Charles E. Cobb Jr. This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible. New York: Basic Books, 2014. 320 pp. $27.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-465-03310-2.
Reviewed by Michael Lasher
Published on H-Socialisms (October, 2014)
Commissioned by Gary Roth
Nonviolence, Guns, and the Civil Rights Movement
Charles E. Cobb Jr., former field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), has advanced the dialogue concerning the southern civil rights movement in the 1960s. Yet his This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible does its best to hide the kernels of analysis and historical detail that illuminate the book’s interesting argument that the presence of guns in the hands of local civil rights workers and citizens allowed the national civil rights movement to advance its strategy of nonviolence in the South. Poorly written and even more poorly edited, with each chapter jumping from decade to decade for no apparent reason, Cobb’s few gems do not come until 150 pages into the 237-page book, with the best content and analysis at the very end. The historical first four chapters, stretching back to colonial times, do little to support, and in fact undermine, Cobb’s thesis. It is not until he begins to describe his own work in the field in a particular time and place that clarification and support for his argument arises. Indeed, the book would have been more colorful, illustrative, and cohesive if it had been solely a memoir without any attempt at scholarly analysis.
A rigorous historical analysis of the interplay between armed self-resistance and nonviolence in the U.S. civil rights movement should encompass local, organic armed self-defense activists based in places other than the South. A more rigorous and extensive treatment in keeping with the promise of the book’s subtitle would have assessed whether, within the national theater of the civil rights movement, armed self-defense organizations like the Nation of Islam supported or undermined Cobb’s thesis that armed self-defense allowed nonviolence to be effective as a strategy. Specifically, a thorough analysis would have posited, as a contrast class to Cobb’s thesis, an analysis of the effectiveness of the national armed self-defense organizations vis-à-vis the local, organic armed self-defense groups. The book would also have benefited from an assessment of how the national armed self-defense and nonviolence organizatons’ parallel activities nonetheless advanced the overall goals of the civil rights movement across the nation. As it is, Cobb only considers the interplay of the national nonviolent movement with the local southern activists’ armed self-defense, making This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed feel more like a brief memoir with a large, irrelevant historical section tacked on than a global analysis of the sort the reader is led to believe will occur based on the title of the book and its arc from colonial times to the 1960s.
An explicit and narrowed scope would have explained the exclusion of these critical areas. Instead, the reader is left to wonder why Cobb merely notes the existence of the Nation of Islam, the Black Panthers, and Malcolm X, devoting only one or two pages of text to each. Instead of these national groups, Cobb solely discusses the small band of armed, purely southern activists—the Deacons for Defense and Justice. Cobb describes the Deacons as “heavily armed and defiantly outspoken about their willingness to shoot back when fired upon” (p. 192). He also tells us that they barely appear in the discourse of the southern freedom movement. Likely, he considers only the Deacons because of his unacknowledged narrow scope, born of Cobb’s own field experience in the South.
Because Cobb never explicitly defines the scope of his work, the subtitle How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (likely some Basic Books editor’s conception of “sexy”) acts as the de facto thesis. Cobb’s failure to define his thesis may explain why the book wanders through hundreds of years of largely irrelevant historical content that fills the majority of the book and why so much of this historical detail fails to support his central themes. A more minor failing is that Cobb never clearly defines how he uses the terms “nonviolence” or “armed self-defense.” And when one does glean a sense of what Cobb means by these terms, the reader is already halfway through the book. Cobb states that those committed to nonviolence agreed to “submit to assault and not retaliate in kind by act or word” and that some members would “fast before action” (p. 189).
Helpful to the reader would have been a succinct timeline and brief description of the principles of the national civil rights movement. Because one engine of the civil rights movement was the black church, Jesus’s nonviolence naturally became the early model for the movement. The commitment to nonviolence was deepened by Martin Luther King Jr.’s adoption of the strategy of Mahatma Gandhi’s struggle for India’s independence. King described the goals of nonviolence on June 4, 1957: “Another thing that we had to get over was the fact that the nonviolent resister does not seek to humiliate or defeat the opponent but to win his friendship and understanding. This was always a cry that we had to set before people that our aim is not to defeat the white community, not to humiliate the white community, but to win the friendship of all of the persons who had perpetrated this system in the past. The end of violence or the aftermath of violence is bitterness. The aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation and the creation of a beloved community. A boycott is never an end within itself. It is merely a means to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor but the end is reconciliation, the end is redemption.”
Supplementing spontaneous and planned student sit-ins, three national organizations fought for civil rights using Gandhi’s model of nonviolent direct action. The three most influential groups were the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), founded in 1943; the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), founded by King in 1957; and SNCC, organized by Marion Barry in 1960. CORE led effective voter registration drives and challenges to interstate transportation practices, as exemplified by the more than one thousand Freedom Riders on buses throughout the South in 1961. Working from a solid base in the South, SCLC led voter registration drives in the early 1960s in Albany, Georgia, and Selma and Birmingham, Alabama. SCLC is best known for its role in organizing the 1963 Civil Rights March in Washington D.C. during which King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Finally, SNCC organized numerous sit-ins, participated in the Freedom Rides, and sponsored voter registration drives during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964.
Let’s start with Cobb’s historical and analytical gems that advance the discourse but that do not appear until the end of the book. Cobb best describes the interplay between the national nonviolent organizations and the local southern armed self-defense activists in the last chapter of the book. Two actors in this interplay were CORE director in Canton, Mississippi, David Dennis and local organizer Clarence Chinn Jr. Dennis, although not committed to nonviolence as a way of life, set up nonviolent CORE chapters. Cobb’s direct experience in the civil rights movement allows him to clearly contrast CORE and SNCC, a contrast that illuminates how radical it was for CORE to countenance any form of armed self-defense. CORE, because of its roots in Christian pacifist activism, was more deeply committed to nonviolence than SNCC. The local chapters of CORE were also more tightly bound to the national headquarters than those of SNCC, which had no chapters and no membership cards or dues.
Chinn admired the young civil rights organizers, and he assigned protection to each CORE worker. In an interview with Cobb on March 9, 2013, Dennis recalled: “I went outside to talk to [Chinn]. He’s sitting in the back of his truck with a shotgun across his lap and a pistol by his side. I introduced myself; told him about CORE’s nonviolent philosophy. He listened. Then, very calmly he told me: ‘This is my town and these are my people. I’m here to protect my people and even if you don’t like this I’m not going anywhere. So maybe you better leave’” (p. 190). Having lived in and been an activist in the small town descended upon by the national organizations, Chinn ultimately changed CORE workers’ views on armed self-defense. CORE found that blacks, especially older ones in rural counties, were not going to abandon the long-standing practice of armed self-defense. Cobb notes that people like Chinn, E. W. Steptoe in Amite County, and Jane Brewer in Tallahatchie County wanted to participate in the movement but not cede the right to determine how to protect themselves and their communities.
Cobb nicely describes how local activists ultimately changed the strategies of the national organizations. By 1964, CORE staff on the ground reconsidered the applicability of nonviolence to their work in the rural South. A 1964 CORE field report from West Feliciana Parish in Louisiana stated that there was a great need for “much discussion and training” concerning nonviolence, “especially for older people” (p. 192). Ultimately the workshops failed because guns were more integrated into the civil rights struggle in Louisiana than in most parts in the South and, Cobb maintains, because of the influence of the Deacons for Defense and Justice.
As noted above, Cobb leaves readers to fend for themselves for most of the work, waiting until page 190 to first clearly elucidate the distinction between the embedded, local civil rights movement and the national organizations. Furthermore, Cobb states: “Some in the movement felt there was a practical rationale for opposing such groups [as the Deacons]: namely, that they invited swift, brutal, and overwhelming retaliation by all levels of government. Yet CORE’s Louisiana experience seems to refute that assumption, as well as the argument that organized armed self-defense was incompatible with nonviolence; in fact, CORE organizers helped create the Deacons” (p. 193).
Cobb describes the de facto middle ground that was forged as consisting of armed locals preventing attacks against CORE activists while studiously avoiding involvement in nonviolent direct action. Fred Brooks, a CORE volunteer from Tennessee A & I College, in a June 30, 2013, interview with the author, stated that the locals understood the concept of nonviolence but that they were “not nonviolent and we are not going to allow these people to beat up on you or kill you” (p. 197). Cobb recounts another similar story about Charlie Fenton, a white organizer and fervent supporter of nonviolence, who came to conclude that “armed men were a necessary part of the project in Jonesboro and that people like himself had little or no influence over [local activists’] decisions to possess and use weapons” (p. 201). As cited by Cobb in the endnotes, Adam Fairclough, in his Race and Democracy, states that “the concept that we are going to go South and through love and patience change the hearts and minds of Southern whites should be totally discarded” (p. 198).
Cobb’s most detailed, yet still limited, assessment of the effectiveness of a two-tiered approach incorporating nonviolence and armed self-defense appears on page 212, almost at the very end of the book. Presumably among the strongest support for his thesis, Cobb describes how the Deacons’ activism led to the desegregation of Bogalusa, Louisiana. Desegregation “had been made possible by a movement that combined nonviolent struggle and armed self-defense to protect that struggle. The mayor was forced to take the business-sensitive, law-and-order middle ground; he was not renouncing his belief in white supremacy. He was not a changed man.... Business, after all, was business. Income and image, important to attracting needed new businesses to the state, were at stake in Bogalusa” (p. 212).
As the ultimate catharsis of a national nonviolent movement, Cobb describes the incorporation of the Deacons on January 5, 1965, with the help of CORE, the first national organization (and possibly only, Cobb does not say) to assist with the formation of a group with “the express purpose of providing armed self-defense” (p. 201). Cobb writes that “the tension between the national CORE office and organizers in the field increased markedly as news spread of the Deacons’ formation.” Richard Haley, CORE’s southern regional director, told theNew York Times that “the Deacons have the effect of lowering the minimum potential for danger. This is a valuable function that CORE can’t perform.” He further explained, “protected nonviolence is apt to be more popular with the participants than unprotected” (p. 202).
Yet even with this informative and critical description of the tensions between the national movement and local operatives and in-state activists around the issue of armed self-defense, Cobb misses every opportunity to undertake a theoretical or even strategic analysis of the effectiveness of either strategy, or the symbiosis of the two, or a comparison of the interplay between the national armed self-defense movement (e.g., the Black Panthers) and local, organic self-defense activists. For instance, Cobb does not provide a normative assessment of Haley’s claim that “protected nonviolence is apt to be more popular.” The reader can only guess whether the national nonviolent movement would have been more successful from the start had activists embraced armed protection. In fact, Cobb does not contextualize the fact that when a CORE organizer was forced to flee (in a hearse) the pursuing KKK on September 1, 1963, CORE’s historic commitment to nonviolence was “buried” and the group soon excluded whites and became a black nationalist organization. The reader can only wonder whether CORE’s staunch commitment to nonviolence was unworkable and caused them to veer toward another strategy, the effectiveness of which is also not assessed. Sadly, the reader must go to the epilogue for Cobb’s assessment of the failure to integrate the two types of strategies: “the idea of nonviolent struggle had prevented northern and southern activists from truly understanding each other’s strategies, tactics, and goals. By 1966, many above the Mason-Dixon line saw southern struggle as finished and—insofar as it had been defined by gaining voting rights and desegregation—won” (p. 236).
Cobb’s argument would have been clearer had he stated his thesis at the outset, defined his terms, presented historical highlights to support the thesis, and at least sketched a normative assessment of the two-tiered southern approach of armed locals protecting national nonviolent movement workers. Without such a framework and with the bulk of the analysis in the last few pages, the reader feels like Cobb made up his thesis as he went along, firmly fixing upon it only at the very end of the book when he describes his time in the field.
Besides the lack of a clear, historically supported thesis, the other chief failing ofThis Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed is the poor writing and organization of each chapter. Each chapter wanders, haphazardly moving from decade to decade. For instance, chapter 1 wanders through colonial times, describing efforts to deny blacks the use of guns. It does little to advance Cobb’s thesis, yet it does repeatedly decry Thomas Jefferson’s racism and “extravagant lifestyle” (p. 35).
Chapter 2 rambles through various decades of the twentieth century, burying or not developing interesting support for Cobb’s thesis. Cobb begins nicely with a description of how the World War II experience of black servicemen primed blacks to undertake armed self-resistance. Black servicemen used guns, killed whites, and fought against racism. They were respected by their European counterparts and were fighting abroad for what they did not have at home. Cobb opines that the World War II experience was pivotal and was the “precise watershed moment in the evolution of black struggle in the U.S.” (p. 82). Yet Cobb does not clarify why he describes blacks’ World War II experience as pivotal, but not that of World War I, especially given his description of Texas in 1917 when black veterans stood up to white power, resulting in twenty deaths. He also hardly proves the pivotal nature of the black experience in World War II by describing the Darien Insurrection of 1899 of armed resistance as being the exception, not the rule, and then by pointing out that much resistance was not armed but political, such as the streetcar boycotts and the Niagara Movement. Cobb does speculate by saying that “there may be similar black [armed] responses that have been ignored or gone unrecorded” (p. 71). The reader might rightly think that it is Cobb’s job as a historian to find such instances or amend his thesis.
Chapter 3 also does little to advance Cobb’s thesis. He recounts the story of Medgar and Charles Evers trying to register to vote, yet provides no analysis of how this political act was or was not supported by guns. Instead, Cobb baldly states that the Evers brothers did not use weapons to register to vote but that “many veterans were willing to do so when they felt it was necessary and practical” (p. 86). Cobb also makes the unsubstantiated claim: “guns always accompanied nonviolent struggle in Monroe [North Carolina] and this is well-remembered” (p. 107). Yet he provides little evidence of this extensive history and instead recounts the story of Bernie Montgomery who stabbed a white with a knife, but did not use a gun.
Cobb is at his best when he describes conditions on the ground, as he does in chapters 4 and 5, making the material more suitable for a memoir than a rigorous, historical analysis. Interestingly, the richest material undermines the dichotomy, which for hundreds of pages Cobb has adopted, between the national nonviolent organizations’ commitment to nonviolence and the armed self-defense of locals: “It may be that ‘nonviolent’ is simply the wrong word for many of the people who participated in the freedom struggle and who were comfortable with both nonviolence and self-defense, assessing what to do primarily on the basis of which seemed the most practical at any given moment. SNCC field secretary Worth Long preferred the term ‘unviolent.’ In the thinking of this Durham, North Carolina, native, the notion of ‘unviolence’ offers a way to transcend the fundamentally false distinction between violence and nonviolence that some have tried to impose in their analysis of Freedom Movement work and decision making.... Whatever one’s personal beliefs, grassroots work like organizing for voter registration, mounting a boycott, participating in a cooperative, or building a political party often did not involve any discussion of nonviolence as a tactic, strategy, or philosophy. Rather, the day-to-day realities of these organizing efforts always kept discussion centered on a much more basic question: What was best to do?” (pp. 147-148).
This reader wishes that Cobb had begun here, on the ground, in his rich experience—a powerful place upon which to build a memoir, sure to give the lie to the dichotomy adopted in his title: This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible.
. Martin Luther King Jr., I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches That Changed the World (New York: HarperCollins, 1986), 29.
. Adam Fairclough, Race and Democracy: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana, 1915-1972 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995), 341.
Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=41951
Citation: Michael Lasher. Review of Cobb Jr, Charles E., This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible. H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews. October, 2014.