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'Guns Kept People Alive' During The Civil Rights Movement
Originally published on Wed June 11, 2014 4:10 pm
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.
On the role of guns in the movement...
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, in 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 gonna respond to terrorism the way anybody else would. ...The southern freedom movement has become so defined, the narrative of the movement has become so defined by non-violence that anything presented outside that narrative framework really isn't paid that much attention to. I like the quip that Julian Bond made...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.
On Martin Luther King Jr.'s attitude about weapons...
If you look at the early period of his leadership in the civil rights movement, particularly the period of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, his household, as one person noted, was an arsenal, with guns all over the place. William Worthy, who was a journalist...tried to sit down in an armchair 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...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...but Martin King always acknowledged — if you read his writings — the right to self-defense, armed self-defense.
On why we need to know this history...
It helps you understand participants in the movement as human beings. ...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 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 [and] the 1960s more completely as human beings.
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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.