This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed; How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible by Charles E. Cobb Jr. (2016: Durham, Duke University Press)
In this book, Cobb-who was a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; taught at Brown University; and was inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame-writes of how the nonviolent Civil Rights organizations-the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) – dealt with the southern African-American gun culture, where just about every Black family had a rifle or a shotgun, which came in handy for hunting and fighting off Klan assaults, since the local law enforcement also doubled as the Klan, and the federal government was hesitant to defend the activists.
Cobb relates how the nonviolent protests of the fifties and sixties-such as the sit-ins at lunch counters, efforts to register Blacks to vote, the Montgomery Bus Boycott led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Freedom Rides of the early 1960s, campaigns to end discrimination in employment and services-was supplemented by the other tradition of armed self-defense, and, as Cobb says, does not contradict it. the local southern Black people, says Cobb, provided armed protection to the young nonviolent activists engaged in direct action and voter registration.
The tactic of nonviolently confronting institutions of racism had the idea of attacking the systems of racism, not any individuals; but the idea of enduring assault without any self-defense was considered either foolish and cowardly. Cobb writes of what the great scholar WEB DuBois wrote of the Montgomery campaign, “No normal human being of trained intelligence is going to fight the man who will fight back… but suppose they are wild beast or wild men? To yield to the rush of the tiger is death, nothing less.”
As dedicated to nonviolence as were the Civil Rights activists, says Cobb, they had to realize the importance of self-defense for southern Black people in dealing with a racist system that used violence, officially and unofficially, to “keep them in their place.” Armed self-defense by the local people, says Cobb, was how many of the nonviolence activists survived throughout the south during the Civil Rights movement, but it has been neglected in the histories of the movement. Even Doctor King, long associated with nonviolence, kept firearms around his house in Montgomery after a bomb blew up there in 1956.
Cobb points out the distinction between activists who adopted nonviolence as a lifestyle-King, the Reverend James M. Lawson, who mentored the student movement in Nashville, which such young activists as John Lewis, SNCC chairman and now a Congressman from Georgia. There were also those who used nonviolence as a tactic, and did not rule out the legitimacy of armed self-defense. King himself, dedicated to nonviolence as a lifestyle, once said, “The first public expression of disenchantment with nonviolence around the question of self-defense. In a sense this is a false issue, for the right to defend one’s home and one’s person when attacked has been guaranteed through the ages by common law.”
Cobb places the use of guns in the Civil Rights struggle in the larger context of the politics around the movement, such as with the policies of such groups as SNCC, CORE, and the NAACP-how the activists in the field had to go against the groups’ official policies of avoiding using guns-as well as the reluctance of the Kennedy administration, fearful of the US’s image abroad and of offending southern Senators.
This raises important issues-is it really a contradiction to engage in nonviolent protests while carrying firearms to protect yourself? The southern Black people dealt with the reality that they needed these firearms to protect themselves, and the young activists had to accept that. Their opponents, the Klan and the southern police forces, WERE violent, and they ruthlessly used violence to end the Civil Rights movement, and the federal government wasn’t always supporting them. I would agree it would be not a contradiction; the most nonviolent activists have the right to defend themselves.