far bigger than just the question of guns, it is the story of how the young civil rights fighters were able to link up with an older generation of fighters in the rural Black communities of the South – the largely unknown and unrecognised farmers, small businessmen, housewives, sharecroppers, day labourers and domestic workers, among them a significant number of combat-experienced veterans from World War II – how they were able to win their trust and confidence, and create a social movement powerful enough to overthrow Jim Crow segregation right there in its fortress. But winning their trust required taking into account their very different views on the question of armed self-defence.
To one degree or another, most of the young volunteers like Cobb had been schooled in the tactic of non-violent protest. Non-violence had been a successful tactic in protests aimed at forcing the desegregation of public facilities and transportation; many of the volunteers were veterans of the lunch-counter sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina and elsewhere, and the Freedom Rides across the southern states. Non-violence had been adopted as a basic principle of one of the organisations set up to lead the anti-segregation drive, the Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee.
Most – although not all – of these anti-racist fighters were convinced of the usefulness and necessity of non-violence as a tactic in confronting official segregation and the violence of the racist mobs who enforced it. A few took the idea of non-violence further, elevating it to a moral principle and a way of life.
The voter-registration drive launched by SNCC in the early 1960s took the activists into a world few had experienced. Most were from the southern states, but were from urban rather than rural backgrounds.
Mississippi was the state where the apartheid-like segregation of the Jim Crow system went deepest. Racist vigilante gangs, especially the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens’ Council, were deeply intertwined with the state and local governing bodies and police. Klan violence was common, especially when the racist system was challenged. The racist terror took many forms including lynchings and marauding night riders – where gangs of armed racists in cars drove through the Black neighbourhoods at night, firing into homes. Homes were also hit with arson attacks and bombed; such attacks were carried out with impunity.
The presence of the civil rights fighters in the rural communities of Mississippi where they pressed their voter-registration drive raised the stakes. Klan violence increased, aimed at both the volunteers themselves and those in the community who hosted them. The adherence of the volunteers to the policy of non-violence came under strain, as the self-defence traditions of their local hosts – and their own pressing need to defend themselves against the racist violence – asserted themselves.
In Mississippi, Blacks living under the racist terror had developed means of surviving and defending themselves, and those means made use of weapons. As the young volunteers soon found, on the Black farms and business premises, and in workers’ houses, shotguns and pistols were common, and the occupants had long experience in knowing how and when to use them. Despite the intense Klan terror, a certain relationship of forces had developed where some Blacks – typically seen as ‘crazy’ by the racists – could and did carry and use weapons, and somehow escaped with their lives. One SNCC director explained, “southern white folks didn’t mess with a few intransigent black people who would rather die than lose their dignity. It would be more trouble to control such souls than to leave them alone.”
“Some of these “crazy” black people were women,” Cobb explains. “It was common knowledge in Sunflower County, Mississippi, that Lou Ella Townsend, the mother of famed civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, could be dangerous if pushed too hard. Walking out into the cotton fields to work, Mrs Townsend would put a pan on her head and carry a bucket in each hand. One of them was always covered with a cloth and in that bucket there was always a 9mm Luger pistol….
On [one] occasion, a white man on horseback rode into the fields where Townsend was working. The man spied her young niece Pauline and told Mrs Townsend that he intended to take the girl back home with him, and also that he was going to beat her niece so she would know her place. Mrs Townsend responded, “You don’t have no black children and you’re not going to beat no black children. If you step down off that horse, I’ll go to Hell and back with you before Hell can scorch a feather.” He left, unwilling to tangle with this “crazy” black woman. This plantation predator could not have known that his attempt to lay claim to Mrs Townsend’s niece would trigger a particular anger in her. Of twenty-two brothers and sisters in her family, she and two others were the only children who were not the product of rape by white men.”
It was people like these who often sat up all night on the porch of the house where young civil rights volunteers were sleeping, shotgun in hand. As the voter-registration drive deepened, the bonds between the young organisers and these fighters of the older generation strengthened. Robert Moses, one of the SNCC organisers wrote, “I had become part of something else besides a civil rights organization in Mississippi. Everywhere we went I and other civil rights workers were adopted and nurtured, even protected as though we were family. We were the community’s children, and that closeness rendered moot the label of ‘outside agitator.’ Importantly, as is always true in close families, our young generation was dynamically linked to a rooted older generation who passed on wisdom, encouragement, and concrete aid when possible…”
Cobb gives an overview of the history of racist violence and violent resistance in the history of the US, from slavery, through the Civil War, through the rise and fall of Radical Reconstruction, through the early-twentieth-century nadir, a time of many lynchings. He stresses the unbroken threads of experience passed down the generations. The World Wars accelerated the fight against segregation by giving Blacks combat experience (as well as experience of the wider world where they were treated like human beings), and Black veterans went on to play a key part in the civil rights movement that accelerated after the War.
The book recounts the discussions and the tactical judgements made by the civil rights leaders and activists on the question of non-violence versus armed defence as they came to terms with this situation. There were arguments and disagreements. But above all, Cobb concludes, the distinction between the two forms of struggle was indistinct and fluid. Non-violent resistance and armed self-defence combined and co-existed in the civil rights movement.
The high point of this co-existence came when the informal armed defenders of the non-violent protests gradually coalesced into organised self-defence units which proclaimed publicly their willingness to retaliate to violent attacks by the Klan. One such organisation was the Deacons for Defense and Justice, which was founded in Jonesboro, in northern Louisiana, in 1964. Many of the Deacons were World War II and Korean War veterans.
Cobb’s account of the Deacons’ outreach campaign to organise a chapter in Bogalusa, Washington Parish, Louisiana, gives a sense of the social forces the civil rights movement was up against, and those it was stirring to life.
“Bogalusa differed from Jonesboro in almost every respect… A tough sawmill town, Bogalusa was dominated by the Crown Zellerbach paper mill. It was an ugly, violent place that, like the steel city of Birmingham, Alabama, dubbed itself “Magic City.” It was also one of the South’s staunchest bastions of white supremacy. Author Howell Raines characterized Bogalusa as having “no redeeming touch of grace, beauty or elegance to surprise the eye or rest the spirit.” In the 1960s the city had more Ku Klux Klan members per capita than any city or town in Louisiana. Klansmen held office in city government. Klan headquarters were at the fire station across from city hall. They assaulted and terrorised blacks and any whites who did not share their bigotry. Bogalusa’s sawmill and logging pond separated the black and white communities. The city was, as one local judge put it, “segregated from cradle to coffin…
“Although Bogalusa seemed an unlikely place for the emergence of one of the South’s most militant movements, what appeared to be black submission to white supremacy hid surprising strength. Black farmers owned their own land and were largely self-sufficient. There was a black farmers’ league. In 1950, with NAACP help, blacks had opened up voter-registration rolls, and in 1960, with NAACP help again, they beat back an attempt to purge black voters. The Crown Zellerbach plant was unionized, and workers, black and white alike, belonged to one of two unions: the United Papermakers and Paperworkers Union or the International Pulp, Sulfite, and Paper Union. Both maintained segregated locals, but the all-black locals, though small in membership, were seedbeds for the growth of organizing skills. In 1956, when the Louisiana legislature passed legislation aimed at destroying the NAACP, the Bogalusa Civic and Voters League (BCVL) was formed.
“Local activists began testing compliance with the 1964 Civil Rights Act…. the older BCVL leadership was replaced by a new, younger group of local blacks. A.Z. Young, a World War II veteran and a leader in the segregated union at the paper mill, became president. Robert Hicks, another union leader, became vice president. After the meeting, Hicks invited two CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) workers to spend the night at his home.
“Dinner and sleep should have been the program for the rest of the night. Instead, Bogalusa’s police chief, Claxton Knight, and one of his deputies visited the Hickses’ home. The chief told the Hickses that the Klan was angry that the CORE workers – both of whom were white – were staying in a black home. A Klan mob, he warned, was gathering and intended to attack Hickses’ house unless their two guests were immediately escorted out of town by the police. Mrs Hicks, Valeria “Jackie” Hicks, was adamant however; the CORE workers were going to stay with them. The chief left, refusing to provide protection. “We have better things to do than protect people who aren’t wanted here.”
“Robert Hicks told his daughter Barbara to telephone for help, and soon men with rifles and shotguns began filling the house; the Klan attack never took place….
A few weeks later, there was a second assault on the two CORE workers that left them holed up in a small black-owned cafe as the Klansmen circled the block in their cars. Again, armed defenders arrived and prevented a violent attack. “Both CORE activists were pacifists,” Cobb writes, “but the experience left them uncertain about their own convictions. “Up to that point I embraced non-violence,” one of them, Steve Miller, said later. “[But] at the point [that armed protection came] I guess I said, ‘Oh, I guess I’m not non-violent anymore’. Concealed in the backseat of a car, the two rode back to the Hickses home protected by an armed convoy.
“The defense of the Hicks and their white guests marked the beginning of the Deacons in Bogalusa. These new black voices would attract the attention of like-minded individuals and would strengthen the relationship between Bogalusa’s burgeoning self-defense organization and CORE’s expanding organizing in the state.
“With the Ku Klux Klan as powerful as it was in Bogalusa, the creation of a new chapter of the Deacons fuelled further white-supremacist violence. But there is little doubt that the sight of openly armed black men frightened and confused many whites. The language the Deacons used was terrifying too – deliberately so. “It takes violent blacks to combat these violent whites,” Thomas said. “It takes non-violent whites and non-violent Negroes to sit down and bargain when ever the thing is over – and iron it out. I ain’t going to.”
“On May 23, 1965, Mayor Cutrer announced that all Bogalusa segregation ordinances would be repealed; a remarkable if limited victory. It had been made possible by a movement that combined non-violent struggle and armed self-defense to protect that struggle. The mayor was forced to make a business-sensitive, law-and-order middle ground; he was not renouncing his belief in white supremacy. He was not a changed man. “We must obey the law,” Cutrer told Bogalusa’s white townsfolk, “no matter how bitter the taste.”
* Footnote: Turnbow’s warning was tragically prophetic, of course, but even Reverend King knew the risks, and after the 1956 bombing of his home in Montgomery, took steps to defend himself. “Journalist William Worthy learned as much on his first visit to the King parsonage in Montgomery. Worthy began to sink into an armchair, almost sitting on two pistols. “Bill, wait, wait! Couple of guns on that chair!” warned the non-violent activist Bayard Rustin, who had accompanied Worthy to the King home. “You don’t want to shoot yourself.” When Rustin asked about the weapons, King responded, “Just for self-defense.” They apparently were not the only weapons King kept around the house for such a purpose…”