Jolly on Cobb Jr, 'This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible' and Umoja, 'We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement'

Author: 
Akinyele Omowale Umoja
Reviewer: 
Kenneth Jolly

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; ISBN 978-0-8223-6123-7.Akinyele Omowale Umoja. We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement. New York: New York University Press, 2013. 351 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8147-2524-5; $23.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4798-8603-6.

Reviewed by Kenneth Jolly (Saginaw Valley State University)
Published on H-1960s (August, 2015)
Commissioned by Zachary Lechner

Arming for Freedom

In his speech to Peace Corps volunteers on December 12, 1964, Malcolm X asserted, “I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power and be in these positions to block things that you and I need. Because this is the situation, you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation, and it doesn’t mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t even call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence.”[1] Akinyele Omowale Umoja’s We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement and Charles E. Cobb Jr.’s This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible capture the succinct truth of Malcolm X’s statement. Umoja and Cobb center armed self-defense in their narratives of the grassroots freedom rights movement and highlight local African American leaders and organizers within the long tradition of armed resistance.

Drawing heavily from their own experiences and relationships in the movement, Umoja’s and Cobb’s books rest on the assertion that “although nonviolence was crucial to the gains made by the freedom struggle of the 1950s and ’60s, those gains could not have been achieved without the complementary and still underappreciated practice of armed self-defense” (Cobb, p. 1). Affirming Malcolm X’s assertion, Umoja and Cobb recognize armed resistance as a “major tool of survival” that provided the space for civil rights work, a point reflected in Cobb’s subtitle (Umoja, p. 2). Armed self-defense was not exceptional or marginal, but pragmatic, essential, and effective, and both authors trace its long history among African Americans in the South. These studies demonstrate the importance of bottom-up approaches to movement history in revealing the integral role of local organizers as well as the dangerous, “barely visible work” of organizing in the South (Cobb, p. 246).

While Umoja employs the term “Black Freedom Struggle” and Cobb enlists the term “Freedom Movement,” both authors present armed resistance within the “historic fight ... for liberation and human rights” rooted in the battle for emancipation from enslavement (Umoja, p. 6). Within the Black Freedom Struggle, Umoja and Cobb locate the civil rights and Black Power movements as distinct, yet related periods and emphasize the “continuity,” but not static practice, of armed resistance (Umoja, pp. 4, 6).

Influenced “by the consciousness and culture” of his earlier years in Compton, California, and activism in the Black Power movement, Umoja examines armed resistance to challenge misrepresentations of African American southerners as “docile and intimidated” and the southern movement as “solely nonviolent” (Umoja, p. 255). Armed resistance allowed African Americans to overcome fear created by white oppression and was the critical “tool” for organizing “Black political, economic, and social liberation” in Mississippi (Umoja, p. 2). Umoja identifies two periods of armed resistance during the Black Freedom Struggle. The first period, from the legal and violent defeat of Reconstruction to the 1950s, built a foundation of African American self-sufficiency that would support and sustain the second period in the 1960s and ’70s.

By the early 1950s, the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL) became the “cornerstone” of the Mississippi movement, and its head, Dr. T. R. M. Howard, personified the long tradition of armed resistance (Umoja, p. 30). Both Umoja and Cobb point out that Howard and the RCNL’s use of armed self-defense was not unique or marginal, but typified the pragmatic self-defense readily employed to protect “any prominent black civil rights advocate who valued his or her life” (Cobb, p. 133). The RCNL cultivated local leadership of the Mississippi movement, including Aaron Henry, Amzie Moore, George Lee, and Medgar Evers, who, with Howard’s exile to Chicago, became the center of the state movement through his leadership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Although Evers was inspired by the Kikuyu Land and Freedom Army and its war for liberation in Kenya, he remained committed to the mainline program of the NAACP. However, as head of the Mississippi NAACP, Evers’s practice of armed self-defense demonstrated that armed resistance “was not exceptional” during this early period (Umoja, p. 48). As the 1960s progressed, covert and individual armed resistance as exemplified by Howard and Evers became increasingly open and organized.

Both authors detail the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality’s (CORE) commitment to nonviolence, but emphasize how interaction with local African Americans who were part of “the indigenous armed resistance tradition”—such as Moore, E. W. Steptoe, Vernon Dahmer, Laura McGhee, Hartman Turnbow, and C. O. Chinn—transformed individual organizers and their larger organizations. Armed self-defense and nonviolence worked together in “complementary” ways, and both authors consider how organizers representing organizations committed to nonviolence navigated local practice of armed resistance. Yet the armed protection and support provided by local leaders allowed these organizations to operate and demonstrated the efficacy of armed resistance, which challenged and eventually eroded individual and organizational commitment to nonviolence.

Umoja and Cobb identify Freedom Summer in 1964 as a significant turning point that challenged SNCC and CORE’s organizational commitments to nonviolence and the point when individual, covert, and informal armed resistance became increasingly organized and overt. While SNCC reached a consensus not to allow field-workers to carry weapons, Cobb indicates that immediate local situations still determined individual responses to white attacks. According to Umoja, for SNCC, this transition away from nonviolence was also influenced by the brief involvement of the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM) in Freedom Summer. The murder of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner that summer pushed CORE further away from its commitment to nonviolence. Umoja’s discussion of RAM’s participation in Freedom Summer and influence on SNCC’s growing support for Black Nationalism and armed resistance provides an important new “layer to the story of Freedom Summer” (Umoja, p. 4). 

After 1964 armed resistance became more organized, overt, and open. Umoja looks closely at Natchez and the formation of the Deacons for Defense, the Black United Front, the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Africa (PGRNA), and the United League (UL). Umoja states that the Deacons for Defense’s participation in the 1966 March Against Fear further “signified that the Movement had entered a new period” of armed resistance and Black Power (Umoja, p. 147). The “Natchez Model” demonstrated that armed resistance could limit white terrorism and bolster economic boycotts and became commonly employed throughout Mississippi. African American support for boycotts was enforced and protected by Rudolph Shields, who led the “enforcer squads” or “Da Spirit” that became models for effective boycotts throughout the state. Black Power and Revolutionary Nationalism increasingly influenced Shields who left the NAACP in 1970 and formed the Black United Front (BUF), an umbrella organization that supported economic boycotts and armed resistance and focused on such issues as education, employment, police brutality and justice, and housing.

While the BUF represented the Mississippi movement’s turn to organized and open armed resistance in the late 1960s, the PGRNA identified the black-majority counties in western Mississippi or “Kush district” as the location to build a sovereign black nation. Umoja deepens our understanding of the PGRNA and local movement history with his discussion of local support for the PGRNA, efforts to purchase land, Land Celebration Day, and the violent raid on the PGRNA headquarters in Jackson in 1971. Umoja emphasizes the evolution of armed resistance and shows how it provided space for civil rights work, but as illustrated by the PGRNA, the movement itself had changed, Umoja explains, and armed resistance supported revolutionary goals. Furthermore, Umoja challenges interpretations of the 1970s as a period of “lull” or “retreat” with his discussion of the UL, which superseded the NAACP for black militancy in Mississippi in the late 1970s (Umoja, p. 213). The UL’s successful boycott in Byhalia in 1974 built new momentum for the Mississippi movement and demonstrated that white intimidation of African Americans was over.

Rooted in his personal experience as a Mississippi field secretary of SNCC from 1962 to 1967, Cobb testifies to the transformative power of organizers’ interaction with African American southerners, particularly Ella Baker. “We in SNCC,” Cobb confirms, “were radicalized by working with people in their homes and communities much more than by ideology” (Cobb, p. xii). Like Umoja, he argues that armed resistance provided the space and support necessary for successful civil rights work. Cobb similarly locates armed resistance within a long history, originating with the fight for emancipation. Cobb details the armed resistance of African American veterans of the First World War during the interwar years, noting that it was rare, unorganized, and individual. Curiously, he does not mention the African Blood Brotherhood or large-scale battles in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Elaine, Arkansas.

World War Two intensified African American self-determination and, according to Cobb, marked the period when “the modern civil rights movement truly begins” (Cobb, p. 86). Cobb emphasizes the importance of military service for local freedom rights leaders, including Medgar and Charles Evers, Aaron Henry, Robert Williams, and Moore (who brought Bob Moses and SNCC to Mississippi). Like Umoja, he emphasizes how interaction with local people transformed SNCC and CORE workers and their larger organizations. Cobb explores the history of Jonesboro, Louisiana, and the local presence of CORE that gave rise to the Deacons for Defense. According to Cobb, the Deacons were “unprecedented” because they were the first organized and open self-defense organization that “directly challenged the civil rights establishment’s” strategy of nonviolence and influenced CORE to repeal the nonviolence plank from its constitution in 1966 (Cobb, pp. 208, 203).

The shooting of James Meredith during his 1966 March Against Fear displayed and accelerated the fragmentation of the movement that developed during Freedom Summer, according to Cobb. Unlike Umoja’s study, which proceeds through the 1970s, Cobb’s discussion largely ends with the march, which he suggests marked an “inevitable” and long developing “evolution” influenced by the 1964 betrayal of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in Atlantic City and the formation of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in Alabama (Cobb, p. 227). Punctuated by Stokely Carmichael’s call for Black Power, this transition disrupted “a consensus designed to win popular support and federal backing for the civil rights movement” (Cobb, p. 223). For Cobb, Black Power indicated bourgeoning African American political power, Black Nationalism, and black consciousness reflected in the Black Arts movement (Cobb p. 13). While Cobb mentions Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party, and anticolonialism movements during this transition, his discussion of these influences could have been more deeply explored. While Umoja explores RAM, the Black Panther Party, and the PGRNA, and while both authors detail the influence of Kenya’s revolution on Medgar Evers, readers may be curious how additional anticolonial voices and wars for liberation in Africa and even Cuba informed armed resistance in the South.

Cobb argues that African American armed resistance diminished by the late 1960s because whites concluded that “violence was ineffective and counterproductive in stopping black political momentum” (Cobb, p. 16). He maintains that  by the late 1960s, increased African American access to mainstream politics eroded grassroots organizing and the need for armed self-defense. On the other hand, Umoja broadens this time frame, asserting that support and participation in paramilitary organizations only declined by the 1980s as African Americans achieved greater political power and representation. Umoja also attributes this decline to the effective repression of COINTELPRO and a 1969 Mississippi law that banned economic boycotts.

Both Umoja and Cobb complicate the traditional nonviolent movement narrative and erode reductionist caricatures, tropes, and labels of gun-toting hypermasculine violent militants versus nonviolent pacifists. Cobb, like Umoja, argues there was no “clear, sharp line” that divided nonviolence and armed self-defense; they assert that local decisions to use armed resistance were based on the pragmatism of survival and the immediacy of situations rather than ideology (Cobb, pp. 144, 145). “Blurring” these false and artificial distinctions, both authors affirm the “compatibility” of nonviolence and armed resistance (Cobb, p. 149). Moreover, both authors challenge the stereotype of African Americans in the South as “docile and intimidated” (Umoja, p. 255). Cobb also highlights the northern perception of the southern movement as “solely nonviolent” and “passive,” which, according to Cobb, “stunted the development of organized national struggle” (Cobb, p. 236). Umoja’s and Cobb’s studies avoid the pitfalls of the “Long Movement” paradigm, which often collapses the civil rights and Black Power movements into one movement and erases the “regional variations” between racist oppression in the South and the North.[2] Still, while both authors affirm the distinctiveness of southern oppression, scholars may benefit from continuing to explore the exchange and interaction of activists, strategies, tactics, and ideology between the North and South.

Both studies persuasively argue that “day-to-day realities” of “grassroots work,” local practice and a sense of “obligation,” trust, and loyalty directed the actions and decision of organizers and often transformed their personal beliefs about armed resistance (Cobb, pp. 140, 148). As Umoja asserts, by the mid-1960s, individual, clandestine, and informal armed resistance that supported civil rights activity became increasingly organized and open in support of Black Power and, in the case of the PGRNA, revolutionary goals.

Umoja and Cobb detail the effectiveness and evolution of the tradition of armed resistance in the South, particularly in Mississippi, during the Freedom Movement. While armed resistance failed to preserve the lives of many activists, it did keep many others safe, empowered local people in their own communities, and provided courage and support for successful civil rights work and revolutionary goals. These studies capture the complexities of the civil rights and Black Power movements during the Freedom Movement and explain how interaction with local people transformed individual activists and organizations. In a deepening field of study, Umoja and Cobb offer two of the sharpest and clearest analyses of armed resistance and grassroots organizing during the Black Freedom Struggle.

Notes

[1]. Malcolm X, “Speech to Peace Corps Workers,” December 12, 1964, http://malcolmxfiles.blogspot.com/2013/07/speech-to-peace-corps-workers-december.html.

[2]. Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua and Clarence Lang, “The ‘Long Movement’ as Vampire: Temporal and Spatial Fallacies in Recent Black Freedom Studies,” The Journal of African American History 92, no. 2 (Spring 2007): 265, 281.

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=43419

Citation: Kenneth Jolly. Review of Cobb Jr, Charles E., This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible and Umoja, Akinyele Omowale, We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement. H-1960s, H-Net Reviews. August, 2015.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=43419

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