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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Cover of This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible

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Editor’s note: The African-American civil rights movement is often lauded for its commitment to nonviolence. But it’s not clear that the movement’s aims could have been achieved without the less-often-discussed tradition of armed black self-defense. The history is examined by Charles E. Cobb Jr. in his new book, This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible. It goes on sale June 3. Here is an excerpt.

The late-summer sun was broiling the already sunbaked floodplains of the Mississippi Delta on August 31, 1962, when Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer and seventeen other men and women boarded an old school bus in front of the Williams Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in the little town of Ruleville.

The bus was normally used to haul day laborers to the cotton fields, but today it was headed for the Sunflower County courthouse twenty-six miles away in Indianola. The seat of Sunflower County, Indianola was also the birthplace of the Citizens’ Council—the white-collar, white-supremacist organization of prominent planters, businessmen and politicians who professed to disdain the hooded garb and violence of the Ku Klux Klan.

At the courthouse, Mrs. Hamer and the others intended to register to vote—a radical and dangerous action for black people in Mississippi at the time, especially in this river-washed fertile cotton plantation land of northwest Mississippi known as the Delta. Here, black people formed an overwhelming majority of the population. If they gained voting rights, there was a very real possibility that black power could displace white power in local government. Local whites had proven themselves willing to fight that possibility in every way they could. In the 1950s and ’60s, white-supremacist terror besieged black communities in Mississippi and across the South. Black leaders had been assassinated or driven from the state; new laws were put in place both to maintain black disenfranchisement and to surveil the black community. Ku Klux Klan membership expanded and included policemen and civic leaders.

At the courthouse, the men and women from Ruleville crowded into the circuit clerk’s office and announced their intention. Cecil Campbell, the startled and decidedly hostile clerk, stated that only two of them were allowed in the office at the same time. Everyone except Mrs. Hamer and an older man named Leonard Davis went back outside to wait their turn. Sullen white men, some carrying pistols, milled about outside the courthouse; the group waiting to register stood uneasily on the steps and under the portico. Then, without giving a reason, the circuit clerk suddenly closed his office.

***

Despite the danger Mrs. Hamer and her fellow would-be registrants were facing, my coworkers and I were pleased that they had braved this hostile territory—and that no violence had taken place. I had boarded the bus with the group, and though I had only been in Mississippi for a few weeks, I was already well aware of the dangers of challenging white power in the state. The previous summer, SNCC had begun an intensive voter-registration effort in Southwest Mississippi, and white supremacists had unleashed murderous violence against it.

I was a freshman at Howard University in Washington, D.C. during the campaign in that region of Mississippi, and did not plan to become part of the voter-registration effort in the Delta in the summer of 1962. Instead, I intended to participate in a civil rights workshop for young people organized by CORE in Houston, Texas after finishing my spring semester. CORE had invited me and given me money for a bus ticket because at Howard I had been part of the sit-in movement. 

I boarded a Greyhound bus for Houston, but when I reached Jackson, Mississippi—the state’s capital—I decided to try to meet students there who were sitting in at segregated public facilities. I could have disembarked in any southern city and met student protesters, but Mississippi was so notoriously racist and violent—wholly associated in my mind, and in the minds of many in my generation, with the brutal 1955 murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till—that it was difficult for me to imagine students anywhere in the state being brave enough to sit in. Yet I knew students were doing just that in Jackson. I thought they must have some kind of special courage gene to be protesting in Mississippi. As far as I was concerned, no place in the entire universe was more oppressive and dangerous for a black person. Sit-in protests in the segregated towns and cities of Maryland and Virginia were one thing; sit-in protests in Mississippi were quite another, I thought. So I felt compelled to meet them. I got off the bus and made my way to their headquarters.

But when I told them I was on my way to a civil rights workshop in Texas, Lawrence Guyot, a student at Tougaloo College, rose from his seat and gave me a stern look. He was about to head up into the Delta and become part of SNCC’s beginning efforts there. In 1964, he would become chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. “Civil rights workshop in Texas!” he scoffed. “What’s the point of doing that when you’re standing right here in Mississippi?” Guyot (as we most often called him) was a big, intense guy, and his tone was disdainful, almost bullying, conveying without further words what was at once a challenge and a demand: So you’re down here just to chatter about civil rights, are you? That’s pretty useless. If you’re serious, stay and work with us. Jessie Harris, another of the young Mississippi activists, chimed in: “You’re in the war zone here.”

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