Charles Cobb on nonviolence, unviolence & self-defense

Charles Cobb - This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You KilledCharles Cobb worked as a SNCC field secretary in the deep South in the 1960s freedom movement. Grounded in that experience, this book is a clear look at Southern black traditions of self-defense and self-respect, and how they came together with a when non-violent students came to organise the South.

The tradition of armed self-defense in Afro-American history cannot be disconnected form the successes of what today is called the nonviolent civil rights movement. Participants in that movement always saw themselves as part of a centuries-long history of black life and struggle. Guns in no way contradicted the lessons of that history. Indeed, the idea of nonviolent struggle was newer in the black community, and it was protected in many ways by gunfire and the threat of gunfire. Simply put: because nonviolence worked so well as a tactic for effecting change and was demonstrably improving their lives, some black people chose to use weapons to defend the nonviolent Freedom Movement. Although it is counterintuitive, any discussion of guns in the movement must also include substantial discussion of nonviolence, and vice versa. (2)

I loved lots of things about this book, above all that like Morris, Cobb looks at the 60s as only part of a continuum of struggle, a history passed down.

One of the crucial but mostly ignored aspects of the freedom struggle of the 1950s and ’60s is how near we were in time and collective historical memory to slavery and the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. each generation of black people carries a memory of the struggles taken on by generations that preceded it, and that memory settles in the collective soul and becomes the foundation for the struggles of one’s own generation. to borrow words from author and professor Jan Carew, we are haunted by “ghosts in our blood.” (xi)

So this is a look at SNCC and CORE’s work in the South within the context of the organizing tradition of the black community… ‘much older than nonviolent protest, and the one word that is essential for connecting the elements of this tradition is “resistance.” (xv)

I think he definitely makes his point that within this history, there is no real dichotomy between nonviolent struggles and armed self defense, there was instead a community coming together in different ways in resistance. There never was an either/or as the movement played out, especially across the south. Young organizers may have come into communities with set beliefs of what they wanted to achieve and how they were going to achieve it, but they confronted there the life-and-death consequences of even small acts of resistance, along with the long existing experiences and networks built over the past decades of other kinds of resistance. They met fierce, intelligent people who had their own ideas of how to do things. SNCC and CORE had to ‘earn’ the right to organize, and in the process, both their beliefs and those of the older adults they worked to organize would be transformed.

It is to their credit that they were able to ‘earn’ the right to organise in these places, through respecting the people they went there to work with.

…there is a core reality that strong movements are built by developing inclusive relationships capable of knitting together strategies formed as a result of listening to ordinary peoples’ experiences and ideas for change. (xviii)

This process of respect and mutual transformation through struggle is as important today. You know I loved this point too:

Even now, despite the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 that officially ended southern slavery, irrational dread of almost any kind of black assault against white supremacy has lingered. This dread is deeply embedded in U.S. culture… (xvi)

So I loved the distinction between the ‘civil rights movement’, the 1950s and 60s effort to secure equal rights under law, and the the ‘Freedom Movement…a larger idea whose goal is the achievement of civil rights, civil liberties, and the liberated consciousness of self and community.’ (2) This comes from Hasan Kwame Jeffries’ formulation — too look into.

To understand the role of self-defense the book addresses two important periods, the first the very beginnings of the country up through reconstruction. As Charles Cobb says, it all goes back to ‘the founding contradiction’, the founding fathers’ desire to continue in their ownership of slaves despite Declaration of Independence and the ‘Rights of Man’. And then the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s.

Of course, little is as ‘American’ as the right to bear arms to defend your home and property and above all your life. There’s a couple of interesting stories in here about the inner struggle in the bosoms of whites who believed that fully, and also hated the thought of Black people with guns. But to return to history, arms  formed part of slave uprisings, they liberated the slaves who fought in the Union army, and they remained part of the repertoire of resistance after Reconstruction. Important to remember:

Reconstruction did not fail; it was destroyed, crushed by more than a decade of savage campaigns of violence carried out both by the local governments that had largely remained intact and by vigilante terrorists. lynchings and other forms of mob violence were the instruments of Reconstruction’s brutal death. (43)

Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells among others wrote about the place of the gun in struggle as self-defense. W.E.B. Du Bois wasn’t all that impressed with non violence either. In 1957 he wrote

No normal human being of trained intelligence is going to fight the man who will not fight back…but suppose they are wild beasts or wild men? To yield to the rush of the tiger is death, nothing less. (3-4)

From reading this and reading Morris, it seems there were two kinds of activists within SNCC, CORE, SCLC (forgive the simplification around this issue for a moment). A few were fully committed to nonviolence — this was a deeply held belief key to their identities. Morris makes the point that for many members of CORE, for example, the practice of nonviolence for liberation was more important than the cause it was applied to — I am annoyed by that somehow, I confess. But then I am also reading the letters of Bayard Rustin and the intensity of his search for moral integrity through non-violence is both humbling and awe-inspiring. Not something I myself would want to or could live up to. Charles Cobb makes a similar point, that ‘pure’ nonviolence required a moral courage many did not claim to possess. But there was much to recommend it, both as a way of life and as a strategy. Nonviolence was never ‘not fighting back’,  rather it was both dynamic and militant. In the words of activist Vincent Harding (and later movement writer, academic and historian who would hang out with Walter Rodney don’t you know):

Our struggle was not just against something, but was trying to bring something into being. Always at the heart of nonviolent struggle was, and still is, a vision of a new society. Nonviolence enabled people to see something in themselves and others of what could be… (4)

What is not to love in that? We need more of that.

Many of these students were along the spectrum of such belief — they were still deciding, had been to a few workshops, had committed to some extent. In the words of Ivanhoe Donaldson, another SNCC field secretary:

The civil rights movement was about civil rights, not about nonviolence. Nonviolence was a tool the movement used to create confrontation without hate, without force, without brutality. Yes, all the blood that was shed was ours, [but] we accepted that for the greater good–the mission–and that was not about nonviolence but about change. I didn’t go to Mississippi to celebrate nonviolence; I went down there to fight for the right to vote. (162)

So it became complex when they moved into rural towns, and the residents of those rural towns organized to protect them. With guns.

self-defense was a crucial part of life for many black Americans, especially in the South. The prevailing system of white supremacy in the South was enforced by violence, and black people sometimes used the threat of an armed response to survive. (5)

This book is full of stories of farmers sitting up all night to protect SNCC activists, escorting them to meetings, placing watches on their houses. They undoubtedly saved lives, though the number of murders should still shock the world. Black veterans led much of this (not to say that women didn’t who had returned from WWII, staked their claim to live in their communities and to whom self-defense was intrinsic. Charles Cobb himself writes

And we organizers knew, as surely as we new the sun would rise, that it was our presence that triggered white violence. (117)

The wife of murdered Herbert Lee came up to SNCC’s Bob Moses at the funeral, and told him he had killed her husband after he was assasinated by local whites for organizing. SNCC could not control — nor perhaps wanted to– how the community as a whole would react.

communities, unlike national organizations, did not subscribe to particular schools of philosophy or tactics when they chose how to respond to danger. (159)

…the reality was that black men and women in the Deep South had developed their own ways of coping with the threat of white violence, and engaging with these local community organizers found themselves being transformed at the same time that they were effecting transformation. (116)

Those working for the right to vote were challenging all of white Southern society. The voting campaign (so derided by Piven & Cloward) was characterized by SNCC’s Bob Moses

as one of “constitutional personhood”: who gets to be a full citizen of the United States? As the twentieth century progressed, it became clear that this question not only remained unresolved but also applied to more than black people. (65)

This question of citizenship and community was the challenge. The murderous reaction to it was not just to protect white privilege, though that would be enough. So much of the terrorism comes out of terror, I think. Charles Cobb writes:

Whites, in other words, feared and perhaps expected that the same sort of terrorism they had used against the South’s black community would someday be turned against them. (126)

The reasons behind previous restraint of the black communities — too often seen as apathy when it was anything but:

  • ‘the terrorism that local blacks knew could be brought to bear against them at the slightest hint of a challenge to the prevailing white supremacist order (117)
  • people couldn’t leave these communities, had to stay there, live there, held by debt, family, love
  • finally, fear

In Munroe, a black vet returned home with a steel plate in his head, snapped and killed his boss in a fight after being insulted in 1946. He was tried and executed, but Klan demanded his body for further humiliation when it was returned to town.To be dragged through the streets, lynched, mutilated, those klan things they do.

A little extreme.

3 dozen armed men, all of them also veterans, gathered to guard the body and ensure proper burial.

This is the same town the sit-ins started as early as 1957. Out of this town came well known activists Robert Williams and Dr Perry…a small town version of movement center.

It was in Munroe…that the principled practice of armed self-defense first converged with the modern civil rights movement’s emergent tactics and strategies of nonviolence. (111)

SNCC’s field secretary Worth Long used the term ‘unviolent’:

a way to transcend the fundamentally false distinction between violence and nonviolence…Most people do not see themselves as being “nonviolent”…and most people would not consider themselves “violent”…they would treat bother choices as potentially viable, and at any given time, which they would choose would depend on what they had concluded about their immediate circumstances. (148)

So you have King who came to fully believe in the prectice of nonviolence, in a house full of guns with community members armed and guarding his doors and his gates. You have Fannie Lou Hamer on the guns in her house:

I keep a shotgun in every corner of my bedroom and the first cracker even looks like he wants to throw some dynamite on my porch won’t write his mama again. (124)

Story after inspirational story of small communities is to be found here — I am more inspired by the communities found by SNCC and CORE organisers than the organisers in a way, for these were people standing up for what they believed in and for their own self respect without the backing of an organisation or an ideology or the feeling that they part of something larger or that anyone had their back. People in Jonesboro, Bogalusa, Tuscaloosa. I love the Deacons, facing down bullies with sheets and guns. One of the founders quoted here saying:

It takes violent blacks to combat these violent whites…It takes nonviolent whites and nonviolent Negroes to sit down and bargain whenever the thing is over–and iron it out. I ain’t going to.’ (212)

Their effectiveness explained makes sense to me:

Fear…Few if any white terrorists were prepared to die for the cause of white supremacy…a few rounds fired into the air were enough to cause the terrorists to flee. (241)

That and the fact you get the feeling that the Deacons and all the others standing guard over the ‘nonviolents’ were pretty badass veterans who inspired their foes with the belief they were prepared to kill them if it came right down to it.

Above all, what the movement brought to those who participated in it, whether committed to nonviolence or with a rifle for self-defense, was self-respect and dignity. And I love how these communities embraced as their own the kids coming to press for social change through nonviolence.

A few other tidbits — The amazing rumour of the ‘Eleanorites’ organizing ‘Eleanor Clubs’ of maids who planned to ‘disrupt the existing social order refusing to wear servants’ uniforms, work unlimited hours, or respond when addressed by their first names.’ The FBI opened a file. (66)

There is also a hint of how people saw this as a larger struggle, how it connected to international feeling, anti-colonial uprisings and striving for freedom.

Medgar and Charles Evers following with intense interest the Mau Mau Rebellion and Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya. They decided armed rebellion wouldn’t work, but  Medgar named his first son born in 1953 Darrell Kenyatta Evers.

There is more here, but I shall stop now. I enjoyed Charles Cobb’s book immensely.

 

3 thoughts on “Charles Cobb on nonviolence, unviolence & self-defense”

Leave a Reply