You Should Read “This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed”

By Trent Steidley

Untitled.pngCobb, Charles E. 2014. This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible. Basic Books. Amazon Link

“I never was a true believer in nonviolence, but was willing to go along [with it] for the sake of the strategy and goals. [However] we heard that James Chaney had been beaten to death before they shot him. The thought of being beat up, jailed, even being shot, was one kinda thing. The thought of being beaten to death without being able to fight back put the fear of God in me. Also, I was my mother’s only child with some responsibility to go home in relatively one piece and I decided that it would be an unforgivable sin to willingly let someone kill my mother’s only child without a fight. [So] I acquired an automatic handgun to sit in the top of that outstanding black patent and tan handbag that I carried. I don’t think that I ever had to fire it; I never shot anyone, but the potential was there. And I still would hurt anyone if necessary to protect my son and grandson and his wife.”

— Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) former field secretary Cynthia Washington (page vii)

For many, “nonviolence” and “social movements” are synonymous. The legacy of nonviolence pioneered by SNCC and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) has had such an influence that any modern movement that wishes to be taken seriously almost always prefers to use nonviolent tactics. However, in his book, This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible, Charles Cobb makes it plain that nonviolence in the Civil Rights Movement did not equate to wholesale pacifism. In it, Cobb has two lessons that I think any scholar of social movements will appreciate (lessons which are evident in the above quote). First, social movements are made up of ordinary people, people who fear for their lives and loved ones, people who refuse to be defenselessly attacked, and people who will make compromises between “official” movement strategies and their own moral constitution. Second, guns are not simply the domain of conservatism or gun rights advocates, they are owned and used by millions of ordinary people, and during the Civil Rights Movement many who fought for racial equality did not think “nonviolence” meant surrendering either their guns or their right to use them in self-defense.
Part historical study, part oral storytelling, and part social movements study, Cobb seeks to disavow readers of the mainstream narrative that the Civil Rights Movement was successful solely because blacks made government leaders in Washington D.C. see plainly the immorality of Jim Crow using nonviolent tactics. Quoting Julian Bond’s summary of this narrative as “Rosa sat down. Martin stood up; and then the white folks saw the light and saved the day” (page 151). Cobb argues such a narrative prevents us from understanding of the human experiences of northern black activists and the southern black residents they lived and worked with during the 1960’s. Cobb focuses his stories on the tensions between civil rights activists committed to using nonviolence as a movement strategy, and the resident blacks who were willing to use guns to protect both themselves and those nonviolent activists from white supremacist terror.

The first third of the book opens with a historical study on gun rights and black resistance to contextualize the unique history of black ownership in the United States. Beginning with the Reconstruction, many blacks (and some northern whites) saw gun rights as crucial to securing other civil rights. Indeed, even the framers of the 14th Amendment have been quoted as saying that the “right to bear” arms was crucial for freedmen to be full-fledged citizens (See also Winkler 2013). Frederick Douglas even wrote in 1867 that that freedom for blacks would require “the ballot-box, the jury-box, and the cartridge box” (Page 47). This made the appearance of black militias for community self-defense from white terrorists during the Reconstruction Era promising, but fleeting. Militias withered after massacres like the 1866 Mechanics Institute massacre in New Orleans and the 1873 Colfax Massacre made it clear that the federal government was not going to protect southern freedmen from white violence that knew no limits. And though organized black militias would fade away, southern blacks would continue to use guns for household defense. A prime example of this is sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois’s purchase of a double-barreled shotgun during the 1906 Atlanta riots to guard his home against white mobs. Du Bois was quoted saying he “would without hesitation have spread their [white rioters] guts over the grass” (page 70).

In the remainder of the book, This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed becomes of a collection of oral stories and anecdotes as Cobb discusses the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Cobb links the early history of black gun ownership with black veterans serving in WWI, WWII, and Korea to show that many blacks saw guns as fundamental to both citizenship and protection from white supremacist violence. These veterans would be instrumental in organizations like the Deacons for Defense and Justice that would provide security for many different civil rights marches and activities. Along with many other less organized/well-known self-defense groups, the Deacons would grow to more than 50 chapters and participate famous actions like the Meredith March Against Fear.

Both SNCC and CORE would come to develop tacit informal alliances with organizations like the Deacons and with many local black gun owners who supported their agenda. Cobb offers numerous stories of activists committed to nonviolence who knew that the families they were housed with would use guns to protect themselves. Likewise, many who supported nonviolence tactics, but refused to let SNCC and CORA activists do their work unprotected, would covertly guard activists without their knowledge. Such behavior allowed nonviolent activists to operate safely without having to falsely managing appearances of nonviolence.

A story from the book that illustrates such relations is Bernard Lafayette’s, someone wholly committed to nonviolence. Lafayette was saved from being murdered by two white men by Red, a black Korean war veteran, who fired a rifle at the attackers. Lafayette did not know Red was watching out for him, yet Cobb’s work shows that such instances of benevolent protection were not uncommon for activists. After this incident, Red assigns himself to act as Lafayette’s bodyguard as he lived in the same housing unit and “if somebody threw a bomb he was gonna get killed too” (page 182). People like Red who believed in SNCC or CORE activism, but refused to let violence go unanswered, often worked independently from these organizations to provide firebomb watches, drive armed convoys, or show up with firearms during altercations with white supremacists. Cobb’s stories, though anecdotal, make a compelling case that acts by folks like Red made a significant impact on the lives and work of nonviolent activists.

The most remarkable aspect of the book is that Cobb combines two political topics that are difficult to thoroughly cover on their own without the intersectionality. By telling unpolished stories of nonviolent activists carrying and allowing guns to be present in their work, Cobb shows the humanity of those who fought for racial equality. Humans are rarely angels willing to turn the cheek in the face of unjust violence, these activists were no different. Many held reservations about nonviolence, but went along as far as they could for the sake of the movement. Fear, and a refusal to allow racist violence to occur without check, led many to seek firearms, sometimes using them to deter attacks. But, by focusing on the topic of guns, Cobb challenges assumptions on an issue regularly assumed to be the domain of gun rights advocates and white conservatives. Black activists did not use guns because they held deep convictions on the second amendment, they used guns because it was a known way to deter white supremacists from instigating further violence. Cobb forces readers to grapple with the fact that guns were part of the social fabric during the Civil Rights Movement, but at the same time prevents pundits from using these stories as propaganda for unlimited gun rights. In a time when gun rights organizations like the National Rifle Association and civil rights groups like Black Lives Matter are popularly understood to be anathema to each other, This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed challenges the notion that participants in social movements always clear-cut cultural boundaries. I hope you’ll enjoy reading it as much as I did.

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