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.

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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.

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***

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. 

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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.”

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Mayor Dorrough seemed to be from another planet, and he certainly ran Ruleville as his own fiefdom. On one occasion SNCC workers were picked up for violating the town’s curfew, enforced only on blacks if enforced at all. One of the SNCC workers told the mayor that the Supreme Court had ruled curfews for adults unconstitutional.

His response sums up what Mississippi was like at the time: “That law ain’t got here yet.”

Now, in the wake of the shootings in the Quarters, and on the basis of what could be called Ruleville law, Dorrough came up with another reason for arresting me at the hospital. He claimed that the shooting that had wounded Hillet and Burks was a “prefabricated incident” designed by Bob Moses (SNCC’s Mississippi project director), McLaurin, Landy and myself to generate publicity for a failing political effort in the state. “We think they did it themselves,” he told a local reporter, claiming that a “reliable source” had informed him that a civil rights worker had purchased shotgun shells a few days earlier. This accusation and my arrest were so ridiculous that even Dorrough could not hold me for long, and I was released the next morning.

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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 U.S. 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 then read the Second Amendment out loud. “You see,” Mac told Mr. Joe for emphasis, “that’s where it says so right in the United States Constitution.”

Mr. Joe told me to fold over the page I had just read and then 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.”

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We were stunned and fearful. One of our constant concerns in the violent Deep South of those days was that local people would get hurt or even killed for behavior we had encouraged. Herbert Lee’s murder leaped into my mind; Mr. Joe going to get his gun raised the terrible possibility that he would be killed too.

We were about to run after Mr. Joe when we heard the familiar rattle of his old truck pulling up. He was back from city hall. We rushed outside. “What happened?” we asked. Mr. Joe said he had leaned into the doorway of city hall and simply told Dorrough, “I come to get my gun.” The mayor replied that he didn’t have a right to his gun, but Mr. Joe held up the history book he had taken from us, opened it to the page he had asked me to fold over, and told the mayor, “This book says I do!”

It was exactly the sort of action that could get a black man hurt, jailed or killed in the Delta or anywhere in Mississippi; certainly Emmett 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.

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Excerpted with permission from This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible, by Charles E. Cobb Jr. Available from Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2014. 

Charles E. Cobb Jr. is a visiting professor at Brown University and a senior writer for AllAfrica. From 1962 to 1967 he served as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Mississippi. He is the author of several books, including On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail.