Book Excerpt: The Civil Rights Movement Was Sometimes Armed—and Not Always Nonviolent

In his new book, Charles E. Cobb Jr. examines the history of armed black self-defense and its connection with the civil rights movement.

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I got the message. The Greyhound left without me; I never completed my journey to Texas and instead became a part of SNCC’s effort in the state. When summer ended, I remained in Mississippi as a SNCC field secretary instead of returning to school. I was nineteen years old.

Although it had happened almost a year before I arrived in Mississippi, I was aware of the September 25, 1961, murder of Herbert Lee, a small farmer and NAACP leader in Amite County. Lee had given strong support to SNCC’s efforts in Southwest Mississippi, and his killing—which occurred in broad daylight—was a frightening reminder that death could find you anywhere in the state. It was a lesson I remembered at tense moments, like the one at the Sunflower County courthouse in late August of 1962.

That day, I could feel the tension in the air outside the courthouse. Everywhere in the state, politicians and newspapers were whipping whites into a frenzy over the possibility that in a few weeks James Meredith could become the first black person to enroll in the University of Mississippi. Like school desegregation, voting rights was an explosive issue—the armed white men on the steps of the courthouse were a living testament to that fact.

On the way to Indianola, the fear on the bus had been palpable, but Fannie Lou Hamer had gone a long way toward easing it. She lived a quiet, simple life as a sharecropper and timekeeper on a Sunflower County cotton plantation, and we had neither noticed nor anticipated her strength until she raised her powerful voice in songs of faith and freedom on that bus. Soon her strength and boldness would make her a legendary figure in Mississippi’s freedom movement.

What happened to Mrs. Hamer after this attempt at voter registration is fairly well known. She returned to the plantation where she and her husband, Perry “Pap” Hamer, had lived and worked for eighteen years. Word of her attempt to register had gotten back to the plantation before she did, and William David “W. D.” Marlow, the plantation’s angry owner, was waiting for her. He demanded that she withdraw her application and promise never to make such an attempt again; otherwise, she was to get off his land immediately. Mrs. Hamer’s reply has entered freedom movement lore: “I didn’t go down there to register for you,” she informed Marlow. “I went down there to register for myself.”

Mrs. Hamer’s story has become familiar, but the retaliatory violence that soon descended on Ruleville’s black community is not so well known. On September 10, night riders drove through town shooting into the homes of people associated with the voter-registration effort, including the home where Mrs. Hamer had found refuge after her expulsion from Marlow’s plantation. In another Ruleville home, that of Herman and Hattie Sisson, located in a black section of town called the Sanctified Quarters, two young girls were wounded—the Sissons’ granddaughter, Vivian Hillet, and her friend Marylene Burks, who were visiting before heading off to college. Hillet’s arms and legs were grazed by rifle shots, and Burks was more seriously injured by shots to her head and neck. 

Another of the homes attacked by the night riders was that of an elderly couple, Joe and Rebecca McDonald, neighbors of the Sissons. I was staying with the McDonalds 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 (population 1,100 then), gunshots fired anywhere could be heard everywhere, especially in the still of a Mississippi Delta night.

I immediately raced back to the Quarters and was told that two girls had been wounded, so I rushed to the North Sunflower County Hospital where they were being treated. I began to ask about their condition and sought to find out, from the Sissons and others, 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 had murdered Emmett 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 had just come to town and were walking down a dirt road in Ruleville’s Jerusalem Quarters—named for a church—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!” He was Mayor Dorrough, who sometimes engaged in police patrols. In addition to owning the town’s hardware store and broadcasting agricultural news on the local radio station, he was president of the local Citizens’ Council.

Holding us at gunpoint, Dorrough barked, “You niggers get into this car!” Mac asked why, and the mayor responded, “’Cause this pistol says so!” We got in his car, and he drove us to Ruleville’s city hall, where he acted not only as mayor but also as justice of the peace. He accused us of being New York City communists and “troublemakers,” shouting that we should get out of Ruleville and go back to New York. In the Mississippi of those days, the Civil War and the Cold War were often conflated, and except for those in Russia, China, and Cuba, New York City communists were considered the worst kind of communists in the world. Mac and Landy were native Mississippians; when Mac explained that “we” were all from the state, I was relieved at being included and kept my Washington, D.C., mouth shut.