Fifty years ago, the Civil Rights Act helped transform American democracy. But the work of those who fought for this landmark law remains unfinished.
BY PENIEL E. JOSEPH
July 2, 2014
Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law.
The comprehensive, landmark legislation outlawed, among many other things, racial segregation in public accommodations. Jim Crow, in both its more overt Southern and subtler Northern manifestations, was officially proscribed, although racial apartheid would continue in American schools, neighborhoods and the workplace until this day.
Undoubtedly, Johnson and Congress deserve credit for passing this legislation, a feat made all the more remarkable when judged alongside Washington’s current political dysfunction. But the Civil Rights Act would not have been enacted without a grassroots movement that placed extraordinary pressure on politicians and civic institutions.
Civil rights legislation represented the culmination of thousands of strategic marches, demonstrations and protests aimed squarely toward advancing the cause of racial and economic justice.
The year 1964 stands out as one of history’s turning points, a year in which young activists faced racial terror in Mississippi, Martin Luther King Jr. braved racial violence in St. Augustine, Fla., America’s oldest city, and sharecropper turned political organizer Fannie Lou Hamer choked back tears while offering the most elegantly defiant racial testimony at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, N.J.
It’s worth remembering America’s initial response to civil rights activism. Thousands of nonviolent demonstrators faced arrest, beatings and, at times, death, while hundreds of black churches were bombed and many working-class folks were kicked out of their homes for simply daring to challenge the nation’s racial status quo.
Even after the Civil Rights Act was passed, many would have to put their lives on the line to see that the law would be enforced.
A half-century later, women and all people of color have reaped important benefits from this legislation. Combined with the Voting Rights Act, fair housing laws and affirmative action, African Americans gained unprecedented, although still unequal, access to politics, corporate America, higher education, sports, entertainment, media and culture.
The Civil Rights Act helped to fundamentally transform American democracy, ushering in the rise of black mayors in major American cities, the Congressional Black Caucus and, in 2008, the election of the nation’s first black president.
Yet if we are to judge progress by the social, political and economic health of the black community, not only is the glass half-empty but it’s losing water fast.
When it comes to race and public policy in America, the devil is in the details. Assaults on affirmative action, lax enforcement of civil rights and anti-discrimination laws by federal and state governments and the white public’s general fatigue over race matters has created a perfect storm of political retrenchment.
By the 1980s, a mere two decades after the CRA’s passing, a drug war primarily targeting poor black folks aggressively undermined the spirit and legacy of the civil rights movement, and the subsequent mass incarceration of young black men and women dovetailed into the deteriorating condition of urban America’s public schools and neighborhoods.
The most pressing question for the black community on today’s anniversary is where do we see ourselves 50 years from now?
The answer requires an honest and sobering assessment of the victories and shortcomings of the past half-century. The dazzling, undreamed of achievements by the likes of Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Admiral Michelle Howard or John W. Thompson are rightfully celebrated in black America as examples of hard-earned progress. Yet even today these success stories are, when we examine the empirical evidence, outliers in a more fragmented landscape that points to the decline of the very ideal of racial and economic justice in our lifetime.
That the nation can celebrate this anniversary—like last year’s March on Washington celebration and the inevitable remembrances of Selma, Ala., and the Voting Rights Act next year—during the tenure of the first black president, is more than just a hopeful sign of racial progress. It’s a sobering reminder of America’s racial duality (or, perhaps, schizophrenia) and one of the Civil Rights Act’s unanticipated legacies.
The struggle for racial justice taught America many important lessons. One was the power of narrative in shaping our national identity. We now live in an era where a black man can preside as head of state. Yet this victory is tarnished by the stubborn reality that allows the nation to simultaneously celebrate parts of the civil rights saga even as it takes steps to ensure that the opportunities that produced a President Obama might never be offered again.
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This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible
by Charles E. Cobb Jr.
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Basic Books
Like King, many ostensibly “nonviolent” civil rights activists embraced their constitutional right to selfprotection—yet this crucial dimension of the Afro-American freedom struggle has been long ignored by history. In This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed, civil rights scholar Charles E. Cobb Jr. describes the vital role that armed self-defense played in the survival and liberation of black communities in America during the Southern Freedom Movement of the 1960s. In the Deep South, blacks often safeguarded themselves and their loved ones from white supremacist violence by bearing—and, when necessary, using—firearms. In much the same way, Cobb shows, nonviolent civil rights workers received critical support from black gun owners in the regions where they worked. Whether patrolling their neighborhoods, garrisoning their homes, or firing back at attackers, these courageous men and women and the weapons they carried were crucial to the movement’s success.
Giving voice to the World War II veterans, rural activists, volunteer security guards, and self-defense groups who took up arms to defend their lives and liberties, This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed lays bare the paradoxical relationship between the nonviolent civil rights struggle and the Second Amendment. Drawing on his firsthand experiences in the civil rights movement and interviews with fellow participants, Cobb provides a controversial examination of the crucial place of firearms in the fight for American freedom.
*Starred Review* Given the violent resistance to equality for African Americans during the civil rights struggle, many viewed the tactics of nonviolence as either docile or naive or both. Cobb argues that the effectiveness of nonviolence speaks for itself in shining harsh light on the moral outrage of racism and in transforming large swaths of the black population into activists, but he also examines the armed self-defense that undergirded it. Cobb, a former field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, reviews the long tradition of self-protection among African Americans, who knew they could not rely on local law enforcement for protection. Martin Luther King Jr. himself, after the fire bombing of his home, kept weapons in his house to protect his family. Cobb offers a collection of memories of freedom fighters and a broad historical perspective, from slave resistance to the Deacons of Defense and Justice, as evidence of the human impulse to self-protection that counterbalanced the tactics of nonviolent resistance. Understanding how the use of guns makes this history of the civil rights movement more compelling to readers, Cobb is, nonetheless, focused on the determination of ordinary citizens, women included, to win their rights, even if that meant packing a pistol in a pocket or purse. --Vanessa Bush
“[A] richly detailed memoir…”
—New York Times Book Review
“Masterfully told…[A] challenging and important new narrative…”
“In this challenging book, Charles Cobb, a former organizer, examines the role of guns in the civil rights movement.”
“This book will have readers who might have nothing else in common politically reaching for a copy.”
“Cobb brilliantly situates the civil rights movement in the context of Southern life and gun culture, with a thesis that is unpacked by way of firsthand and personal accounts.”
—Library Journal (starred review)
“Cobb… reviews the long tradition of self-protection among African Americans, who knew they could not rely on local law enforcement for protection… Understanding how the use of guns makes this history of the civil rights movement more compelling to readers, Cobb is nonetheless focused on the determination of ordinary citizens, women included, to win their rights, even if that meant packing a pistol in a pocket or purse.”
—Booklist (starred review)
“Persuasive…Cobb’s bracing and engrossing celebration of black armed resistance ties together two of founding principles of the Republic—individual equality and the right to arm oneself against tyranny—and the hypocrisy and ambiguity evident still in their imbalanced application.”
“A frank look at the complexities and contradictions of the civil rights movement, particularly with regard to the intertwined issues of nonviolence and self-defense…Thought-provoking and studded with piercing ironies.”
“What most of us think we know about the central role of non-violence in the long freedom struggle in the South is not so much wrong as blinkered. Or so Charles Cobb says in this passionate, intellectually disciplined reordering of the conventional narrative to include armed self-defense as a central component of the black movement's success. Read it and be reminded that history is not a record etched in stone by journalists and academics, but a living stream, fed and redirected by the bottom-up witness of its participants.”
—Hodding Carter III, Professor of Public Policy, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
“This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed is the most important movement book in many years. Charles Cobb uses long-standing confusion over the distinction between violence and nonviolence as an entrée to rethinking many fundamental misconceptions about what the civil rights movement was and why it was so powerful. This level of nuance requires a disciplined observer, an engaged participant, and a lyrical writer. Cobb is all these.”
—Charles M. Payne, author of I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle
“This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed is a powerful mixture of history and memoir, a scholarly and emotionally engaging account of a dark time in our recent history. This is one of those books that is going to have people from across the political spectrum buying it for different reasons. One can hope that those on both left and right can learn from this book.”
—Clayton E. Cramer, author of Armed America: The Remarkable Story of How and Why Guns Became as American as Apple Pie
“Powerfully and with great depth, Charles Cobb examines the organizing tradition of the southern Freedom Movement, drawing on both his own experiences as a field secretary with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) working in the rural black belt South and contemporary conversations with his former co-workers. While Cobb challenges the orthodox narrative of the ‘nonviolent’ movement, this is much more than a book about guns. It is essential reading.”
—Julian Bond, NAACP Chairman Emeritus
“Blending compelling experience with first-rate scholarship, Charles E. Cobb Jr. traces the way that armed self-defense and nonviolent direct action worked sometimes in tension but mostly in tandem in the African American freedom struggle. Crafted with powerful clarity and engaging prose, Cobb’s book deploys the intellectual insights of both everyday people and excellent historians to make the case that it wasn’t necessarily ‘non-nonviolent’ to pack a pistol or tote a shotgun in the civil rights-era South—but grassroots activists often found it necessary. This is easily the best, most accessible, and most comprehensive book on the subject.”
—Timothy B. Tyson, author of Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power and Blood Done Sign My Name
“This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed jostles us outside the ho-hum frame of ‘pick up a gun’ vs. ‘turn the other cheek.’ Charles Cobb’s graceful prose and electrifying history throw down a gauntlet: can we understand any part of the Freedom Struggle apart from America’s unique romanticization of violence and gun culture? This absorbing investigation shows how guns are often necessary, but not sufficient, to live out political democracy.”
—Wesley Hogan, Director, Center for Documentary Studies, Duke University
“Charles Cobb, Jr.’s This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed is a marvelous contribution to our understanding the modern Black Freedom Struggle. With wonderful storytelling skills and drawing on his unparalleled access to movement particpants, he situates armed self-defense in the context of a complex movement and in conversation with both nonviolence and community organizing. Cobb writes from personal experience on the frontlines of SNCC’s voter registration work while also using the skills of journalist, historian, and teacher. The result is a compelling and wonderfully nuanced book that will appeal to specialists and, more importantly, anyone interested in human rights and the freedom struggle.”
—Emilye Crosby, author of A Little Taste of Freedom: The Black Freedom Struggle in Claiborne County, Mississippi and editor of Civil Rights History from the Ground Up
“This long overdue book revises the image of black people in the South as docile and frightened. It tells our story demonstrating that black people have always been willing to stand their ground and do whatever was necessary to free themselves from bondage and to defend their families and communities. This is a must-read for understanding the southern Freedom Movement.”
—David Dennis, former Mississippi Director, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and Director, Southern Initiative of the Algebra Project
“When night riders attacked his home, twentieth-century Mississippi civil rights leader Hartman Turnbow ‘stood his ground’ and lit up the night to protect his family. Charles Cobb’s ‘stand your ground’ book, timely, controversial, and well documented, contravenes a history as old as George Washington and Andrew Jackson and as new as George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn. Don’t miss it.”
—Bob Moses, former director of SNCC's Mississippi voter registration program and founder and president of the Algebra Project
“Popular culture washes the complexity out of so many things. Charles Cobb works mightily against that torrent. This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed shows that the simplistic popular understanding of the black freedom movement obscures a far richer story. Cobb defies the popular narrative with accounts of the grit and courage of armed stalwarts of the modern movement who invoked the ancient right of self-defense under circumstances where we should expect nothing less. This book is an important contribution to a story that is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.”
—Nicholas Johnson, Professor of Law, Fordham Law School, and author of Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms
“Any book that has as its central thesis that armed self-defense was essential both to the existence and the success of the Civil Rights Movement is bound to stir up controversy. But Charles Cobb, combining the rigor of a scholar with the experience (and passion) of a community organizer, has made his case. This book is a major contribution to the historiography of the black freedom struggle. More than that, it adds a new chapter to the story of the local people who, often armed, protected the organizers and their communities during the turbulent civil rights years.”
—John Dittmer, author of Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi
MAY 20, 2014
Guns and Civil Rights
Charles Cobb talked about his new book, This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible, in which he discusses gun ownership and self-defense within the nonviolent civil rights movement. He said that even though leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t believe in violence, they were protected by supporters who carried guns.
'Guns Kept People Alive' During The Civil Rights Movement
This year marks the 50th anniversary of many pivotal events in the civil rights movement, and to commemorate "Freedom Summer," Tell Me More is diving into books that explore that theme.
One of the cornerstones of the civil rights movement was non-violent resistance. During lunch counter sit-ins and protest marches Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders instructed participants not to take up arms. Instead, when violence erupted or force was used to disrupt their activities, people would non-violently resist attempts by law enforcement to end the protest.
But this passive resistance did not necessarily mean an unwillingness to use force to protect themselves from violence in other circumstances.
This hiding in plain sight story is recounted to NPR's Michel Martin by author, professor and former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee field secretary Charles E. Cobb Jr. in his new book, This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible.
June 05, 2014
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Summer is upon us, and so it's time for our regular summer reading series. Now, often when we think of books for the season, we think about beach-friendly novels full of adventure and romance. But since this year marks the 50th anniversary of many pivotal events in the civil rights movement - so-called, Freedom Summer, we decided to dive into books that explore the theme of freedom. And we're going to start with one of the cornerstones of movement, nonviolent resistance. You will have seen this in countless old news clips and even depicted in movies like "The Butler." You'll have seen activists courageously withstanding abuse by fellow citizens and law enforcement, but what you did not see and might not have known about until now, is that passive resistance and public protest did not necessarily mean an unwillingness to use force to protect themselves from violence in other circumstances. This hiding-in-plain-sight story is recounted by the author Professor Charles E. Cobb Jr. in his new book, "This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed: How Guns Made The Civil Rights Movement Possible." And Professor Cobb is with us now. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.
CHARLES E. COBB JR.: Thank you for having me, Michel.
MARTIN: What gave you the idea for this book, or for this history, really - to kind of dig into this?
COBB: Well, as a writer I'm very much concerned with how the history of the southern freedom movement or civil rights movement is portrayed. And I'm very conscious of the gaps in the history, and one important gap in the history and the portrayal of the movement is the role of guns in the movement. I worked in the South. I lived with families in the South. There was never a family I stayed with that didn't have a gun. I know from personal experience and the experiences of others that guns kept people alive, kept communities safe. And all you have to do to understand this is simply think of black people as human beings, and they're going to respond to terrorism the way anybody else would.
MARTIN: Now, early in the book you start off explaining how guns became an important part of Southern culture. The fact is that during this era of kind of intense repression, blacks were specifically forbidden from having guns, previously. And those were among the things that they sought to acquire. How is that important, or why did that become important?
COBB: Well, first I would say that right from the beginning of the country's history, going all the way back, say, to the Jamestown colony in the 17th century and the days of slavery, guns and weapons were forbidden to black people. I mean weapons, for obvious reasons, are associated with rebellion, and one of the big fears in the South was slave rebellion. After the Civil War, guns were - you had all these black soldiers who had fought in the Union Army coming back home with weapons. So states, particularly in what's called the first reconstruction, attempted to disarm blacks, and that was not all that successful. You see, if we were really doing a deep look at this period, say, between the end of the Civil War and the start of World War I, you'd see instance after instance of blacks in the rural South fending off the Ku Klux Klan and others with weapons. It's the period - what historian, Vincent Harding, who just passed away, called the period of great black protest.
MARTIN: And you talk a lot about, in fact, the role of wartime experience in changing how black people felt about themselves and their ability to use guns, if necessary, to defend themselves and their dignity. Do you want to tell the story of a black man named Bennie Montgomery?
COBB: Bennie Montgomery came out of the Army and he was really mentally damaged in the fighting. He had a steel plate in his head, and he got in an argument with the farmer he was working for, which turned into a fist fight. And Bennie Montgomery reached into his pocket and pulled out a knife and slit the farmer's throat and killed him. And he gets arrested, he's tried, he's executed in Raleigh, North Carolina, the state capital. Well, when the body is shipped back home, the Ku Klux Klan, which is angry that they hadn't been given the body in the first place, threatens the funeral director, saying that if you don't turn over the body to us, we'll kill you. If you dress Bennie Montgomery's body in a uniform we'll kill you, and if you drape an American flag over the coffin, as is traditional in the funerals of veterans, we'll kill you. So what happened was other veterans, led by Robert Williams, the most prominent of them later on, mounted an armed guard to defend the funeral parlor, the funeral director and Bennie Montgomery's body. So when the Klan showed up, there were two dozen mens with rifles and pistols standing in front of the funeral parlor. And all they had to do was point their weapons at the Klansmen, and the Klan fled.
MARTIN: Why do you think we don't know more stories like this?
COBB: Well, I think because the story of black people in general and the civil rights movement in the United States is incompletely told. So there's a lot we don't know, and the movement, meaning the southern freedom movement, has become so defined. The narrative of the movement has become so defined by nonviolence that anything presented outside of that narrative framework really isn't paid much attention to. I like the quip that Julian Bond made when I was talking to him about this book. He told me that really, the way the public understands the civil rights movement can be boiled down to one sentence. Rosa sat down, Martin stood up, then the white folks saw the light and saved the day.
MARTIN: Of Martin? Luther King Jr.?
MARTIN: You present a very different picture of his attitude about this than I think other people might have seen, right? What was his attitude about the use of weapons?
COBB: It depends on when you - if you look at the early period of his leadership in the civil rights movement, particularly a period of the Montgomery bus boycott, his household, as one person noted, was an arsenal - guns all over the place. William Worthy, who was a journalist, sat down in an arm chair - tried to sit down in an arm chair in Martin King's house and was warned by Bayard Rustin who was with him, that he was about to sit down on a couple of guns. King was a man of the South, after all. And he responded to terrorism. He responded to violence the way most people in the South would be inclined to respond. So when the Klan blew up his house in 1956 - bombed his house in 1956, he went to the Sheriff's office and applied for a gun permit to carry a concealed weapon. Now, he didn't get the permit and if Bayard Rustin was still alive he would, in this conversation, step in and say, yes, I was the guy who brought Martin Luther King to a complete understanding of nonviolence. But Martin King always acknowledged, if you read his writings, the right to self-defense - armed self-defense.
MARTIN: So what then happened? I mean, so, he initially - he had weapons like other heads of households did, right? At this time...
COBB: Yeah, and it's not clear whether...
MARTIN: So what happened later? Did he divest himself of his personal weapons or was it that...
COBB: I think he did.
MARTIN: ...other people, then, take up the challenge of defending or protecting his family? Or, what happened there?
COBB: Yes, other people protected his family, and other people protected him. Go talk to people in Birmingham. There are people there, who right now, can tell you they remember carrying a pistol or pistols to protect Martin Luther King. I mean, there were always people around Martin Luther King. Sometimes he didn't even know who they were, but they were always people around Martin Luther King with weapons prepared to use them. Remember, when Martin Luther King was assassinated he was assassinated from somebody in hiding in a boarding house across the street - virtually an impossible situation to protect somebody from. If you can kill John Kennedy, of course you can kill Martin Luther King.
MARTIN: You also make the point in the book, though, that women also - there were women who were willing to defend themselves as well. In fact, you quote one of them at the very beginning of the book. Cynthia Washington, former field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC, and you quote her as saying - do you want to read it? Do you have it with you?
COBB: I can whip it out real quick.
MARTIN: Go ahead, let's read. I want to hear it.
COBB: She says this - I'll read the whole thing. She says, (reading) 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, or even being shot was one kind of 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 and 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 leather 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.
MARTIN: How do you think this changes - your putting this out there changes the way we think of that era?
COBB: Well, I don't think it - you know, it fleshes out the history. It helps you understand participants in the movement as human beings. You know, one of my problems with the way the history is portrayed is the people involved are held up as some extraordinary, almost angelic kind of group of people. And they're - what really needs to be understood is that they're ordinary people - ordinary human beings. They have the contradictions of anybody else, even Martin Luther King. Then people understand - people today understand the people of the 1950s, the 1960s more completely as human beings.
MARTIN: Professor Cobb though, don't you think that some people will look at this and say, these people were hypocrites? They said that they were nonviolent but they really weren't. That they...
MARTIN: ...That this is part of the PR, and it's just not - it's just not true, that the image that we have of that era is just not true. What do you say to that?
COBB: I say that people never said they were nonviolent. People said they were in the nonviolent movement, or they said they were in the freedom movement. Martin Luther King declared himself nonviolent. So did Jim Lawson, who mentored the Nashville students, or Bayard Rustin, who organized the march on Washington. But the typical person in the South involved with the southern freedom of movement, really didn't use the labels that are attached to them - militant, nonviolent, you know, violent. My friend Worth Long, who was active with SNCC, uses the term, un-violent, to describe people...
MARTIN: Un-violent, interesting.
COBB: ...in the movement. He says, 'cause what's the choice? How do you describe somebody who was a part of a nonviolent movement but really isn't philosophic committed to nonviolence? Or better yet, here's an example. Hartman Turnbow, a legendary figure in Mississippi's movement - when he drove the - he drove the night riders away one night with his rifle, and if the rumor is true, he even killed one of them. So when we showed up the next morning, Mr. Turnbow, who was a farmer, said - and this an exact quote. I wasn't being non-nonviolent. I was just protecting my family.
MARTIN: Charles E. Cobb Jr. is an author, professor and activist. His latest book is "This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed: How Guns Made The Civil Rights Movement Possible," and he joined us from Jacksonville, Florida. Professor Cobb, thanks so much for speaking with us.
COBB: Thank you for having me here.
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Book Excerpt: The Civil Rights Movement Was Sometimes Armed—and Not Always Nonviolent
by Charles E. Cobb, Jr.
June 3, 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 (SNCC) in Mississippi. He is the author of several books, including On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.